What caterpillar? Eric Carle’s new picture book The Nonsense Show — a fresh and hilarious parade of flying fish, cat-taming mice and circus animals freed from all those silly rules — has gotten starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist and School Library Journal.
In a lively interview, Carle, 86, reflected on a career that has spanned more than 40 years and included 75 books, among them perennial favorites such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do You See? and The Grouchy Ladybug. Carle touched on his art-happy early childhood in the United States, his immigrant parents’ return to Germany when he was 6, and his early career as a graphic designer and art director. He even dished about that beloved caterpillar — the little fellow actually started out as a worm, Carle says.
But then his longtime editor, Ann Beneduce, urged him to think, well, fluffier.
“I had done a book about a green worm who ate holes through things. And that book was pretty much the way the caterpillar book is, except the ending,” he says. “She did not like a green worm. So we went back and forth, and she said, ‘How about a caterpillar?' And I shouted, ‘Butterfly!' So that’s how that was born.”
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The following is an edited transcript.
Q: What was your starting point for The Nonsense Show?
A: I don’t know. Life is full of nonsense, I think. I grew up in Nazi Germany, and my art teacher who had started out as a modern artist couldn’t teach that anymore. He could only teach realistic and naturalistic art. (But) he invited me to his home and secretly showed me reproductions – abstractions, German expressionists, maybe Picasso. I don’t remember. But they just really appalled me because I’d never seen anything like it. I was used to pretty paintings with a mountain in the background.
Although I was shocked, I always carried that day in my heart. Seeing this expressionist and surrealist and impressionist art. And even though I was shocked, I knew he meant well for me. I was maybe 12 or 13, and that was an important moment in my life.
So I like to do this for children too.
Q: Now it’s hard for people to believe that you weren’t always a children’s author — but you had a career in advertising and design. Did you even think of writing children’s books while you were doing that?
A: No, never. I started out as a poster artist and I still view myself as a poster artist, because if you look at my covers and my illustrations, they are little posters. I worked as an art director in Germany for a magazine, and I came to this country and I worked for The New York Times, for their promotion department as a graphic designer.
And then I was an art director for an advertising agency that specialized in pharmaceutical advertising and (author) Bill Martin saw one of my ads — it was a lobster, because people can be allergic to lobsters. He saw that and asked me to illustrate Brown Bear, Brown Bear, and I asked myself, “What if I was an author as well?”
I developed all kinds of ideas and put them in a box. Then I started to freelance. I went to publishers and advertising agencies and graphic studios, and the publisher I went to was a small publisher — World Publishing — and the editor there was Ann Beneduce …. She took me out to lunch. I said, “I also do children’s books.” I thought of my idea box. She said, “Bring it in.” That was the beginning of the caterpillar.
Q: But at that point the caterpillar was a worm?
A: Yes, same layout, with holes and fruit and so on. It was just, “Poor worm! Big and fat!” or something like that.
Q: I was concerned to hear that The Nonsense Show might be your last book. But then I read that you’ve been saying for years that each book might be your last.
A: I have 75 books, and after each book I say, “This is the last book.” Ann just smiles. She says, “I know. I know.”
Q: Is it hard for you to write a book?
A: Yes, it’s torture and it’s joy. It’s great satisfaction.
Q: Do you ever get sick of talking about The Very Hungry Caterpillar? Is it like being the rock star who doesn’t want to sing his most popular song again and again?
A: Yes, it is. I have about 75 books and I think they’re fine books.
Q: What’s your favorite?
A: My favorite book is, Do You Want To Be My Friend? It’s a mouse looking for a friend, and I grew up as an only child and friendship was always so important to me. When I was 21 my parents had another child. My father was in the German army and when Germany capitulated he became a prisoner of war in a camp in Russia for 2 1 / 2 years. When he came back they had another child and that’s my sister, Christa, and I dedicated (The Very Hungry Caterpillar) to her. We don’t have sibling rivalry because I left Germany when she was 1 or 2 years old.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: Quentin Blake is a leading British illustrator, and he started a museum in London, and he asked his colleagues to do eight illustrations on the theme of favorites, and I did seven likes and one dislike — the dislike was smoking. So we sent him these pictures, and he did an exhibition but I own the rights, so I thought we could do a nice book with that. So here I go!