The caterpillar that emerged from Nazi horror

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Just over half a century ago, a tiny, fat, and extremely hungry caterpillar emerged from a tiny egg onto a large tray and spent the next six days chewing through a truly gigantic meal.

He started with an apple, two pears, three plums, four strawberries and five oranges.

After that, still hungry, he worked his way through a slice of chocolate cake, an ice cream cone, a large green pickle, a slice of Swiss cheese, salami, a swirly lollipop, a good chunk of cherry pie, a sausage, a cupcake, and a slice of rather lurid watermelon.

Unsurprisingly, when he was finally full, he got a terrible stomach ache, cleaned his palate with a single green leaf and had to lie down for a while.

Two weeks later it emerged from its cocoon in a sparkling color – it had become a beautiful butterfly!

The Very Hungry Caterpillar is the work of the great Eric Carle (pictured), who passed away this week at the age of 91

The Very Hungry Caterpillar is the work of the great Eric Carle (pictured), who passed away this week at the age of 91

As suddenly goes, it is hardly war and peace. Yet despite being only 224 words and 22 pages long, this instantly recognizable story became one of the most popular children’s books of all time, selling over 40 million copies. Translated into 64 languages, it’s considered a childhood favorite by everyone from the Duchess of Cornwall to Justin Bieber.

This amazing achievement that we all know is The Very Hungry Caterpillar is the work of the great Eric Carle, who passed away this week at the age of 91.

In fact, the book’s appeal has been so universal that, since its publication in 1969, academics, philosophers, and thoughtful thinkers around the world have been speculating about a deeper meaning – or hidden message.

Some argue that it is an allegory of Christianity – based on the fact that the caterpillar hatches on the Sabbath and rises triumphantly a few weeks later. Others argue it’s about capitalism – something about all the items of increasingly wasteful food that the caterpillar gulps through. While some even give it Marxist or feminist interpretations. . .

Even Carle herself was amazed at its true significance for a while.

“It took a long time, but I think it’s a book of hope,” he once said.

‘It says: I too can grow up. I too can unfold my wings (my talent) and fly into the world. Children need hope. ‘

Born in New York in 1929 to German immigrant parents - Johanna, a chambermaid, and Erich, a former civil servant - young Eric spent hundreds of happy hours walking in woods and fields, often with his father (pictured together in 1930) who was his best friend, ally and hero

Born in New York in 1929 to German immigrant parents – Johanna, a chambermaid, and Erich, a former civil servant – young Eric spent hundreds of happy hours walking in woods and fields, often with his father (pictured together in 1930) who was his best friend, ally and hero

Sadly, the need for hope was something Carle could handle all too well.

For as his childhood began in a glow of color and joy – much like the 75 books he has written and / or illustrated – it quickly faded to the gray of fear, loss, war and grief in Nazi Germany.

In fact, it was these very hardships, he felt, that were responsible for the theme of his artwork – so defiantly full of light and joy – insisting that if he had had a happier upbringing, he would probably have been ‘pumping up’ . gas’.

Born in New York in 1929 to German immigrant parents – Johanna, a chambermaid, and Erich, a former civil servant – young Eric spent hundreds of happy hours walking in woods and fields, often with his father, who was his best friend, ally and hero.

But his mother was desperately homesick, and so they returned to their hometown of Stuttgart in 1935, when most people fled in the opposite direction.

It was to prove a catastrophic decision. Germany went to war, the Gestapo ruled the city, and in 1938, Erich senior was drafted into the army and eventually spent eight years as a Russian prisoner of war.

Everything changed for little Eric. He loved his mother, but his real bond had always been with his father, a gentle man, amateur artist, and passionate naturalist – and the man who introduced him to the wonders of caterpillars, crickets, spiders, and fireflies that would sustain him in gloomy times and appear decades later in his dozens of books.

Germany went to war, the Gestapo ruled the city, and in 1938, Erich senior was drafted into the army and eventually spent eight years as a Russian prisoner of war.  Pictured: German prisoners of war marching through the streets of Moscow

Germany went to war, the Gestapo ruled the city, and in 1938, Erich senior was drafted into the army and eventually spent eight years as a Russian prisoner of war. Pictured: German prisoners of war marching through the streets of Moscow

“When I was a little boy, my father took me on walks through meadows and forests,” Carle wrote. “He would lift a rock or peel the bark off a tree and show me the living things that roamed about. He told me about the life cycles of this or that little creature, and then he carefully put the creature back into his home. ‘

In Nazi Germany, meanwhile their neighborhood has been bulldozed by bombs, the family home – albeit without windows, doors or roof – was barely standing. At the age of 15, Carle longed for his old life in America and was called upon to dig trenches on the Siegfried Line – the 390-mile German line of defense that faced France’s Maginot Line. On his very first day, three conscripts were murdered a few meters away from him.

But the worst moment came when his father finally returned after a ten-year absence, weighing only 5½ stone and “psychologically, physically broken.” It was too long ago – their special bond has never been restored.

‘We haven’t talked much more. Just superficial things. I had other interests. I was in art school, an artist. I was interested in women, ”he once said. ‘It’s so sad.’

He eventually returned to America in 1952, with just $ 40 and a portfolio of works from his first job as a poster designer. He launched himself into a new life, first as a designer at the New York Times and later as an advertising agency.

Bold and crisp, his work was often created through collages: painting and then layering tissue paper, which he photographed for maximum impact.

The books began in 1967 when his friend Bill Martin flipped through a magazine at the dentist, saw a lobster Carle had painted for an advertisement for antihistamine tablets, and asked to illustrate a children’s book entitled Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do See you?

The book sold more than seven million copies.

The birth of The Very Hungry Caterpillar – Carle’s third book – was even more coincidental. One day he rummaged around with a bang and suddenly hit upon the idea of ​​a hungry bookworm named Willi working his way through the pages of a book originally called A Week With Willi The Worm.

His agent deftly steered him away from a worm named Willi, suggesting a caterpillar instead.

‘Butterfly!’ Carle shouted delightedly, and that was that.

From then on, he was unstoppable, producing dozens of books – some he illustrated, and most he wrote himself, including The Very Busy Spider, The Very Quiet Cricket, The Very Lonely Firefly and Friends.

Over the past 50 years, Carle has sold more than 170 million books, has been adorned with awards, inundated with fellowships and honorary degrees from universities around the world, and has earned around £ 50 million.

Each book brings joy, love, big splashes of color and a friendly message: the spider that spins so diligently teaches a child about the importance of work; the cricket learning the power of love; the caterpillar shedding its skin, a miracle of renewal.

“The unknown often brings fear,” he once said. ‘In my books I try to combat this fear, to replace it with a positive message.’

He found marital bliss with his second wife, Bobbie, an exuberant North Carolina teacher, with whom he divided his time between Massachusetts and Florida, quietly watching insects continue their busy lives for hours before retiring to his studio to they go to life on the page.

Some of us may have let all those cheers go to our heads. But not Carle. Bobbie once said, ‘He’s not blinded by himself. He cares a lot about his talent, not his success. ‘

Indeed, he always wore shirt sleeves and suspenders and put much of his money back at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts, where he employed two assistants to help him answer the 10,000 letters. a year he had children – some happy, some joyful, and some just as sad, anxious, and comforting as he had been as a boy transplanted to war-torn Germany.

Most of all, and until a few weeks ago, he continued to create his magical, joyful and uplifting books.

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