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In Western Massachusetts And Beyond, Eric Carle's Legacy Is Far More Than His Books

Illustrator Eric Carle. (Mary Altaffer/AP)
Illustrator Eric Carle. (Mary Altaffer/AP)
This article is more than 1 year old.

Illustrator and author Eric Carle is being remembered for his many children’s books, including “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” — and the museum of picture book art he founded with his wife.

Carle died this week at the age of 91, in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Katrina Fitzpatrick and her two children, who are 4 and 2, visit the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst every week. They run around a lot, make art in a studio designed for children, and there’s story time.

“They always talk about how children see the world first through pictures and [the kids] absolutely love the art that Eric does,” Fitzpatrick said.

Carle’s first book was “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” but he is best known for writing and illustrating “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.”

It was groundbreaking, said Anita Sylvie, who’s been a force in children’s book publishing for decades. Sylvie said Carle spawned an entire field of children’s books.

“So this is the end of the ‘60s,” she said. “If you’re doing if you’re doing picture books, you’re doing picture books for, you know, kids — first, second, third grade.”

And Carle’s tactile books for smaller kids, with dye cuts — those holes made by the hungry caterpillar — they weren’t yet being printed in the U.S.

“And Eric really made the area of picture books for the really young child not only seem exciting,” she said, “the books were doing so well that I think it made it really brought a lot of people in to the field.”

After more than 70 titles and 170 million books sold, Carle still loved meeting his young readers — and he understood them, said Cathryn Mercier, the director of the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Simmons University, which is affiliated with the museum.

A few years ago, when “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” turned 50, she interviewed Carle on stage at the museum. As an academic, she said she wanted him to speculate on his artistic choices.

“And what he was trying to do and accomplish as a creator,” Mercier recalled. “And in characteristic Eric Carle fashion, he said, ‘I wrote the book that had meaning to me. I made the pictures that brought me joy. Don’t ask me these questions!’”

Carle’s books are obviously his legacy, but so is the museum that celebrates the picture book art of others, said Alix Kennedy, the museum’s director.

Carle and his wife Bobbie traveled in Japan in the 1980s and ‘90s and fell in love with similar museums. They wondered why the U.S. didn’t have one.

“Eric felt always so lucky that he had the success that he’d had his books,” Kennedy said. “And they created this museum not just so people could enjoy Eric’s work, but so they could enjoy artists who are coming from all over the world.”

Tony and Angela DiTerlizzi, also celebrities in the world of children’s books, dropped by the museum Thursday afternoon — with bundles of tulips.

“I popped in with flowers because I just wanted to be able to pay my respects for Eric Carle, the titan of our industry, the giant in children’s literature, but also our dear friend,” Angela DiTerlizzi said.

DiTerlizzi remembers the first time they met Carle. They had just moved to Amherst the weekend the museum opened. Her husband was wide-eyed and gushing when he said hello to Carle.

“And Eric was so gracious and so lovely and so attentive and encouraging,” she said.

And Carle really set the bar, she said, for how she and others should welcome the next generation of picture book artists into the industry.

This segment aired on May 28, 2021.



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