Eric Carle: Drawing from a Listening Heart
Eric Carle was born in the United States but spent much of his childhood in Hitler's Germany. Whether the family was in the States or in Stuttgart, his father taught him to quietly learn and sympathize with the creatures of the fields and forest. From life inside an anthill to the proper way to handle tiny lizards, Eric discovered whole worlds from his nature walks with his father.
Two Countries, Two Ways of Schooling
When he went back to his first elementary school in the United States after many years abroad, the first thing he noticed was the strong and beautiful light streaming through the windows. He remembered how much the glorious light inspired him as a little boy, as did the ready supplies of paints, thick brushes and bright papers.
One day, his American teacher called his mother, a strict disciplinarian herself, to school for a talk. Expecting a bad report on her son, she was surprised and pleased when the lady told her that Eric had a special talent for art that must be nurtured. His family took her words to heart, and wherever they were, Eric was encouraged to draw.
Another year, and thousands of miles away in Germany, Eric had a different sort of teacher, a traditionalist who believed in physical punishment for little boys. He was given a hard pencil and a small piece of paper and warned not to make any mistakes. Within three days, his teacher decided to punish him for a simple error with "three on each hand," which is to say three sharp blows on the palm of each hand with a thin bamboo stick. He did not cry, but he went home after school and asked his parents to write a note to his teacher:
"Tell them that your son is not suited for an education."
Whatever it was his mother wrote, his teacher went into a rage upon reading it and did his best to humiliate Eric. The teacher saw "breaking in" children as his duty and his responsibility. There was to be no way out for Eric who came to hate school although he put on a pleasant enough face in his classes. He often asked his parents, "When are we going home?" for a friend in Syracuse still wrote him letters, and he missed his American life a lot. But the answer was never, at least for now.
He studied in the small schoolroom with the narrow windows and lived in a large house with aunts and uncles and cousins on each floor, but in the summer, he went to visit relatives and friends of his grandparents who lived in the country. He gathered eggs in piles of straw, harnessed horses and oxen, gathered cranberries, blueberries, and mushrooms, and milked cows. He loved homemade black bread and buttermilk for everyday as well as the onion pies and apple tarts specially made for holidays.
The War Comes Home
In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland. That same day, Eric's father was drafted into the army. Soon the radio was filled with reports of German victories over France, Denmark, Norway, Holland, and Belgium. For a while, it seemed Hitler could not be stopped. But the tide of war turned. Soon, the Allied forces bombed Eric's hometown of Stuttgart. The townspeople dug stollen (tunnels) into hills to protect themselves. Almost every night, they would be roused from their beds, sometimes two or three times a night and crawl their way to the tunnels.
The war factored into Eric's art education also. One day, his art teacher, Herr Krauss, showed him hidden paintings, reproductions of works by Matisse, Klee, Picasso, and Kandinsky. These works were utterly unlike the forced realism or equally studied heroic fantasies that were beloved by Hitler. Herr Krauss' hidden paintings were forbidden because they were not in the approved style. If he were found with them, Herr Krauss might have been sent to a prison camp.
Eric and the other school children evacuated by train as Germany began a desperate defense. But they were not sent to a place of safety. They were left at the Siegfried Line, near the Rhine River. They could hear artillery fire and joined in with Russian and Italian prisoners of war and Polish slave laborers to dig trenches. There was no food provided for the children, but some of the prisoners of war were willing to share their poor rations. Finally, after barely avoiding aircraft fire near the trenches and spending time in a hospital, Eric made his way home to Stuttgart. Although soon ordered to report for duty, his mother would not let him go so he was not one of the youngsters who panicked in the face of American fire and were hanged as deserters.
Eric did not see his father again until years after the war. He was missing in action for some time and later was sent to a Soviet prison camp. During those hard years, he had no communication with his family and came back broken both in body and spirit. Years later, Eric dedicated Flora and the Tiger to him in thanks for and celebration of his father's early teaching.
After the War, a Return to Art
After the war, life became better for him. He was given the opportunity to study at the prestigious Akademie der bildenden Künste where he learned the craft of graphic design. The freedom to draw, paint, and learn after so many years of interrupted studies went to his head a bit. His work suffered as a result. He was almost expelled, but his teacher called Meister (Master) by his students decided instead to make him an apprentice in the typesetting department of the school. Setting type by hand required learning the self-discipline that Eric had lacked up to that point. He was later readmitted to the art department where he settled down and enjoyed the learning process very much.
By his senior year, he was doing commercial design for the United States Information Center. After graduation he gained two years of solid experience as a graphic designer and poster artist. With a nice portfolio and forty dollars in his pocket, he was ready for a trip to America. He was 22 years old.
An Artist Returns to America
He made friends with Leo Lionni, a noted art director and children's illustrator and within two weeks was working for The New York Times. A terrific situation, but within five months, he was drafted into the U.S. Army, Second Armored Division. He couldn't drive a truck, and he didn't know a thing about artillery so he was sent back overseas to his hometown of Stuttgart as part of special services. It was there that he met his first wife. After his service, they married and returned to America. They had two children, and he did very well in commercial art in New York.
But he decided that he didn't like drawing for the advertising agencies very much, so he quit work to become a freelance graphic designer so he would finally have the freedom again to draw more meaningful subjects. He was chosen by Dr. Bill Martin to create the illustrations for his new picture book, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? It's a classic that speaks to children with enjoyable rhymes while teaching them colors and animals. The project brought back all the first joyous possibilities of his dreams of art and learning since childhood. He went on to write his own books, most famous among them, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The perfect preschool book, it teaches with bright pictures and die-cut holes to encourage young ones to touch it and experience books on several levels.
From then on, Eric made books for children and the child inside himself who was slowly awakening after years of being shut by stern teachers, dull jobs, and the harshness of war. He kept on surprising and delighting his audience. The flashing lights of The Very Lonely Firefly and mysterious chirping from the pages of The Very Quiet Cricket added excitement and a three-dimensional quality to the books that perhaps mirror those early walks Eric took with his beloved father.
Eric Carle has written and illustrated many books for children. Click here to see a list of all that the CRRL owns. The following books and video discuss Carle's life and work in more detail:
The Art of Eric Carle.
A large and beautiful book that has an autobiographical sketch, photos from his life, and writings about his work, and a step-by-step photo essay on his collage technique.
Eric Carle, Picture Writer.
In this video, Eric invites you into his own studio where he reads from three of his most popular books and shows how, step by step, he prepares his colorful tissue papers and creates brilliant collage pictures.
Flora and Tiger: 19 Very Short Stories from My Life by Eric Carle.
These stories, drawn from childhood and adulthood, convey the bittersweet wisdom the author has gained from his association with pets and wild animals.
Ways of Telling: Conversations on the Art of the Picture Book by Leonard S. Marcus.
Eric Carle is one of fourteen artists and writers interviewed who have made a major impact on the development of the picture book in the United States.
The Author on the Web:
Biography Resource Center: Eric Carle
These articles are drawn from great reference sources: Contemporary Authors, Major Authors and Illustrators for Young Adults, and St. James Guide to Children's Writers. Excellent for reports! CRRL library cardholders may view and print them at no charge.
Eric Carle: An Exclusive Interview
Get to know Eric Carle by watching short video clips from his interview with The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.
Eric Carle Author Study
On this page sponsored by Scholastic Book Club, teachers can find useful bridges to math, writing, science, and art through Carle's works.
The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art
Take a virtual tour of the museum that's named for Eric Carle. It is located in Amherst, Massachusetts and offers workshops for both educators and children. Now featuring The Many Paths of Dr. Seuss as well as selections from the art of Eric Carle. Upcoming shows feature artists Chris Van Allsburg, Mordicai Gerstein, and Margot and Kaethe Zemach,