Editor’s Note: Sarah Williamson is a children’s book author and illustrator whose books include “Elevator Bird,” “Cactus and Flower,” “Let’s Go!” and “Where Are You?” The views expressed here are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
The world has lost two giants of children’s literature. Eric Carle, the creator of 70 picture books for children and adults passed away Sunday at 91, and Lois Ehlert, known most notably for illustrating “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom,” died Tuesday at 86.
I had many Carle books as a child and remember seeing Ehlert’s brightly colored books in one of my Milwaukee, Wisconsin, classrooms growing up. She was a fellow Wisconsinite. But it was only as an adult when I first aspired to be a children’s book author that I began to study their work.
I’ll start with Carle, whose aesthetic as an illustrator is effortless and pure play. His writing followed suit; it felt effortless and it gave children and adults something sublime to munch on.
Let’s take “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” Carle’s classic and best-known work, first published in 1969. Why is this book so inspiring for children and adults alike? It’s a simple concept, really. A small but not insignificant caterpillar eats various items for some days in a row and then becomes “a beautiful butterfly.” Could it be that all creatures have this ability, to start small and become something infinitely beautiful? I think so and clearly Carle did too.
He himself had this quality – free in every sense of the word. Carle did what he loved and left an indelible stamp in the hearts and minds of children and adults across the world. He offered hope in a world that often feels hopeless.
Hope is, understandably, something precious and often difficult to come by these days. But that makes the message of Carle’s work, which will carry on and on for future generations, all the more urgent and heartening: we as humans must never ever give up hope. I’m in awe and humbled by his dedication to craft, storytelling and elegant design. His rich hand-painted textures, often done on tissue paper, immediately draw the reader in because anything made by hand is inherently beautiful.
A few months ago, I picked up an early 1970s copy of “The Hungry Caterpillar” from a thrift store. A thrill went down my spine when I spotted it because the unjacketed book was in near-perfect condition and the pages had that slightly yellowed vintage look. It was a book, an object – art and words all in one and it was as perfect a thing as I had ever seen in nature.
I read it aloud to myself several times when I got home – something I often do with picture books. The caterpillar became “a beautiful butterfly” – something that we humans should all aspire to be. Carle said it perfectly, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar is a story about hope. You, like the caterpillar, will grow up, unfold your wings, and fly off into the future.”
“Chicka Chicka Boom Boom” was one of the books in a care package that Random House sent when I signed my first contract with them. Of all the books in the box, my eyes went straight to Ehlert’s gorgeous cover. The limited palette, bold graphic shapes of the palm leaves and coconuts coupled with a polka-dotted border dazzled me with their simplicity and elegance. It was a work to be studied for sure.
I saw some of Ehlert’s works at the Milwaukee Art Museum some years ago. Her innate sense of graphic design, wabi sabi collage work (a Japanese technique that focuses on transience and finding beauty in imperfection) and love of color struck me immediately.
There is a wonderful quote by Ehlert – “Everyone needs time to develop their dreams. An egg in the nest doesn’t become a bird overnight.”
I watched a YouTube video once where she talked about the importance of having a place to work. She made a deal with her parents that as long as work was done at the folding table, she never had to clean up her “mess.” Ehlert never stopped using it, so her workplace remained. I read that she brought the folding table to college. She needed that desk to develop her dreams. Like a bird, Ehlert gathered many different items to use in her books – leaves from Wisconsin, string, wire, paint, paper, textiles, and found objects. She collaged together her dreams. What dreams did come. And now she’s gone. But as she says in one of her books, “a leaf man’s got to go where the wind blows.”
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Two remarkable people have physically left the world but in my mind, they are still here for all eternity offering children and adults messages of hope and beauty. I can put one of their beautiful books in my hand at any time. They sit on a bookshelf right behind me where I work. I can admire their covers, open them and hear them talk. And so can you.
Thank you, Eric Carle and Lois Ehlert. Thank you, thank you, thank you.