How I Came to Write for Older Readers

In my late 30’s Bill Martin Jr came across one of my illustrations for an advertising campaign and asked me to illustrate a book he had written called Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? (1967) —a book that I found inspiring enough to illustrate.

I asked myself, How and what would I write if I were an author as well as an artist?

But, like Leo the Late Bloomer (one of my favorite books!) I began to develop my own stories later. Unsure about my writing abilities, I chose the first of these stories, 1,2,3 to the Zoo, to be a wordless book. You see, I tested the waters rather gingerly. But to my surprise a publisher accepted the book. After its publication it went on to win the First Graphic Prize at the Bologna International Children’s Book Fair in Italy in 1968. Soon after I wrote and illustrated The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and of course, the other Very books as well as many other picture books followed.

Like many, though, I too have had thoughts about writing stories for older readers and adults. My life has not been uninteresting: Born in the United States, raised in Germany. Returned to New York City on a beautiful and sunny day at age 23. Falling in love for the first time. The first job. Depressed and rejected at 35. The usual stuff that stories are made of.

Someone has said, “You can not plow a field by turning it over in your mind.”

But for a long time that is what I did, turning story after story over in my mind. Occasionally I even grabbed a pen to write down quick impressions on scraps of paper that I filed away. At one point I began to write about my boyhood in World War II Germany, only to have nightmares about tanks and cannons and exploding bombs in my rubble-strewn neighborhood, nightmares from which I woke with a pounding heart.

Then I wondered “Who am I to write about this? I didn’t belong to the persecuted or starving in camps behind barbed wire.” I did not feel entitled to write about my experience, which held none of these horrors. So put my pen away.

The impulse for me finally to write Flora and Tiger came from several sources. Ruth Danckert, a friend of mine and a lover of children’s books, told me about a teacher friend whose students repeatedly asked her, “Tell us the story of Eric Carle and his snake.” I had written this anecdote about me and the first snake I’d ever seen almost as an aside in a 10,000 word autobiography, published in Something about the Author. It surprises me even now that children would pick up and delight in such a simple story.

It was one of the first stories I wrote for Flora and Tiger.

Children, teachers, librarians and parents have frequently asked me whether I have written or plan to write “older books.” This question also kindled my interest in writing Flora and Tiger. And I receive a fair amount of mail from my fans and have always been struck by their interest in my person and my life. Do you have a wife? Do you have a dog? How old are you? What is your favorite color? Why do you write for children?

But in the end, as much as anything, it was my own drive to tell some of the stories of my life that motivated me to write. To put things in order, to resolve old traumas, to wonder about one’s dreams, to deal with one’s dualities.

As with 1,2,3 to the Zoo, when I started to write, I was cautious in my approach and explored three subjects that I am familiar with, animals or insects, relatives and friends—and myself. The stories do not answer all my readers’ questions, nor do the stories add up to be a true autobiography, though they contain enough autobiographical fragments to allow a glimpse into my life. I emphasize my love and interest in animals, and left out many friends and relatives —some rather colorful— because they did not have pets or encounters with animals. I lightly touch upon my life in the two countries, the United States and Germany, the two places that have nurtured me in so many ways. And several stories allude to my boyhood in wartime Germany—a tragic and painful period in my life that in part has shaped me, and as I get older, increasingly floods my thoughts.

These stories have been with me since the time they happened. I may have told them to friends and relatives without having thought of putting them on paper, but once I started writing them, the stories took shape rather quickly. I did not write them chronologically, as they happened, but rather as the stories came to me.

I wrote them in longhand first, on yellow legal pads, then corrected them and rewrote them on white stationery. Later they were transcribed on the word processor, from which my editors, Ann Beneduce and Pat Gauch, helped me to make my stories seamless, editing here and there. Hurray for editors and their patience. I thank them for all of their help.

While writing these stories I felt close to the relatives and the friends about whom I was writing. Fifi, a feisty cat, who disappeared years ago behind our house, becomes alive again, as she rubs herself against my trouser legs. My Uncle Adam who always wore old work clothes, wags his finger at me holding a glass filled with his own homemade hard cider. My father’s eyes are big again, as he raises his eyebrow telling me yet another story.

Yes, writing is another way to reestablish old feelings, and to reacquaint yourself with old friends who may be long gone. Pulling stories together, leaving out the nonessential, recapturing the inner self, is hard work, but rewarding and refreshing.

Flora and Tiger is my first “older” book. It is with real pleasure and some trepidation that I submitted it to my publishers and submit it now to you, the reader.

An Excerpt From “My Oma*, She-Goat and Chicken”

I loved my Oma. I adored my Oma. But I was also young and not beyond playing a trick on her.

I took a chicken and gently laid it on its back, feet skyward. At the same time I placed my other hand soothingly over the chicken’s head, covering its eyes as I bent its head slowly flat against the ground. For about half a minute I calmly kept one hand on the chicken’s body, the other hand over its head. Then I removed my hands.

The chicken would not jump up. No, it would remain on its back without so much as a twitch. Thousands of years ago when chickens still lived in the wild, they “played dead” in order to fool a fox or weasel about to attack. A fox or a weasel would often lose interest in a bird that did not fly, run, jump, wiggle, dart or hop. I had merely taken advantage of the chicken’s instinct to fool my Oma.

After I had laid out all of her four chickens in a row, I rang my Oma’s bell. When she looked out of her window, I pointed excitedly at the lifeless-looking chickens. Jumping up and down with my arms flailing, I pretended something terrible had happened.

It worked! In no time my Oma had raced downstairs and stood in the doorway pale and bewildered, unable to move or even to cry.

I then walked calmly up to the lifeless chickens, bent down and clapped my hands as hard as I could. Startled, the chickens jumped up, ruffled their feathers and resumed their picking and scratching as if nothing had happened.

My Oma walked over to me, took me by the ear and led me up the stairs to her kitchen. But did she punish me? No, she prepared hot cocoa for me and served it with one of her homemade cookies.

You can see why my Oma was special.
*Oma was my maternal grandmother.

Guiding Young Writers to their Own Stories Based on Eric Carle’s Flora and Tiger, by Dr. Alice Naylor

Like Eric Carle, all children have experiences in their lives that make good stories. Most memorable experiences are remembered as incidents, and within one’s family told over and over again. For example, Eric Carle never forgot how he tricked his Oma into thinking her chickens had died, and he probably reminded her of that incident many times.

What makes “My Oma, She-Goat and Chicken” a good story is that in the writing he captured much more than just “what happened.” In the process of writing an anecdote from his life, he created a good story, but how?

The following questions may help your young writers shape their personal experiences into stories that are as interesting for others to read as the Flora and Tiger tales of Eric Carle.

How were you feeling during the incident?
Whenever we remember an incident in our lives, and why we tell it over and over, we explain in terms of emotions associated with the incident. In “My Oma, She-Goat and Chicken” Eric Carle remembers three emotions: his attachment to his “Oma,” the fearful delight in having tricked her, and the warmth of Oma’s response when she took young Eric by the ear for hot cocoa and cookies!

In “A Canary and a Parakeet” he writes, “I felt sorry for my canary being imprisoned, and whenever it was practical to do so, I opened the little door of his cage. But one day, when I had unlatched the little door, the bird flew out of his cage, and out of the window, which I had forgotten to shut!” The author even uses italics to describe the horror he must have felt at being responsible for the canary’s escape. Remembering the emotions helps a writer get at the heart of the story.

What details come to mind as you recall your emotions?
Psychologists tell us that memory is associated with emotion. By recalling emotions, seemingly forgotten details of the incident also come flooding back. Beginning with his love and respect for his father, in “Lizards,” Eric Carle remembers fondly, and vividly, the details of the Sunday morning walks with his father to Schloss Solitude (a castle); his mother, busy cooking in the kitchen, warning them not to ruin their supper by stopping off at Eric’s grandmother’s and sampling her Sunday supper; his father patiently introducing Eric to the lizards warming themselves on the stone benches. “Never did I hurt a lizard,” writes the animal lover Eric Carle.

Eric even remembers the exact details of what he and his father ate at the castle—Schmalzbrot, fried bread laden with an apple paste—and stopping and sampling at this grandmother’s fare despite his and his father’s “well-intentioned promise” not to. He writes at the end of the story, “Nobody is perfect.”

Why was the incident significant to me?
Human beings always search for significance in their lives, particularly writers. The stories we remember are indicators of what is important to us, our beliefs and our culture. We know that Eric Carle cares for and respects animals. We see this clearly in the story “Uncle Adam and his Raven.”

First, we see his fascination with a famous uncle who flew and built airplanes, and who even crashed one, but survived. But, when his uncle, the owner of a raven, explains how to catch a raven, young Eric is clearly concerned. “The raven,” he writes, was “…looking very unhappy.”

The significance of “A Canary and a Parakeet” is more subtle. Carle shares the wonder of gaining a blue parakeet that flew unexpectedly into the room where Eric and his Aunt Helene were lamenting a lost canary. And the parakeet lived for some time in the canary’s cage but when it is killed by one of the bombs dropped on the young Eric’s town during World War II, we get a glimpse of how Carle feels about war.

What does the story you’re remembering mean to you now?
Eric Carle, as a very young child, picks up a snake and runs to his fellow campers, but Carle, the writer, interprets from his present perspective the boy wanting “…to be admired and praised.” Again in “The Penguins and a Snake,” after recalling the incident when he discovered a snake in a penguin cage at the zoo, Carle writes, “…it strikes me as heartless and cruel to imprison animals, condemning them to such an unnatural and degrading existence.”

The way in which Eric Carle structures the story of “Two Bears on 8A”—like a whodunit—where police save the bears from an unscrupulous hunter, leaves the reader thinking about right winning over might.

It is the interpretation of an incident from a present perspective that frequently enriches a story.

Eric Carle has grouped together stories that include animals or insects, friends or relatives, and himself. Together they form a portrait of the man and his beliefs, and provide much for children to ponder about people, life itself—and telling their own stories.

Noted educator Dr. Alice Naylor, Professor at Appalachian State College, has served on many committees, including the Newbery Committee for the Excellence in Children’s Literature.