Born: June 25, 1929;

Died: May 23, 2021.

ERIC Carle, who has died aged 91, was a highly distinctive illustrator and writer of children’s books. His best-known work, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, is to be found on countless children’s bookshelves, having been in print continuously since 1969, selling more than 41 million copies. In total he sold nearly 100 million books during his lifetime.

Carle’s trademark was a rich collage technique, made by hand-painting tissue paper which he then cut and layered. This deceptively blunt form of art produced vivid images of great depth. What child could forget the succulent blue plums or the deep-crust cherry pie enjoyed by the hungry caterpillar?

Carle was born in Syracuse, New York, and spent much of his career in the state of his birth, but what might otherwise have been a settled life was fundamentally changed by his parents’ decision, when Eric was six, to move from upstate New York back to their native Germany, a decision prompted by his mother’s homesickness.

They arrived in 1935, when most of the human traffic was in the other direction. Eric spent the rest of his childhood and adolescence in Nazi Germany, only returning to the United States, aged 23, in 1952.

Living in Germany during that traumatic period changed the whole family, particularly Carle’s beloved father. Eric described his feelings for his father as “incredibly deep”.

The elder Carle drew pictures for his young son, told him stories and took him for walks, but when his son was 10, he was drafted into the German Army and went missing in action. He was captured by the Russians and spent eight years as a prisoner of war. When he returned, he was, in his son’s words, “psychologically, physically devastated”.

Eric was less close to his mother, whom he described as more distant, but together they lived through Allied bombing raids on Stuttgart, watching the city disintegrate around them. Aged 14, the young Carle was evacuated from Stuttgart to the countryside for his own protection, and was taken in by a foster family, whom he adored.

That idyll in the midst of war did not last. At 15, Carle and other boys aged 14-16 were conscripted to dig trenches on the Siegfried Line, a 390-mile-long defensive line along Germany’s western frontier. He worked alongside Russian and Italian prisoners of war and on the very first day he witnessed the killing of three prisoners, a few feet away.

Carle had always held very fond memories of his uncomplicated early childhood in New York state and became determined to return to the United States if he could.

At school, he showed a great flair for art, a talent nurtured by his high school art teacher, Herr Krauss, who took the risk of inviting Carle to his home to view reproductions of art banned under the Nazis, such as works by Matisse, Picasso and Klee. The impact of his first encounter with these greats of modern art was profound.

Carle became committed to study art and after the war ended, graduated from the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Stuttgart. He found work as a poster designer and also married. Not long after, he and his wife emigrated to New York, arriving with only $40.

He found post-war New York to be full of opportunity and was engaged first as a graphic designer in the New York Times’s promotional department and then in the advertising industry, where he became artistic director of an agency, a position he held for many years. In between, he was drafted into the US Army during the Korean War and was stationed for part of the time in his native Stuttgart.

But fame for Carle came in the form of children’s books. His first foray was a collaboration with children’s author, Bill Martin Jnr, who asked Carle to provide illustrations for his text after seeing a striking image of a red lobster the artist had produced for an advertisement.

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Can You See? was published in 1967 and is still a children’s favourite. Carle’s next book was 1, 2, 3, To the Zoo, a wordless counting book with a dramatic pull-out finish featuring 10 different animals on a train; and then, in 1969, came The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

He went on to illustrate more than 70 books, working well into old age. He also helped design the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, which opened in Massachusetts in 2002, and showcased the work of greats such as Maurice Sendak, author of the children’s classic ,Where The Wild Things Are.

Among the tributes last week was this, by the children’s author, Jarret J. Krosoczka : To have spent some time with Eric Carle was the closest thing one could get to hanging out with the actual Santa Claus. His books and his advocacy for the arts will continue to ripple through time. But we in the children’s book community will miss him terribly”.

Carle had two children from his first marriage, Cirsten and Rolf, and in 1973, he married Barbara Morrison (known as Bobbie), a former teacher who went on to co-found a pre-school for disabled children aimed at helping integrate them into mainstream classrooms.

After 33 years in Massachusetts, and fed up with the bitter winters, Carle and Bobbie moved to the Florida Keys in 2003 where they built a modernist villa of concrete, wood and steel, thereafter dividing their time between Florida and the hills of North Carolina. Bobbie died in 2015. Eric Carle is survived by his two children.