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Eric Carle on why ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ is a ‘book of hope’

Transcript

ERIC CARLE: You know, I still don't know this book by heart.

JEFFREY BROWN: The book is The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and though author and illustrator Eric Carle forgets his words, for most anyone born after 1969 or anyone who has read to a child since then, The Very Hungry Caterpillar is very familiar fare.

ERIC CARLE: "One Sunday morning, the warm sun came up and, pop, out of the egg came a tiny, and a very hungry caterpillar."

JEFFREY BROWN: The story of a tiny insect who eats too much has sold more than 17 million copies and been translated into 33 languages. Now the original, brilliantly colored images from the book have found a new home, appropriately enough, in an apple orchard in Central Massachusetts, in the brand new Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, the brainchild of the artist and his wife. Classics like Good Night Moon, The Babar Stories, Curious George and so many more have a cherished place in the hearts of millions, but they have rarely been honored in the traditional art world. That's what makes this an unusual, if not unique, institution. On this museum's walls: A very grouchy lady bug, a horse, and a spider.

WOMAN: And what book is that from, Nicholas?

LITTLE BOY: Spider.

WOMAN: "The Very Busy Spider."

SPOKESMAN: Okay, this is it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Nick Clark is the museum's director.

H. NICHOLAS CLARK: We're taking it out of the book and putting it up on the wall. It is honoring the art of the picture book, and recognizing it as a more legitimate and serious genre than it has heretofore been recognized as.

JEFFREY BROWN: Inside the exhibition rooms, Eric Carle's work occupies one large gallery. Trained as a graphic designer, Carle worked in advertising before turning to children's books. He uses bright colors and bold shapes that appeal to very young children or to anyone who's ever felt a bit small in the world.

ERIC CARLE: A painting draws you in, and you slowly digest everything. But in advertising it's, boom! I don't draw too well really. I'm a graphic designer, and big, small, night, day are graphic elements to draw you into pictures, for instance, I believe the white against a picture. As you notice, my picture -- my books are a lot of white space, concentrated color, and those are graphic... devices to entertain you and to entertain your eyes. And I just think whatever our eyes touch should be beautiful, tasteful, appealing, important.

JEFFREY BROWN: A second large gallery hosts guest exhibitions. The first is the work of Maurice Sendak, perhaps the most renowned figure in picture books. Illustrator of A Hole is to Dig and the Little Bear tales from the '50s; author and illustrator of the classic, Where the Wild Things Are. Sendak is a master draftsman, his drawings full of detail and subtlety.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have said that this picture book makes aesthetic demands that few have mastered. So it's a hard form.

MAURICE SENDAK: It's a very difficult form. It's like balancing picture with words. It's rhythm, it's syncopation. It's where you stop writing and start drawing. It's a continuous thread-- words, pictures, words, pictures-- and it has a tempo, almost a metronome at the beginning, because why would children go through a book? So you've got to catch them with your metronome right from the start so they syncopate with the book.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sendak says he writes for the frightened child in all of us, young and old, himself included.

MAURICE SENDAK: People say, "Oh, Mr. Sendak, you live with your child self," like Peter Pan under a mushroom. And I say, "How'd you like to live with your psychotic ancient self, grumbling and bumbling around in your belly? That's what it's like." You live with your child self, you have no choice. He is there lurking.

SPOKESPERSON: In the Night Kitchen, by Maurice Sendak.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the museum's goals is to bring children to art, through the books they already love.

PEOPLE READING IN UNISON: "Milk in the batter, milk in the batter, we bake cake and nothing's the matter."

JEFFREY BROWN: In another part of the museum, kids can create their own art. At a time when many museums are going high-tech, interactivity here means passing out crayons and glue. In fact, the tools are much the same in Eric Carle's professional studio a few miles away from the museum.

ERIC CARLE: Here are my reds, for instance.

JEFFREY BROWN: Carle's craft is collage. He paints large sheets of tissue paper. Storage drawers are color-coded.

ERIC CARLE: Let's say I need a red head, I cut it out, and I add one segment after the other. And it's easy for children to do, they love to do it. You know, kids in pre-school already do collages.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right, with these same materials: Paper, crayons, paints, glue.

ERIC CARLE: Yeah, yeah. And when I do a picture for kids and it's finished, then I say, "Okay, now the picture is finished, what do you do when the picture is finished?" One time, a kid said, "Do another picture." I said, "No, no, no. When a picture is finished, you sign it."

JEFFREY BROWN: But do collages created to illustrate children's books belong in a museum? For both Carle and Sendak, the question is irrelevant.

ERIC CARLE: I think it's a silly debate, what is illustration? You know, the Sistine Chapel, the pope said to Michelangelo, "you go up there and paint a picture on the wall." Well, it's an illustration.

JEFFREY BROWN: And it tells a story, too, right?

ERIC CARLE: It tells a story.

MAURICE SENDAK: There has always been that divide between those who painted and cut their ears off, and those who were commercial and made a lot of money. It's no longer a battle for me, because it's an idiotic discussion altogether. It is art. I mean the first things I fell in love with was Babar. By the time you finish that book, you are so in love with Babar and Celeste and the atmosphere and the country, the continent, everything, the lucidity of the language, which is so simple and so plain, and those pictures going. It's like exquisite poetry. That is art. That is very refined art.

JEFFREY BROWN: This sophisticated young museum-goer agreed, even if she didn't have all her vocabulary words down.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think about seeing the pictures from the books on the wall of a museum?

TAYLOR WITHERSPOON: I think it's very daring.

JEFFREY BROWN: Daring? Why?

TAYLOR WITHERSPOON: Because I think they're beautiful and expiring.

JEFFREY BROWN: Inspiring?

TAYLOR WITHERSPOON: Yeah.

JEFFREY BROWN: Museum Director Clark hopes this is just the beginning of a broader recognition for picture book art.

JEFFREY BROWN: You're an art historian who's worked in museums. Could you have imagined 20 years ago that gorillas, bears, caterpillars would be on the walls of a museum?

H. NICHOLS CLARK: No, and certainly the climate has changed enormously. My hope is that someday we will be able to lend those gorillas, and those monkeys, and those bears to the best museums in the country, and that they will want them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Eric Carle calls the museum, "the house the caterpillar built." In his book, the tiny insect grows and grows, until it transforms itself into something new and beautiful.

ERIC CARLE: I never imagined that it would become so important to so many children. Why do children love it? 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.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the end, it may be this extraordinary connection that so many of us have to the books of childhood that lends extra power to the art of the picture book on the page or on the walls of a museum.

ERIC CARLE: "Then he made a hole in the cocoon, pushed his way out, and he was a beautiful butterfly."

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