Eric Carle’s Complicated Legacy: 4 Jewish Lessons
Timeless lessons from the beloved author of The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
“All my books are aimed at four- to six-year olds,” the beloved children’s book author Eric Carle, who has recently died, once recalled. “That period when you leave home and go to school… Sometimes I feel I can nail it down to one day, that day when you leave the warmth and protection of home and go into the unknown. I just want to make that day a little easier.”
In over 70 books, Carle guided generations of children in exploring the world, approaching the universe and all that’s in it with a sense of wonder and gratitude. Perhaps his books were written for the scared young child he himself once was.
Born in 1929 in Syracuse, in New York State, Carle’s parents were immigrants from Germany. He remembered his early years with fondness. “When I was a small boy, my father would take me on walks across meadows and through woods,” Carle wrote on his website. “He would lift a stone or peel back the bark of a tree and show me the living things that scurried about. He’d tell me about the life cycle of this or that small creature, and then he would carefully put the little creature back into its home. I think in my books I honor my father by writing about small living things… And in a way I recapture those happy times.”
In his beautiful book Friends, published in 2015, Carle described lifelong friends who are devoted to each other in childhood, become separated, and ultimately marry each other as adults. In the end, he included a picture of himself and a playmate. “Here I am with a friend in Syracuse, New York,” he wrote. I was three years old and so was she. My German mother took this picture. She wrote Juni (June) 1932 in the corner. When I was six, I moved far away. We never saw each other again. I often think about my long-ago friend, and I wonder what happened to her.”
When he was six, in 1934, Carle’s parents returned to his mother’s native German city of Stuttgart. “Most people with any choice in the matter were going the other way,” he noted in a 2005 interview. In Germany, Carle initially looked up to Hitler and other Nazis – but his admiration for Nazism soon faded.
His German teachers were sadistic, he later recalled, and he began to dislike Germany. Once World War II was declared, his beloved father was drafted to fight on the Eastern Front. He returned home after the war emaciated and ill, “a broken man,” Carle described. “To this day,” Carle later noted, “I can barely enjoy a good meal because of thinking about my father. I am left with a sadness.”
In 1944, when Carle was 15, the German army tried to draft him, but his American citizenship provided him with some recourse to refuse. Instead, he was forced to dig trenches on the Siegfried Line, a massive series of bunkers and trenches designed to protect Germany from invasion by Allied forces from the West.
While still in high school in Germany, Carle had an art teacher, Herr Krauss, who did the unthinkable, risking his life to show Carle work by artists considered “degenerates” by the Nazis: Picasso, Klee, Matisse, Chagall and others. These illicit lessons helped Carle develop his artistic talent – and also might have helped give him a perspective beyond the narrow confines of the Nazi ideology he was learning in school.
After World War II, Carle trained at Stuttgart’s art academy and worked as a graphic artist, before returning to the United States in 1952. He served in the US Army for a stint, and embarked upon a career as a graphic designer. His entry into book publishing came much later, when he was 38 years old, and the author Bill Martin Jr. asked Carle to illustrate his children’s book Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? “It absolutely set me on fire,” Carle later described. “The colorful paints and fat brushes of my first school came back to me. The child inside me was beginning to come joyfully back to life.”
Joyous, colorful pictures are a hallmark of Eric Carle’s books. He called himself a “picture writer” and explored ways to create distinctive art. Most of his illustrations began with tissue paper, which he’d then paint and arrange on a page to make blocks of eye-popping color. “Let’s say I want to create a caterpillar,” he explained on his website; “I cut out a circle for the head from a red tissue paper and many ovals for the body from green tissue papers; and then I paste them with wallpaper glue onto an illustration board to make the picture.’ The results were bright, happy, one-of-a-kind illustrations.
Carle’s books sold over 170 million copies, becoming mainstays in countless homes – including my own. Here are four timeless Jewish lessons that we can all learn from Eric Carle’s joyous, beautiful books and works.
Find a Friend
Our friends can be our greatest sources of strength and encouragement in life. Carle explored friendship in many of his books. “Once there were two friends who were always together,” he wrote in his book Friends. “Together they played and ran and danced and told each other secrets.” In his 2020 book You Are Ready! Carle acknowledges that “The world can seem like a scary place.” One way to cope and make one’s way is “Make friends wherever you go.”
It’s wise advice: forging real friendships is one of the most effective ways we can gain the strength and support, as the mishna teaches, “Acquire a friend for yourself” (Ethics of the Fathers, 1:6). “A friend is more than a social companion,” notes Rabbi Berel Wein, in his masterful commentary on Pirkei Avot. “A friend is someone with whom one can share even dark secrets and embarrassing situations. A friend is not a ‘yes-man,’ a sycophant, but rather someone with whom one shares truths, someone who criticizes and comments, supports and comforts… There must be an expenditure of time, material and emotion in order to ‘acquire’ such a friend. Friends cheaply bought are usually not friends at all.”
Foster a Wonder at the World
When my children were young, one of their very favorite books was Carle’s 1999 book The Very Clumsy Click Beetle. It tells the story of a young beetle that falls on his back and can’t get back up. Numerous insects and animals try to advise it how to get upright, with no success. Finally, the little click beetle manages to get up by himself – to the accompaniment of a loud clicking sound, caused by a device embedded in the last pages of the book. It was a wondrous conclusion to the book, bringing the real life sound of click beetles into our home.
A similar surprise was contained in the end of Carle’s 1990 book The Very Quiet Cricket, which begins by informing young readers “There are four thousand different kinds of crickets,” before entertaining them with the story of one little cricket and bringing to life the sound he makes.
Carle featured these insects and other animals in his books, helping generations of children to feel wonderment at the diversity of the animal world and all its beauty. His most well-known book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, first published in 1969, brought the wonder of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly to readers. In these and many other books, Carle reminded us of the vast beauty and wonder of the living world, and all of God’s creations.
The Torah describes mankind as being created B’tzelem Elokim – in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). We all reflect and contain an aspect that’s Divine.
Carle conveyed the deep truth that all people (and creatures) are worthy and important. Take Slowly, Slowly, Slowly, Said the Sloth, Carle’s 2002 book about a sloth who’s misunderstood by his fellow creatures. “Why are you so slow?” a howler monkey asks him. “Why are you so boring?” inquires an anteater. Finally, the sloth sticks up for himself. “It is true that I am slow, quiet and boring… But I am not lazy… That’s just how I am. I like to do things slowly, slowly, slowly.”
The message is clear: we each have our differences, and it’s important to respect what makes us each .
Define Who You Want to Be
Eric Carle was open throughout his life about spending his childhood in Nazi Germany. He seemingly didn’t comment at length on that period in his life, which is a terrible omission: his many Jewish readers would have appreciated a full-throated denunciation of Nazi values and apology for contributing to the Nazi war effort.
But Carle seemed to repudiate the horrors of Nazis through his work. His scores of gentle books and the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art he founded in Amherst, Massachusetts with his wife Bobby conveyed an open-minded, kind way of looking at the world. In 2010-2011, the museum hosted a show on Jewish picture book art, and Carle reached out to Jewish fans to wish them happy Hanukkah on more than one occasion on social media.
Perhaps Carle’s most eloquent answer to his childhood in Nazi Germany is contained in his 1992 book Draw Me a Star, which he dedicated to his father.
In his book, an artist brings a whole world into being through his drawing: first a star, then a sun, then a tree, a man and woman and finally a whole world of a house and animals and items in the night sky. At the end, the star takes charge, taking the artist away: “Hold on to me, said the star to the artist. Then, together, they traveled across the night sky.” It’s a beautiful image, of an artist being taken to new places by something he created.
Carle is highlighting man’s creative ability and power to define who we are.
Anne Frank put this eloquently: “Our lives are fashioned by our choices. First we make our choices. Then our choices make us.” After a lifetime of writing books to help young children explore and embrace the world, Eric Carle is today being remembered as a beloved author and guide. His legacy can prompt us all to ask ourselves: What we are creating? What will we be known for?