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Eric Carle's Colorful World of Children's Books

In their 2003 book, Eric Carle and Bill Martin Jr. pay tribute to endangered animals and their freedom.
In their 2003 book, Eric Carle and Bill Martin Jr. pay tribute to endangered animals and their freedom.

On the colorful grounds of illustrator Eric Carle's Massachusetts home, even the most insignificant weeds play a pivotal part in his garden palette.

Everything has its place: Red and orange pansies shape one edge of the garden, another corner is designed to blossom into a "symphony of blues." He's even satisfied with white and red weeds that he says make a "transition" from the grassy meadow to his chest-level garden.

Readers familiar with Carle's famous children's book illustrations – his bestseller is The Very Hungry Caterpillar — would recognize this meticulous attention to detail. Carle's use of texture, lines and color dominates his collage illustrations — techniques that have made him a perennial favorite for children of all ages.

On the 40th anniversary of his first illustrated book, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, Carle, 78, has come full circle. His new book, Bear, Baby Bear, What Do You See? will line bookstore shelves later this year. The work is his final collaboration with his friend Bill Martin Jr., who died in 2004. Carle says it may be his last children's book.

Carle's familiar characters were inspired largely by the fox holes, spider webs, bugs and animals that he found exploring castles as a child in Stuttgart, Germany. Born in New York to German immigrants, Carle and his family moved back to Germany in 1935. In the years leading up to World War II, Carle would go on weekend hikes with his father, who would provide informal nature lessons on flora and fauna.

During the war, the Nazi educational system proved harsh, but Carle found solace in art. An influential art teacher, Herr Kraus, secretly introduced Carle to abstract artists like Picasso, Paul Klee and Matisse — all banned under the Nazi regime.

"At first I was upset," Carle says. "I thought this man was crazy because I had never seen anything like this ... I was shocked and attracted to it at the same time." Today, Carle considers these artists among his greatest influences.

After 40 years of creating bright, bold illustrations, one thing still fascinates and frustrates Carle: color. Long, color-coded drawers filled with his hand-painted tissue papers line his studio wall. Each sheet of tissue paper would look at home hanging on a museum wall, but they're the building blocks for his collage compositions.

Yellow poses the biggest challenge to Carle. He can create 10 shades of green — from bright lime green to muted brown-greens and gray-greens – colors he remembers draping Germany's camouflaged buildings in World War II. But he has only discovered how to make about four shades of yellow.

It's the difficult nature of yellow that makes it his favorite color. Readers can find variations of it in nearly all of his books — often, in the shape of a smiling sun.

Carle sat down with Debbie Elliott at his hilltop home to discuss his life, work and inspiration.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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