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The Art of Eric Carle

Reflections on Eric Carle’s Legacy as a Former Museum Intern

Eric Carle 1929-2021. Photo credit: carlemuseum.org

An influencer is defined as a person who inspires or guides the actions of others. After Eric Carle’s recent passing, I’ve done a lot of reflecting on how a humble man from upstate New York, who spent time cutting pieces of tissue paper and writing children’s stories for a living, became one of the world’s largest influencers. His books have touched millions of children and adults. He has sold over 170 million copies of his books. His most popular book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, in itself has sold over 55 million copies in over 70 languages. For some retrospect, this book is up there in popularity with The Hobbit, The Catcher in the Rye, and dare I say, the Harry Potter series.

To say he has had an influence on me would be an understatement. My senior year at UMass Amherst, I spent the spring interning at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. It didn’t take long to realize that the pinnacle of Eric Carle’s work was the idea that storytelling and art go hand in hand. His museum, thoughtfully curated with exhibits, a picture book library, an art studio, and more, is a place where the world of art and world of storytelling collide. Innately, it is a space for exploration, creativity, and curiosity to run wild. Although I never met the man personally, you could feel his spirit in every crevice of the building.

Working at the Art Studio. Photo Credit: Emma Tavolieri

I spent my Fridays and Sundays specifically working in the art studio, which involved daily art projects for the museum guests. We would introduce guests to the materials and the concept of a project, but it was up to the guest to interpret and create the piece of artwork on their own. So it was really up to them to make the art and do the storytelling, not us. Our projects rotated from Day and Night pastel drawings, Build Your Own Environment using found objects (recycled items donated to the museum by guests – they had tons!), or creating pop-up books from folded pieces of construction paper.

One of my favorite moments was during the Build Your Own Environment project. A guest, who was about eight years old, was visibly upset that someone had taken a “one-of-a-kind” straw that he was going to use as a tree trunk as a part of his piece. (When you’re using recycled materials, to an extent, everything is one-of-a-kind.) I approached him and said “Let’s talk this through. What were you hoping to make with the straw?” Suddenly, he went from a glum mood, to talking a million miles a minute about the vision he had in mind for a tree. He wanted to make a curvy striped tree trunk and he thought that one specific straw was the only material he could use to accomplish this. In theory, I could have walked in the back room and grabbed a bin full of colorful straws for him to choose from. But instead, we discussed all the other materials on the table, and what else he could use to make his vision come to life. Long story short, he made this eccentric tree trunk using an old Crayola marker with colorful tape and pipe cleaners twisted all around it. He was obsessed with the outcome, and I was obsessed too.

Of course I will never know Eric Carle’s most exact intentions of the museum. But I believe he created a space for children to succeed. For children to be asked questions and ask questions. And in some ways, teach kids that failure is okay, and there can be infinite other ways to work around a problem.

Art Studio at the Carle. Photo credit: Emma Tavolieri

In my experience working there, I found that kids are open to trying new things if you give them the space and permission to do so. So often they are told no, or given a pacifier (figuratively or literally) by adults in their lives. It’s not necessarily a parent or guardian’s fault, but if parents or other adults take the time to listen to what children have to say, whether they are doing an art project or talking about their day at school, they are exercising one of the fundamental forms of communication, which is storytelling. To that point, it is always important to ask kids questions, and to really give them the floor to speak. And I think that Eric Carle was a person who listened to children and influenced them to tell stories of their own.

Aside from his museum, his influence obviously comes from his books as well. Exposing children to new and novel ways of understanding information helps them to learn. A clear example of this is when in The Very Hungry Caterpillar, the caterpillar ate through a combination of very distinguishable items to children, like ice cream and chocolate cake, for example. But then he also used items that may be new to a child for the first time, like salami. How else is a child going to learn what salami is? Moreover, how does this change the dialogue about stereotypes in storytelling? Eric Carle so very subtly tapped into something special: you don’t only have to write about what children already know.

He also was able to write about important, complex, topics like identity, and wrap them neatly into a children’s book. How about, in The Mixed-Up Chameleon, when the chameleon wishes it could “better” like all of the other animals at the zoo, like having the strength of a bear or humor of a seal, but eventually realizes it was best just being a chameleon after all. It’s like he found a way to write satire for children to understand. I mean, it’s kind of genius!

On a more personal reflection on Eric Carle, I believe he is someone who did well by doing good. He lived such a quaint and simple life. He painted tissue paper and cut it into shapes for a living, and inspired an entire world by doing so. In my job at Harvard Business School, I’ve heard and read about almost every single way an entrepreneur could change the world (and make money for that matter). In a world of Jeff Bezo’s and Jamie Dimon’s, not many business professionals are quick to discuss Eric Carle, the entrepreneur, but he very much in his own right was. To sell over 170 million copies of books is entrepreneurship at it’s finest. I recently read his book, The Art of Eric Carle, and discovered he was a man influenced heavily by family and community. He simply did what he liked, did what he was good at, and did it consistently. His audience came to him. And thus born the legacy of Eric Carle, the influencer. Thank you Eric!

Photo design and credit: Emma Tavolieri inspired by Eric Carle