Eric Carle, Author and Illustrator of ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar,’ Dies at 91

The beloved story of a ravenous insect has sold 40 million copies and been translated into 60 languages

Eric Carle
Carle wrote and illustrated dozens of books over six decades. The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art

Eric Carle, the author and illustrator of more than 70 beloved children’s books—including the 1969 classic The Very Hungry Caterpillar—has died at age 91.

Carle died of kidney failure last Sunday at his summer home in Northampton, Massachusetts. His family says in a statement that he “passed away peacefully and surrounded by family members.”

In light of the news, a flood of remembrances of Carle and his work spread across social media, as well as a guestbook created by the Carle family.

“Our preschool is caterpillar-themed with all of his wonderful and inspiring books and educational activities,” wrote teacher Marion Butlin in the guestbook. “I have taught for 25 years and Eric Carle is the first author my children learn about.”

As Julia Carmel reports for the New York Times, Carle identified himself as a “picture writer,” sharing in-depth overviews of his artistic process on his website. Many of his illustrations began with plain tissue paper covered in acrylic paint and rubbed with fingers, brushes or other objects to create different textures. The artist then pieced the paper together to form images.

Carle was born in 1929 in Syracuse, New York. Six years later, his immigrant parents moved the family back to Germany, where his father was drafted into the military and became a prisoner of war in Russia. Carle himself was conscripted to dig trenches for the Nazi army at age 15. The Times reports that he rarely talked about his time in Nazi Germany but once said that the “grays, browns and dirty greens used by the Nazis to camouflage the buildings” heightened his love of vibrant colors.

When Carle was 12 or 13, a teacher secretly introduced him to Expressionist art, which was banned under the Nazi regime, per Mark Kennedy of the Associated Press (AP). The young boy was particularly inspired by Franz Marc’s Blue Horse. Decades later, in 2011, Carle wrote The Artist Who Painted A Blue Horse, a children’s book celebrating imaginative artistic choices.

According to Neda Ulaby of NPR, Carle credited his father with introducing him to the sights of the natural world, pointing out bird nests, foxholes and spiderwebs.

“He took me for long walks and explained things to me,” the illustrator told NPR in 2007.

After returning to the United States as an adult, Carle began his career in children’s books as the illustrator of Bill Martin Jr.’s 1967 Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? Two years later, he wrote and illustrated The Very Hungry Caterpillar, a book he said was meant to inspire young children preparing for kindergarten.

“Children need hope,” he said in a video released by his publisher, Penguin Random House, in 2019. “You, little insignificant caterpillar, can grow up into a beautiful butterfly and fly into the world with your talent.”

The book won children, families and teachers over with its bright images and strategically punched out holes, which track the ravenous caterpillar’s path as it consumes cake, ice cream, salami, pie and other treats.

Eric Carle, Author and Illustrator of 'The Very Hungry Caterpillar,' Dies at 91
The Very Hungry Caterpillar has inspired children for generations. Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism via Flickr under CC BY-ND 2.0

The tale went on to become one of the bestselling children’s books of all time. As the AP reports, it has sold 40 million copies; been translated into 60 languages; and become a staple of campaign trails, with politicians like George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton reading it aloud in classrooms.

Carle went on to illustrate numerous books in his characteristic colorful style, some in collaboration with other authors but most featuring his own writing. Among them are Have You Seen My Cat? (1973), The Grouchy Ladybug (1977), Does a Kangaroo Have a Mother, Too? (2000) and The Nonsense Show (2015).

In 2002, Carle and his wife, Barbara, founded the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts. The museum is home to a permanent collection of 8,500 illustrations, an art studio and a theater. It hosts educational programs for families and school groups, as well as professional training for educators.

On social media, museum visitors and fellow writers and illustrators highlighted Carle’s generosity in sharing his time and talents with others.

“To have spent some time with Eric Carle was the closest thing one could get to hanging out with the actual Santa Claus,” wrote Jarrett J. Krosoczka, bestselling author of books including the Lunch Lady series, on Twitter. “His books and his advocacy for the arts will continue to ripple through time. But we in the children’s book community will miss him terribly.”

Editor's Note, May 28, 2021: This article previously presented a quote from a satirical Paris Review article as fact. The quote has been removed.