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Transcript from an interview with Eric Carle

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Eric Carle. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Eric Carle

Big, bold shapes

When I studied graphic design in Germany, I learned about collage. I've always liked it because I like big, bold shapes – and you're cutting out big, bold shapes in collages. That has always fascinated me. So that's where I learned about collages.

Many years later in advertising, I was an art director. Each year I had to devise a new campaign style for a product. One year I would do black and white illustrations; the next year it was photography; and after about four years, I said, "What am I going to do?"

I remembered the collages I did in art school. And I started to do campaign collages. Bill Martin Jr saw that and asked me to illustrate his Brown Bear, Brown Bear – and that's how I slithered into books.

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Visual pollution

We have eyes, and we're looking at stuff all the time, all day long. And I just think that whatever our eyes touch should be beautiful, tasteful, appealing, and important. That's something I learned in art school. I studied graphic design in Germany, and my professor emphasized the responsibility that designers and illustrators have towards the people they create things for.

Whether it's a coffee cup, or a poster, or a book illustration, or a typeface, it has to be designed in such a way that it is not trashy, and doesn't pollute your eye. We have so much pollution out in the air. Our eyes are being polluted. We have visual pollution out there, and I have a very strong sense about that.

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Reduce, reduce, reduce

They are deceptively simple. I admit that. But for me, all my life I try to simplify things. As a child in school, things were very hard for me to understand often, and I developed a knack, I think. I developed a process to simplify things so I would understand them. I have this wonderful quote by Leonardo da Vinci. I have this up next to my desk, and it says, "The more minutely you describe, the more you will confuse the mind of the reader, and the more you will prevent him from a knowledge of the thing described."

So I reduce and I reduce. Now you have to be careful not to reduce too much before it becomes bland, and I hope I've resolved that process somehow…

Let's put it this way: if you are a novelist, I think you start out with a 20 word idea, and you work at it and you wind up with a 200,000 word novel. We, picture-book people, or at least I, start out with 200,000 words and I reduce it to 20.

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The idea is the hard part

The hardest part is developing the idea, and that can take years. Some of the books I do relate to my childhood, so obviously those ideas have floated around for 50 or 60 years. That is the hardest part. And when that's resolved, the art itself, for me, goes very quickly. I have Brown Bear, Brown Bear, which is one of my important books. It's written by Bill Martin Jr. I did the artwork over a weekend. Others take a week. Others take three months. But it's relatively quick – once I know what I want.

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How a green worm became a beautiful butterfly

With The Very Hungry Caterpillar, it started out as a green worm. Actually, I started punching holes into a stack of paper, and I looked at the holes and I said, "That's a bookworm." Then I developed the story with a worm, and the idea was pretty much the way the caterpillar is – except it ended up with this big, green worm. And my editor said, "I'm not so sure about a worm. It's not very appealing." Then we discussed other insects. I said something, she said something, and at one point she says, "How about a caterpillar?" And I said, "Butterfly!" And the book was finished. So often working with an editor, it's not that you have hours and hours discussing things. Sometimes it's a little remark…

It's now been translated into 33 languages, and I think it's sold about 17 million copies worldwide.

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A book of hope

You know, now it's sinking in. It's taken me a long time to realize – and it is sinking in – how important this book is. And I have a certain distance now. I've done it such a long time ago. And when I did it, it really wasn't a very important book. It was just a nice book and I enjoyed doing it, certainly. And I liked it, obviously.

But I never imagined that it would become so important to so many children. My friends and I and my editors talk about, "What is the success of this book? Why do children love it?"

We haven't come up with an answer, but I think what it is is it's a book of hope. You little, ugly, little, insignificant bug: you, too, can grow up to be a beautiful, big butterfly and fly into the world, and unfold your talents. Now, I didn't think of this when I did the book, but I think that is the appeal of the book.

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The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art

In the schools, they are cutting back a lot in art, as you know. Music and art are the first things to go when they cut budgets. So, part of this museum is to supplement what they are missing, I think. I personally very much believe in art and beauty and design. And it's just unthinkable for me that anyone would be brought up without art and ballet and poetry and books – and a museum that is for our young people to grow up with.

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Nothing scientific about it

One day I think it's the greatest idea ever that I'm working on. The next day I think it's the worst that I've ever worked on – and I swing between that a lot. Some days I'm very happy with what I'm doing, and the next day I am desperate – it's not working out!

And then finally, it's just right – and that just right, it's just a feeling. There's nothing scientific about it.

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"Oh, magic hour, when a child first knows she can read printed words!" — A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 1943