Leading light: Friends, authors remember Eric Carle as funny, generous, creative

  • Eric Carle, left, in his studio in 2013 with Florence children’s book writer and illustrator Jarrett J. Krosoczka. Friends and fellow artists remember Carle, who died May 23, for his generosity and talent. PHOTO BY MOTOKO INOUE/COURTESY OF JARRETT J. KROSOCZKA

  • Samuel and Shirley Jeng and their daughters Celine, 3, and Sophie (not pictured), 8, of New York visit the exhibit “On the Move with Eric Carle” at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst on Thursday, May 27, 2021. At left is an image from “The Very Long Train.” STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Sal Robinson, right, assistant curator at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City, and her parents, Amy Whitney and Gary Robinson of New Hampshire, visit the biographical exhibit “The Story of Eric Carle,” featuring a larger-than-life image of the artist, at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst on Thursday, May 27, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Visitors to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art watch the short film “Eric Carle: Picture Writer” in the auditorium of the Amherst museum on Thursday, May 27, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Samuel and Shirley Jeng and their daughters Sophie, left, 8, and Celine, 3, play in the art studio of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst on Thursday. Samuel and Shirley, 2003 graduates of Amherst and Smith colleges, live in New York now but like to visit the museum once or twice a year. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Samuel Jeng and his daughter Celine, right, 3, view images in the exhibit “On the Move with Eric Carle” while Sophie Jeng left, 8, reads “The Nonsense Show” at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Kristen Joyce and her son, Finn Kulwich-Joyce, 3, of Florence, draw in a gallery exhibiting the art of Roxie Munro’s book “Inside-Outside Dinosaurs” at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst on Thursday, May 27, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst. Photographed on Thursday, May 27, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Thursday, June 03, 2021

He was a beloved children’s book illustrator and writer whose breakthrough book, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” established new ground in the field and was eventually translated into more than 70 languages.

He was also the founder of a unique museum in Amherst showcasing the artwork in children’s books, which by all accounts helped make this region a hub for a new generation of children’s book artists.

But friends of Eric Carle, who died in Northampton on Sunday, May 23, at age 91, also remember him as a witty and thoughtful man who remained creative right up until the end, someone who never lost his love of creating books for children, in particular fashioning inventive collage art that would appeal to their love of color and sense of wonder.

“He was a wonderful friend, he had a great sense of humor, he was generous, and he was a great talent,” said Jane Yolen, the Hatfield writer and poet who earlier this year published her 400th book. “My kids adored him — he was family.”

Yolen said she first got to know Carle when both were in the early stages of their careers and shared a publisher; she recalls Carle was living in Franklin County at the time. They remained good friends for years, and she remembers seeing him just a few years ago at a birthday party in Agawam for another children’s book writer and illustrator, Tony DiTerlizzi.

“Eric was in great form,” she said. “I had been told that he had faded a bit since (his wife) Bobbie had died, but he was as sparky as ever. So I was stunned to hear he had died, and that it was here in Northampton.” (Carle and his late wife, who died in 2015, had retired to Florida and North Carolina about 17 years ago, but he had maintained a studio in Northampton.)

But Carle’s art and legacy will live on, added Yolen, who says “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” published in 1969, ushered in “a whole new language, a whole new way of telling a story. It led to an explosion of new ideas for using art” in children’s books.

And the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, which opened in Amherst in 2002, provided a new focus on the art in children’s books, Yolen said, showing how illustrations and other artwork can carry a story and not just be a backdrop to the words. Carle “changed how we look at art,” she said, and also gave children a new way to appreciate it.

Magnet for authors

All told, Carle published more than 70 books that have sold over 170 million copies, including some that, like “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” are considered classics — “The Grouchy Ladybug,” “The Very Quiet Cricket,” and “Do You Want to Be My Friend?”

Jarrett J. Krosoczka, the children’s and young adult writer and illustrator, says he and his wife, Gina, ended up moving to the Valley from Boston around 2007 in part because of the museum. Krosoczka, who lives in Florence, says he had come out numerous times to see early exhibits at the Amherst center — he jokes that one of his early dates with Gina was a visit there — and eventually felt he wanted to be closer to the scene.

“I think in creating the museum, Eric really cemented the Valley as a national and even global space for creativity for children’s book artists,” Krosoczka said.

He notes that on many of his past visits to schools and bookstores around the country to talk about his own books, school librarians and others “would kind of look off longingly and say they wished they lived (in the Valley) so that they could go to the museum.”

Carle himself, Krosoczka said, “was just a kind and gentle soul, aside from being someone whose books had such a huge impact.” And Carle was also “always generous with his time,” he said.

In 2013, for instance, Krosoczka took part in a group project in which artists raised money for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, including creating a large poster with the words “We Art Boston,” with each letter created by a different artist. Krosoczka asked Carle to contribute to the poster, which “Eric was happy to do,” he said.

Barbara Elleman, a former children’s book editor for “Booklist,” a review publication of the American Library Association, also recalls Carle’s generosity. Elleman, of Amherst, says she met Carle years ago through events such as book conferences and other ALA events. She and her late husband, Don, who previously had lived in Chicago, later spent time visiting Carle and his wife in Florida.

After her husband died, and Carle had lost his wife, the two met at the opening of a memorial garden at the museum named for Bobbie Carle. As Elleman recalls, “Eric put his arm around my shoulder and said, ‘Well, Barbara, we’re both alone now.’ I was just so touched that he remembered my husband.”

Starting with nothing

Friends of Carle say they were also long impressed with the way he overcame a tough childhood and adolescence. He was born in Syracuse, New York, in 1929 to immigrant German parents, but the family returned to Germany in 1935 because his mother was homesick. As Carle would later relate, in Nazi Germany he lost the freedom of expression and access to art he had enjoyed in the U.S.; his father later spent years as a prisoner of war in Russia, while the teenage Carle was forced to dig defensive works on Germany’s western border and shelter from Allied bombers.

As DiTerlizzi, the Amherst illustrator, puts it, Carle came back to the U.S. in his early 20s “with almost nothing, and he made a great life, a wonderfully creative life.”

DiTerlizzi also remembers Carle taking time to talk with him when he first met him at the Carle Museum, when DiTerlizzi was first starting out in his career.

“He took me seriously, he was attentive, he listened to me — I just found him to be really generous,” DiTerlizzi said. “I could never have imagined when I was younger that I would one day be friends with such a legendary figure in the industry.”

And DiTerlizzi’s wife, Angela, who also is a children’s book writer, recalls that the couple moved to Amherst from New York City on the same weekend in 2002 the Eric Carle Museum opened; they both had been drawn to living in the area because of the museum.

“I remember thinking, ‘If this is the kind of community that takes children’s books and art seriously and makes it prominent like this, we need to be here,’” she said.

‘A really nice routine’

For Richard Michelson, the poet, children’s writer and Northampton art gallery owner, one of the lasting impressions of Eric Carle was how good he was with children.

“He loved kids,” he said. “When he would talk with kids, he just lit up, and so did they…. And I can tell you that’s not universally the case with children’s book illustrators.”

The work of such artists has long been on display at R. Michelson Galleries, but Michelson says the opening of the Eric Carle Museum “was just a huge boost for that kind of art.” And Carle for years also had his studio just down the street from Michelson’s gallery on Main Street in Northampton, and Michelson would often see Carle strolling along for a bit of exercise; he’d stop to rest on a bench in front of the gallery.

“I’d go out there and sit with him, and we’d chat about this and that,” he said. “It became a really nice routine for us. He was always so welcoming, always had a nice word about what we had in our gallery. I’ve got signed work by him that I’ll always treasure.”

Alexandra Kennedy, executive director of the Eric Carle Museum, says “thousands of condolence messages and stories” have come into a website (ericcarle.art) set up by the Carle family — a fitting tribute, she wrote in an email, to a man who “brought so much joy to so many people.”

“Eric was a visionary artist — as a picture book illustrator, of course, who was so well-known for his tissue paper collages,” Kennedy said. “But he was also masterful in the art he created for his own delight.”

And, she says, Carle was a great ambassador for the museum, as was another late children’s book author from the area, Norton Juster, who died in March.

But Carle was also “our friend, and our inspiration,” Kennedy said. “I’ll miss his wit and his mischievousness, his kindness and his good company. We know that our job is to carry on his legacy, something we take very seriously, but today we are just holding his memory close and feeling gratitude for having him in our lives.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.