Eric Carle has written books that refuse to stay on the shelf. In bookstores, of course, his titles have disappeared from the shelves for decades, dragged off millions of times by parents and grandparents, by aunts and uncles and teachers. Anyone who needs a gift for a small child or baby knows that you can’t go wrong with “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”, “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?”. or (my personal favorite for obvious reasons) “The Grouchy Lady Bug”.
All kinds of wonderfully beautiful and easy-to-read children’s books stay exactly where they were put after they are tidied up until an adult pulls them out again. Carle’s books refuse. They jump off the shelves when mom or dad or nana or pop pop isn’t looking; They lie on the floor or bed or table, open and closed, their iconic splashes of color, which Carle magically transformed into immediately recognizable shapes, and beam at you innocently.
Children cannot keep their hands off it. You love them. You love her so much that if you have to read this damn book to them all over again, you will go crazy; and however, you have memorized them completely; and if you close your eyes for even a minute you can see that red bird or the cucumber or the ladybug on your eyelids, possibly for the rest of your natural life.
But of course you read it. Again and again and again They are lovely, calming, gently amusing, totally predictable, and totally calming. In contrast to “Where the Wild Things Are”, they don’t need different voices to capture a language that imitates adventure or excites children. Where Dr. Seuss Rock ‘n’ Roll is – manic and funny, words in their ambiguity, all sorts of crazy creatures that get in trouble and disappear again – Eric Carle is simple and stately as a waltz.
He created true picture books, alive with engaging imagery and narrative unfolding through repetition and gentle revelation, the perfect disguise for storytelling that taught color, counting and the art of reading.
Children know where they are with an Eric Carle book: in front and in the middle. He saw the world as they did, filled with things to be observed, identified, counted and connected, all important enough to be repeated.
Below are some stories from our staff about their encounters with Carle – as children, as parents, as a family – starting with my own.
My family read at least five copies of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”, but it was “Brown Bear, Brown Bear” that became an integral part of our lives.
My son Danny has always loved books, but when he was in kindergarten, like many boys, he had a bit of a problem with the reading department. He was our first child and we certainly didn’t help much – what with our nightly “homework” reading of the dreaded Bob books and our over-excited assurances that he would “get” it soon.
One night when I was putting her to bed, his three year old sister Fiona took “Brown Bear” (from the table – he never seemed to make it to the bookshelf) and began to “read” it aloud. Danny burst into tears.
I want to say that Fiona didn’t take the opportunity to look complacent, but that would be a lie – little sisters enjoy their triumphs wherever they can. Fortunately, she soon made the fatal mistake of turning two pages instead of one and still “reading” the book in the correct order, which enabled me to convince Danny that she was reciting and not reading.
So, of course, many of us learn to read – to memorize sounds by heart and match them to the shape of letters and words – but I didn’t feel the time was right to point it out.
Everyone calmed down, Danny soon became a voracious reader and, over the years, a well-placed “brown bear, brown bear, what do you see?” often defused those pesky “too / not” arguments that can force parents to wonder if their decision to quit smoking before they had children wasn’t a little hasty.
One of the most pressing, but underreported, challenges as a parent is finding books that you can stand to read to your children hundreds – possibly thousands – of times without completely losing your mind. There are books that your kids will want to hear over and over again and that you will read to the point where every word, picture, phrase is easier to remember than your own social security number. Some of them will be so stupid or irritatingly nonsensical that you will regret the day they were written and then accidentally put them behind the couch on purpose.
Then luckily there are Eric Carle’s books, loved by generations because you can’t go wrong with the colorful collage illustrations, the whimsical designs that made the book itself part of the narrative (pages with holes in them!) or the gentle life lessons on kindness and patience focused on the natural world. Pretty much everyone born after 1970 grew up on “Caterpillar” in constant rotation, so for those of us who are parents now, there is the added pull of nostalgia.
While the classics – “Caterpillar” and “Brown Bear” – are indispensable in our home, as in millions of others, my kids seem really drawn to a deep head-to-toe Carle cut.
In the book, one creature after another makes its signature gesture – there’s a gorilla pounding on its chest, an elephant stomping its feet – and then prompts the reader to do the same: Can you do that? In response, my daughters eagerly wave their arms like monkeys and kick their feet like donkeys, but sometimes struggle like a buffalo to “shrug” their shoulders. Figuring it out is part of the fun. It’s an engaging little book that will help toddlers expand their vocabulary and recognize a range of animals and body parts. But it also strengthens them through the game. Best of all, as the parents, you can be the audience and watch your kids play.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar was one of the first books my parents read to me when I was born in 1996. It was one of my favorite books.
When I learned to speak, the book had become my encyclopedia. I would imitate the title character and keep shouting, “I’m so hungry!” The book taught me colors, days of the week, and types of food. It also piqued my interest in metamorphosis.
It was my first encounter with creativity. I would draw and color in pages from the book so my mother could hang them on the fridge. Now, 25 years later, I find time to do art every week – mixed media, paintings, and digital drawings. I still emulate Eric Carle, mixing and mixing colors and reaching for the innocent whimsy of those first years of my life.
Carle’s ultimate gift was the idea of creation, the idea that every transformation in life is the invention of something new.
As I got older and became an uncle, I read it to my niece and nephew who will pass it on – initiating new generations of creation and change, a gift that doesn’t stop giving.
Where do you start teaching kindergarten, the basis for all possible life skills? For many teachers in the US, including my mother, it was “Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see?”
The now-retired kindergarten teacher of 34 turned to the picture book by Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle every year to teach the things in life. It taught colors, of course: in the end, students were able to name all shades of the rainbow, even if they would never find a blue horse in real life.
They also learned the shapes while making paper reproductions of each animal: a red triangle for the red bird, a purple oval for the cat. Cutting out these figures was a lesson in itself, the small hands wrapped around safety scissors teaching fine motor skills.
Long after the last student left home, my mother sat in her classroom and pieced together those pages of colors and shapes into a thick craft paper book – one for each student who put their handmade artwork together – for all to take away and read to make their own Parents. From a book came 30.
It’s hard to overestimate the impact Eric Carle has made on generations of readers, including myself; his work is embedded in our first learning memories. I tend to believe that more worn copies of The Very Hungry Caterpillar are read and passed on than they are bought new.
The copy my mother read to her students is the same one she read to me and my older brothers. All the books we read as children were given to my mother’s class library; our last name is handwritten in sharpie on the corner of each envelope, with faulty stickers or drawings inside.
Children’s books were just as important to our family as they were to my mother’s job. On Christmas Day 1999, my two brothers, aged 12 and 13, gave my mother a present that they thought was appropriate for a type of teacher like them: “The Very Quiet Cricket”, complete with a chirping orchestra in the middle.
Spring in mom’s classroom was the domain of Carle’s most famous omnivore. The book is her favorite. “The students are always amazed that the caterpillar can turn into a butterfly,” she recalls. They sing butterfly songs and make butterfly handprints that are modeled on the brightly colored wings of Carle’s original illustration.
Spring also marks the high point of the school year – nine months, a drop in the bucket for an adult, but a life of growth and learning for a first-time five-year-old in school.
Every year, to bring Carle’s story to life, my mother ordered live caterpillars from the science education store. They lived in a lattice cage and grew larger, much like the hero in Carle’s book, until they crawled and crawled to the top of the container and turned into dolls.
When the critters had transformed, all the kindergarten children gathered outside in a large circle to celebrate them. Together they named each new friend and watched as my mother opened the cage and let go of the butterflies one by one.
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