What I Learned From Eric Carle

July 29, 2013 in Learning by Anna

What I learned from Eric Carle

Eric Carle is a favorite illustrator and author among children and grown children alike. But, he is even more than that as I learned ten days ago. I am getting the jitters all over again as I reminisce on my short time with him (and a couple hundred other people) at the Reich College of Education at Appalachian State University. He was there giving a talk about his education and upbringing, followed with a book signing. Guests were also able to tour his Hall of Illustrations. When I stumbled upon this scheduled appearance while searching for things to do during our family road trip to the mountains, I was elated just knowing there was a slight possibility that we might make it to Boone just in time for me to attend the lecture.

I was overcome with emotion during his introduction, trying to fight back tears while he was introduced. I don’t quite know what it was…the chance to actually see him, to hear him speak, or to know his take on the life of a child and the journey they are on each and every day that many of us take for granted. At any rate, I held it together and jotted notes as I tried to take pictures of this man that seemed almost unreal, yet a man that is a part of daily routines in homes and classrooms around the world. My respect for Eric Carle grew rapidly through the lecture and question and answer period. Not just from the obvious appreciation I believe that his work demands, but from utter adoration for the man behind the words and pictures.

Eric Carle and Anna

What I learned from Eric Carle

Life is not easy. I was reminded that life is easier for me than many, as well as maybe harder than some. It is all relative and how I handle things in life and the decisions I make or the risks I take will determine where I go. Eric Carle was born in New York, but moved to Stuttgart, Germany at a young age. He remembers living through the bombs of WWII with his mother, while his father was a POW in Russia. Looking at where he was then and where he is now, I learned that life is not easy, but anything is possible.

The American Dream can come true. When he was 23 years old, Eric Carle moved back to America with $40 in his pocket and a box containing some of his pictures. He was given the opportunity to make something of himself in the United States. He was not given anything, but a chance. With determination, hard work, and yes…being at the right place at the right time, he became the Eric Carle we know and love today. I’m pretty sure he has more than $40 in his pocket now and I learned that dreams really can come true, but perseverance and discipline are key factors to turning dreams into reality.

You never know what opportunities may find you. Eric Carle created a lobster as part of an advertisement for an antihistamine product. Guess who saw this and approached him to illustrate Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? You got it! Bill Martin, Jr. The rest, they say, is history. I learned that even the smallest task requires the best effort because you never know how you might be influencing someone or changing the course of your own path.

Actions create more action. One night in NYC, Eric Carle attended an art director show and was fascinated with the work he saw by Leo Lionni. (Does that name sound familiar?) Most people would admire the work and talk about it later with friends or family. Eric Carle decided to take action. Using a phonebook, he looked up the office for Leo Lionni and using a payphone, he made a call that night. The next day, he found himself hauling his box of illustrations with him to an upper floor of the Rockefeller Center, an office that surely was full of assistants to Leo Lionni. But do you know who Eric Carle spoke with over the phone the night before? You got it again! Leo Lionni himself. What were the chances? Who knows? The point is, Eric Carle took action by making that phone call and in the end, it landed him a job at New York Times, working for $85 per week. (This was $45 more per week than he was going to ask for, but Leo Lionni told him to ask for no less than $100 per week and threatened to never talk to him again if he didn’t.) I learned that action needs to occur in order to make things happen.

Teachers have a strong influence on children and their families. Eric Carle reinforced the notion that teachers play a powerful role in the lives of their students. His first teacher in New York encouraged his parents to help him explore art. His learning environment there was bright and he remembers thick sheets of blank paper and large brushes with different colors of paint. His second teacher in Stuttgart whacked his hands more than once. The memories there were not so colorful. One of his high school teachers shared what the Nazis referred to as “degenerate art” with him. He couldn’t believe he was shown these forbidden works and remembers it was the first time he heard someone speak ill of the regime. He referred to his own education as a disaster and I was surprised to hear that he dropped out when he was 16 years old. However, he did this in order to explore graphic design full time. The professor he worked with made him an apprentice in a typesetting shop to instill discipline in him for one year before he truly began to learn about design. He remembers this professor being accepting of him at age 16. During his formative years, his father was not at home with him because of the war. I learned that young children benefit greatly from positive relationships with older mentors of the same gender.

Parents are priceless in the lives of their children. This should go without saying, but parents are an important factor in the lives of their children. It was evident quite quickly that Eric Carle was influenced greatly by his time with his father. During the time before the war, he remembers going on walks with his father, exploring and discussing nature. It may seem like such a small thing, but that time together stuck with him all of these years and it was apparent during his speech and can be seen through his work. I learned that I need to remember that the smallest interactions with my children may have the greatest impact on their lives.

Humility and passion are essential. Humility is something learned through life and something practiced in interactions. As Eric Carle opened his speech with various quotes he has received from readers of all ages, you could see the joy in his eyes. The fact that he giggled over words he has read several times shows that he really finds joy in his work and in life in general. He truly relates with his audience. He is a very successful man and has a passion for what he has accomplished. However, he came across as such a humble human being, just greatful to have the chance to meet people and talk with us. Being so successful and yet so grounded seems to be a rarity these days. I learned that with whatever success I have I life, I need to make sure I’m passionate about what I am doing and practice humility through it all.

Eric Carle

If you have read this far, you may also be interested to know the following: One of Eric Carle’s first books was a wordless book, 1,2,3, to the Zoo. His editor wasn’t interested in grammar, but in ideas. He has color coded drawers of his collages that he creates and he finds these patterns all over the world, yet in the simplest of places. The Very Hungry Caterpillar was originally called A Week With Willie Worm and came to him when he was punching holes out of a green piece of paper. Eric Carle’s father and grandmother were wonderful storytellers and influenced his writing. Children always ask what his favorite color is and he says yellow because children always seem to draw a yellow sun up in the corner of their pictures. Sometimes he doesn’t know when his illustrations are finalized…it’s just intuition. When asked what advice he had for aspiring illustrators and authors, he said the magic words are “Do it.” Great people try so hard and nowadays it’s even harder. He caught a break when Bill Martin, Jr. saw his lobster. Bill Martin, Jr. couldn’t read until he was 20 or so. A teacher noticed it and taught him how to read through rhythm, evident in some of his famous stories.

I asked him, “Have you ever received a rejection letter and if so, how many?” He didn’t. He said he couldn’t wallpaper his bathroom with rejections like most authors. When his editor would discuss ideas with him, they’d just discuss an idea less and less until it wasn’t discussed anymore. Rather rare, I’d say.

If you could ask Eric Carle any question in the world, what would it be?