Kid Lit Great Eric Carle Dies at 91

The children's literature world is mourning the loss of The Very Hungry Caterpillar author and illustrator who leaves behind dozens of books, a museum, and generations of readers and creators influenced by his work.

The colors, the collages, the seminal work. Eric Carle's impact on children's literature is immeasurable, and his death this week left readers and colleagues mourning the loss while celebrating the life of The Very Hungry Caterpillar creator. 

"Heaven just got more colorful," children's book author and illustrator Peter H. Reynolds tweeted. "Eric Carle, 91, made his mark, splashing bravely & inspiring those around him to do the same."

Carle died Sunday, May 23, surrounded by his family at his summer studio in Northampton, MA. The Carle family announced his death on ericcarle.art, writing:

“In the light of the moon,
holding on to a good star,
a painter of rainbows
is now traveling across the night sky.”

The site offers a guestbook, and in the immediate hours after word of Carle's death spread, the page displayed message after message of thanks from readers with memories of how his books impacted them, their children, and grandchildren, along with stories of trips to The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Art in Amherst, MA.

“Eric was of course a visionary, as an artist and an author,” said Alix Kennedy, executive director of the museum, which opened in November 2002. “But he and his wife Bobbie Carle, who passed away in 2015, were also visionaries as museum founders. It was their dream to build a beautiful museum to celebrate picture books from around the world and the artists who create them. All of us at The Carle are heartsick, of course, but deeply proud to carry on their legacy.”

The museum shares and showcases children's literature creators and their work, highlighting the creativity, artistry, and impact.

"Mr. Carle did so much to elevate the art of the picture book with his own work but especially with the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art," Hey Kiddo creator Jarrett Krosoczka wrote in an email to SLJ. "I was lucky enough to be there at the ribbon-cutting ceremony when the museum opened. My first book was still some months away from getting published. Over the years, I have seen so many wonderful exhibits that celebrated the art from children’s books. Everything from Chris Van Allsburg to The Wizard of Oz."

In 2019, Krosoczka's work was showcased at The Carle, as part of the "Out of the Box: The Graphic Novel Comes of Age" exhibit at the museum.

"During the years where the museum made a name for itself, the medium of graphic novels also came to the fore in children’s publishing," said Krosoczka. "To have an exhibit of original works from graphic novels was incredibly validating to the medium and to us graphic novelists. It was definitely an important moment in the timeline of graphic novels being valued as art and literature.

"It was such an honor to be a part of that show. A full-circle moment to see my work on the gallery walls from that first visit, which had been the first opportunity I had to shake Eric Carle’s hand and thank him for his work. How lucky we all are to benefit from all of his hard work and artistry."
 

[READ: Barbara Carle, Cofounder of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, Has Died at 76]

Carle continued to create in the final months of his life. The family’s website shared his most recent artwork and the recollections of his longtime aide Jennifer Chanda Orozco, who wrote about drawing with Carle.

“With a steady hand, Eric set the tool to page without hesitation, his assured hand and mind in perfect symbiosis. Eric rarely spoke as we drew, his focus devoted to the pages coming alive beneath his twinkling eyes. …When words became clumsy and inefficient, it was his art that anchored Eric and allowed him to articulate himself in the language he knew best.”

Carle's incredible picture book career began in 1967 when Bill Martin Jr saw an advertisement in a medical journal with an illustration of a lobster by Carle. Martin asked Carle to illustrate his book Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? and soon Carle was writing and illustrating his own titles. His first, 1,2,3 to the Zoo, was published the same year by Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers, and edited by the late Ann Beneduce, who Eric has always credited with the success of his early works, according to his family. Carle and Beneduce worked together for 50 years.

Carle created more than 70 books over 60 decades and sold over 170 million copies. The Very Hungry Caterpillar was published in 1969 and has been translated into over 70 languages. In 2003, He received the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award (now named Children’s Literature Legacy Award). In 2018, Penguin Young Readers established The World of Eric Carle, an imprint dedicated to his work. He has influenced countless readers and future creators over the years. Many from the children's literature world, which was already mourning the loss of Chicka Chicka Boom Boom illustrator Lois Ehlert this week, took to Twitter to share their memories of the man and the impact he had on their careers.

Educators, of course, celebrate and share  Carle's books, but children's librarians in particular see the impact of his work.

"Eric Carle’s work is profoundly foundational," said Rachel Payne, coordinator of public services at Brooklyn Public Library. "I can’t tell you how many times I have seen very young children, toddlers who are not yet reading and may not even be fully talking, “read” The Very Hungry Caterpillar or Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? He created books that got kids excited about books, particularly kids still learning to turn pages. From babies reading board book versions of his classics with loving caregivers to first graders taking their first steps to reading one of his picture books on their own, he has launched so many readers and thinkers with his timeless work."

[READ: Fuse 8 n' Kate: The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle]

Carle leaves behind that work, his museum, and some oft-quoted advice: "Simplify, slow down, be kind. And don't forget to have art in your lifemusic, paintings, theater, dance, and sunsets.”

Author Image
Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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