Answers to Frequently Asked Questions

This is where I share with you some of the questions people ask most frequently. Some of my favorite ones have come from people who ask interesting questions. These readers have given a lot of thought to my books, and I appreciate that.

What comes first, the story or the pictures? Where do ideas come from?

To me pictures need writing and writing needs pictures. A child once called me a picture writer, and that’s a good way to describe me. It is the idea that comes first. Click here for more information on where ideas come from [Link: BB_H2Tnotes]

I start with a dummy book. A dummy book is eight sheets of paper folded and stapled to make a 32-page blank book, into which I sketch my idea. Sometimes it takes many, many dummy books before the pictures and the story are just right. It’s hard work and you have to have faith in yourself.

When I start a book, it’s a lot of fun. After a while it is work, then it becomes labor. Towards the end it feels like slavery! After I have delivered the finished illustrations to the publisher, I become sad. But when I see the printed book, I am happy again!


How do you make your pictures?

My pictures are collages. I didn’t invent the collage. Artists like Picasso and Matisse and Leo Lionni and Ezra Jack Keats made collages. Many children have done collages at home or in their classrooms. In fact, some children have said to me, “Oh, I can do that.” I consider that the highest compliment.

I begin with plain tissue paper and paint it with different colors, using acrylic paint. Sometimes I paint with a wide brush, sometimes with a narrow brush. Sometimes my strokes are straight, and sometimes they’re wavy. Sometimes I paint with my fingers. Or I put paint on a piece of carpet, sponge, or burlap and then use that like a stamp on my tissue papers to create different textures.

These papers are my palette and after they have dried I store them in color-coded drawers. Let’s say I want to create a caterpillar: I cut out a circle for the head from a red tissue paper and many ovals for the body from green tissue papers; and then I paste them with wallpaper glue onto an illustration board to make the picture.

The DVD Eric Carle: Picture Writer – The Art of the Picture Book is a film about my life and creative process. An earlier video, Eric Carle: Picture Writer shows how I make my pictures. You might want to try it. It’s messy, but fun. This film should be available from your local bookstore and library. There is so much wonderful art in the world. If you are interested in Picasso, Matisse, Klee, Brueghel, Léger and other artists, you can find their work in museums and in art books.

How long does it take to make a book?

It all starts with an idea, one’s imagination, a spark. And where do ideas come from? They come from parents, teachers, feelings, surroundings, experiences, dreams, likes and dislikes, things you’ve seen and heard, even your wishes… all these somehow add up to a story.

Once you have an idea, you sit down and sketch it out on a flat piece of paper. After it seems to work out all right, you put your story in rough form in a 32 page dummy (see newsletter #1).

Now you’ve begun. When will it end? Sometimes the idea develops nicely, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes you work at it furiously and long hours; other times you may merely dabble a little here and there. You may get frustrated and banish your idea into a drawer or box (I have several idea boxes.) All this takes time. There are all kinds of reasons to delay your work: visitors stop by, the car needs to be taken to the repair shop, a dentist appointment. More time has gone by. By now you must be accusing me of hedging on an answer. The truth is, it’s a difficult question.

Let me tell you about two examples:

I worked on Do You Want to Be My Friend? for over two years. That doesn’t mean that I worked at it steadily. One day I worked on it joyously, but the next day I would have doubts about my story. Then the idea gets put away. Two months later I’d fiddle with it again. And so it went for almost two years. Do You Want to Be My Friend? was in a state of banishment, I had once again lost faith in it, when my British editor visited me. I did not mean to show her what I had done so far on Do You Want to Be My Friend?, but somehow it fell out of a box, and before I could hide it, my editor leafed through my dummy and had declared it wonderful. Encouraged, I finished the illustrations over the next weekend.

The idea for Little Cloud hit me like a lightning bolt. Excitedly I called my editor, Patricia Gauch, and she told me to go ahead. A week later, the finished art was delivered to the publisher.

Do you ever use a computer?

Computers are used in the production, but not in the creation of my books. Creating pictures is essentially the same as it has been for hundreds of years, the same as it was for the cave painters.

Years back, I assembled my collage pictures on art board. On an overlay sheet, I would specify the typeface and size and how it would be placed on the page. I would send this to my publisher. Then the typographers would set the type and printers print the book.

But now I have a big computer in my studio and when I am ready to do the final design for the book, I sit at the computer with Motoko, my assistant. First we lay out the pages to combine the pictures and the text. Then I choose the type face for the text. When we are through, the whole book—the jacket, end sheet, title page, pictures and story — is transferred electronically to the publisher and then to the printer.

Working with the computer has made me aware of other possibilities for its use. For instance, we have scanned and stored all my painted tissue papers into the computer. It is possible for me to cut and assemble a collage on the computer screen. The mouse becomes the scissors and the glue. If I were to illustrate a bird, for example, I could pick out the No. 33 green for the bird’s wings and use the mouse to “cut” it out and “paste” it down. And then I might choose the No. 30 red for the beak and do the same thing until the bird is finished.

I’m still old fashioned and computers still feel foreign for me, but I am intrigued. It’s my next “terra incognita,” my unexplored territory. However, you might be interested to know that electronic editions of my books and applications based on my books are currently in development and some have been created.


Is it true that you work with an editor?

Yes! I have worked with several editors. In fact, editors are important. Every book has an editor. The book is like a bridge, over which a story travels from the writer to the readers. The editor is like the inspector who makes sure there are no rough places or holes in the bridge. So sometimes an editor will suggest a small change that is needed; other times there may be no changes. Sometimes you just may need an editor to encourage you when you are discouraged and at a loss about a book.

Let me tell you how I worked with an editor on You Can Make a Collage that was published by Klutz Press in the Fall of 1998. My editor for that book was John Cassidy, who is also the publisher.

This was a “how-to” book and it is something I had not done before. I started it the way I start all my books—by thinking and drawing and doing dummy books until it began to feel right. But when John looked at my dummy book he made a lot of suggestions. He would say, “You don’t need this,” or, “What if you tried this?” I knew how to make picture books, but didn’t know much about “how-to” books. John is an experienced creator and editor of “how-to” books. It was very exciting to work with John who knew something that was new to me.

Why do you use small creatures in your books most of the time?

When I was a small boy, my father would take me on walks across meadows and through woods. He would lift a stone or peel back the bark of a tree and show me the living things that scurried about. He’d tell me about the life cycles of this or that small creature and then he would carefully put the little creature back into its home. I think in my books I honor my father by writing about small living things. And in a way I recapture those happy times.

Who are your favorite artists?

One of my favorite artists is Paul Klee (1879-1940), with his colorful, dreamlike paintings. These days I am very much interested in his many angels and I have created a series of homages of these angels. The angels do not resemble my picture book illustration collage style or Klee’s style. They are made of materials I find in my studio, as well as paint and cardboard, aluminum and fabric.

I also love the work of Pieter Brueghel (1525-1569), who painted peasants and landscapes of central Europe that remind me of where I grew up in Germany.

There is so much wonderful art in the world. If you are interested in Picasso, Matisse, Klee, Brueghel, Léger and other artists, you can find their work in museums and in art books and on the Internet.

Do you have brothers and sisters? A wife? Children? Pets?

I have one sister, Christa, who is much younger than I am, 21 years younger, in fact. I have dedicated The Very Hungry Caterpillar to her.

My wife Bobbie and I were married for a long time. Sadly, Bobbie passed away in 2015. You might like to know that she was a teacher in early childhood special education and for many years worked with the parents of disabled children.

Cirsten, my daughter, and Rolf, my son, are now adults. They both studied art.

I have an orange cat named Mitzi. Over the years, Bobbie and I had a number of pets including a grey cat named Annie, a cat named Roberta and a Samoyed, a white dog, named Tock. Tock was named after the dog in The Phantom Tollbooth written by Norton Juster and illustrated by Jules Feiffer. Norton is a friend of mine.

What is your favorite color?

My favorite color is yellow because most children put a yellow sun in their pictures and because it is a complex color to use when mixing it with other colors. But the truth is, I love all colors. For me, however, the combination of colors is more important than the individual colors.

What is your favorite book that you’ve written?

Do You Want to Be My Friend? and Friends are my favorite books because they are about friendship which is so important to children.

Do you have any hobbies?

I would have to say my work is my hobby. And my hobby is my work. Even when I’m not working in my studio, I might be thinking about future books.

While I have retired from the business-end of my work, I will probably never retire from creating books and working in my studio.

When did you decide to start writing and illustrating books?

My career began as a graphic designer. Later I was an art director for an advertising agency. In the mid 1960’s Bill Martin Jr saw an ad of a red lobster that I had designed and asked me to illustrate Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? What an inspiring book! Now the large sheets of paper, the colorful paints and fat brushes of my earlier school came to my mind. I was set on fire! It was possible, after all, to do something special that would show a child the joy to be found in books. This opportunity changed my life.

I found that illustrating alone was not entirely satisfying and wanted to try writing as well. I began to make rough books of my ideas and stored them in a small cardboard box. When I illustrated an historical cookbook, the editor heard about my box of ideas and asked to see them. I submitted 1,2,3 to the Zoo. Then I showed her a story about a worm who ate holes through the pages. Ann Beneduce, my editor, wasn’t so sure about the appeal of worm. “Maybe another creature would be better. How about a caterpillar?” Ann asked. “Butterfly!” I exclaimed. That is how The Very Hungry Caterpillar was born. Almost without trying, I had become an author and illustrator of books for children.

Did you ever want to be anything other than an artist, like a fireman?

There was a short time in my childhood when I wanted to be a forester. On many Sunday mornings my father and I would go for walks in the forest. This was in Germany and occasionally we’d pass a forester’s house. It was nestled in the woods, surrounded by a large flower and vegetable garden, and enclosed by a picket fence. “Wouldn’t it be nice to be a forester,” suggested my father, “and live in such a beautiful place?”

He then went on to tell me about the deer, foxes, rabbits, and owls that would come up to the house. My imagination began to spin and for a while I wanted to become a forester and live in this remote fairyland. But soon I went back to my first love: drawing pictures.

In my adult life I have on occasion fantasized about being a chef. Wouldn’t it be great to be a cook in a fine restaurant and dream up mouth-watering meals! I see myself in a tall white hat, giving orders to my sub chefs and every so often dipping my finger into a pot or pan to taste my inventions. A fantasy is something you never do, you just dream about it!

How did you get interested in art?

In retrospect it appears that the action of these individuals had been orchestrated by a higher force to form my creative development and I consider them all to be my “door openers”

MY FATHER, who drew rather well, wanted to become an artist. But his father, a state employee (customs official), would not have a “starving artist” in his family. So my father became a municipal clerk. However, he never lost his interest in and love for drawing and often drew pictures for me, mostly of animals.

MISS FRICKEY, my first grade teacher in Syracuse, NY, discovered my love for drawing that, undoubtedly, had been passed on to me by my father. In an arranged meeting, Miss Frickey pointed out to my mother that her son was talented and that she should nurture that talent. While I cannot remember her face, I can still recall her kind presence and the bright paints and brushes and the large white sheets of paper in her sunlit classroom.

HERR KRAUSS, my art teacher in gymnasium (German high school) early discovered my love for drawing and painting. With great care and deliberation he set out to cultivate my artistic development. When I was 12 or 13 years old he secretly showed me reproductions of the “Forbidden Art” done by so-called “degenerate artists,” according to the then-prevailing Nazi doctrine. He showed me the works done by the German Expressionists and the Abstract Artists, all widely respected artists not at all degenerate, of course. But, for this act of defiance Herr Krauss could have been dismissed or worse. His courageous act opened my eyes to the beauty of German Expressionism and Abstract Art. In addition, Herr Krauss demonstrated his trust in me.

PROFESSOR SCHNEIDLER, at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste, with whom I studied design from age 16 to 20. These 4 years were the most inspiring and exciting years of my artistic schooling. At the Akademie, I also met and related to my fellow students from various backgrounds. My artistic, spiritual and cultural horizons expanded. Schneidler’s message was, in short: as designers, we should shape in a responsible, noble and tasteful way all the things that confront us visually—the illustrations for a book, the color scheme for a shopping center, the shape of a coffee cup, the design of a poster, or the form of a typeface, for example.

While I am no longer doing graphic design, I still think of myself as a designer and the training I had in design is still influencing my work today. One of my first jobs out of art school was designing posters for the Amerika Haus in Germany. I am still proud of the designs for posters I created back then and think of my illustrations to this day, especially my book covers, as little posters that capture the attention of the reader with big, bold shapes.

Did you scribble when you were a little boy?

Not only did I scribble when I was a child, but I still do!

As far back as I can remember I enjoyed drawing pictures and I knew then that I would always draw. When I had grown to the age when kids are asked what they’d do “when they had grown up,” I always answered that I would draw pictures, be an artist, be a scribbler. It always felt good to work with pencil, paints, crayons and paper. I will never stop being a scribbler.

When did you grow your beard?

I had no intentions of growing a beard. But this is how it happened anyway.

In the early 1970’s I bought land in the northwest corner of Massachusetts. In order to get a better view of the distant hills, I climbed a tall pine tree. All of a sudden, the branch below my feet broke and gave way. I fell standing up, and broke two vertebrae of my lower back as I hit the ground.

In the hospital the nurse offered to shave me, but I declined and said that I would shave myself after I had been dismissed from the hospital.

Well, you get the idea: I never did shave off my beard. By the way, my back mended well and I’m O.K.

Are you an artist?

Yes. But there are many kinds of artists. At one end of the spectrum are commercial artists, people such as advertising artists or graphic designers, who have a client to work for, a product to illustrate and a deadline. I worked as an advertising artist after I graduated from art school.

At the other end of the spectrum are painters or sculptors who are purists, who do what they want when they want. They are usually called “studio artists” or “fine artists” to distinguish them from commercial artists. They may work very hard with their art, but they don’t have a client or deadline.

As a picture-book artist I fall somewhere between the two. I do have a product—my books, and clients — my readers. But like the purists I am able to do my books the way I want, when I want.

But, just because a person is a pure artist, that is no guarantee that his or her work is good. I would prefer the work of a good commercial artist to that of a bad fine artist.

Do you speak another language besides English?

Yes! I have become aware that many of you speak two languages, one at home and another at school. I also speak two languages, English and German.

I was born in Syracuse, New York and I spoke English until I was 6. But then I moved to Germany with my parents who had been born there. I quickly learned German and forgot most of my English. I learned English again in high school and came back to the United States when I was 22, so I know two languages.

Interesting things happen when you know two languages. Occasionally a German word for something will pop into my head and I won’t be able to think of the English word for it. And sometimes it works the other way around.

Probably because I’ve been speaking English exclusively for more than 45 years, I think and dream in English and now it is perhaps better than my German. When I visit Germany, I need to refresh my German, I do that by watching and listening to German television for a few hours and then I’m okay again.

Many of you ask, why the butterfly in The Very Hungry Caterpillar comes from a cocoon, not a chrysalis?

That’s a good question.

Here’s the scientific explanation: In most cases a butterfly does come from a chrysalis, but not all. There’s a rare genus called Parnassian, that pupates in a cocoon. These butterflies live in the Pacific Northwest, in Siberia, and as far away as North Korea and the northern islands of Japan.

And here’s my unscientific explanation: My caterpillar is very unusual. As you know caterpillars don’t eat lollipops and ice cream, so you won’t find my caterpillar in any field guides. But also, when I was a small boy, my father would say, “Eric, come out of your cocoon.” He meant I should open up and be receptive to the world around me. For me, it would not sound right to say, “Come out of your chrysalis.” And so poetry won over science!

How are the spider web in The Very Busy Spider, the chirp in The Very Quiet Cricket and the flashing lights in The Very Lonely Firefly made?

Have you ever noticed the raised letters on a business card or stationery? The same method is used to create the spider web in The Very Busy Spider. It’s called thermography and this is how it works: A plastic substance is used to print webs on the paper and then the paper is baked in an oven. The baking makes the lines of the web puff up and harden.

As for The Very Quiet Cricket, a sound chip has been placed inside the back cover. You can’t see it, but perhaps you can feel it if you gently rub it. A tiny battery, the type used for cameras, supplies the power to make it chirp. The voice or chirp, comes from that sound chip. The Very Quiet Cricket in a way is a love story.

A similar computer chip has been placed inside the back cover of The Very Lonely Firefly. A tiny battery supplies the power to little circuits, like trails, to the light bulbs that are the flashers of the fireflies. So when you open to the last page you are treated to a firefly show that you usually only see in the summer..

So think of this: Books have been around since Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press about 1440. Before that, books were copied by hand. But the computer chip and plastic make The Very Quiet Cricket, The Very Lonely Firefly, and The Very Busy Spider very modern books. It’s wondrous to see how combining the old and the new can create something that is magical.

Why does Mister Seahorse look different from some of your other books and why isn’t there an acetate sheet after Mr. Pipe?

Some of you may have noticed that the colors in my book, Mister Seahorse, seem brighter and textured in a way that looks different from my other books. When I was creating Mister Seahorse I actually cut the shapes of the seahorses first and then painted them. (Usually I paint whole sheets of tissue paper first). Also, in Seahorse, I crumpled the tissue paper first, then uncrumpled it, and only then painted it. That’s how I achieved a certain effect (this is a little trade secret of mine that you may want to try).

One careful reader recently wrote and asked why there wasn’t an acetate sheet after Mr. Pipe’s page, breaking with a pattern established earlier in the book.

While I was working on this book, I didn’t imagine an acetate sheet after Mr. Pipe and so I didn’t include one. And like many decisions I make along the way, this one was partially conscious and partially intuitive. While I knew that including one more acetate sheet would be problematic once it came time for the book to be bound (because there would need to be an additional spread of art work which would make the book 34 pages instead of the conventional 32), my decision was not simply technical. In most of my books I tend to disrupt the pace and rhythm of the story toward the end so as to signal to the reader that the book is coming to a close. I think the absence of a fifth acetate sheet does just that; changes the pattern and pace of the book in an effective way.

When you are not making illustrations for your books, what are you working on in your studio?

A number of years ago, I decided to take a two year “sabbatical” from making picture books. During this time away, I created abstract art out of my painted tissue papers. I also used other materials such as silk fabric, plate glass, aluminum foil, and plastic sheathing. When I started making books again, instead of a white background – the animals in my story were set in front of bright colorful swatches of painted tissue papers as background. This was a change from my previous way of working. My time away making abstract art had influenced my book art. I still make abstract art for fun and creative enjoyment. I call it my “art art.”

Does The Very Hungry Caterpillar have a nose or a mouth in the middle of its face?

To answer your excellent question, while real caterpillars don’t have noses, my caterpillar, who eats cherry pie and lollipops, is not one you would find in field guides. And while I think of it as having a nose on its face – this feature, along with other habits and characteristics of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, grew out of my imagination.

You might be interested to know that, in fact, real caterpillars don’t even have lungs. They breathe by taking in air through holes, called spiracles, on the sides of their bodies. The air passes through small tubes called tracheoles, where the oxygen is extracted by fluid in the body.

Want to learn more?