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Eric Carle, author and illustrator of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, has died, aged 91

The artist’s early life in Germany exploring nature and the devastation and malnutrition his family experienced during the Second World War add personal poignancy to his later children’s books

Eric Carle

Eric Carle, the beloved author and illustrator of more than 70 childrens books including The Very Hungry Caterpillar, which has sold over 55 million copies since it was first published in 1969, has died, aged 91. His son Rolf confirmed to The New York Times that Carle died on Sunday from kidney failure, while at his summer studio in Northampton, Massachusetts. In addition to his own work as an author and illustrator, Carle and his late wife Barbara founded the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, a non-profit museum and education center in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 2002.

Carle was born 25 June 1929, in Syracuse, New York, to German immigrant parents. His mother worked at a family business and his father in a factory spray-painting washing machines. As a child, Carle’s father instilled in the boy a love of nature. “When I was a small boy, my father would take me on walks across meadows and through woods,” Carle wrote on his website. “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.”

When Carle was six, his family returned to Germany, settling in Stuttgart. Four years after their return, the Second World War broke out and Carle’s father was drafted into the Garman army. “When I was 10, my father was taken away from me,” Carle told NPR’s All Things Considered in 2007. “He didn't come home until I was 18 because he spent a couple of years in a Russian prison camp after the war.” Stuttgart was bombed heavily during the war, with much of the city turned to rubble, and when his father returned from the war camp, he weighed only 85 pounds. Carle’s relationship with his father struggled after that, and the first-hand encounters with such extreme devastation and malnutrition lend a layer of poignancy to tales like The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

Carle studied typography and graphic art at the State Academy of Fine Arts in Stuttgart. He graduated in 1950 and two years later moved to New York City. Soon after, he was drafted into the US Army during the Korean War, where he was stationed in Germany as a mail clerk. When he returned to the US, he got a job as a graphic designer working for The New York Times, but he quit in 1963 to be a freelance illustrator. His first book was published in 1967, and his most recent was published in 2015. Carle created a series of collages dedicated to Paul Klee lsat year, and could be found working on drawings right up until his death.