Eric Carle’s acclaimed new picture book, “The Nonsense Show” (Philomel, $18.99) — a fresh and hilarious parade of flying fish, cat-taming mice and circus animals freed from all those silly rules — might just make readers forget the beloved caterpillar for which this children’s author is most famous.
Carle, 86, recently reflected on a career that has spanned more than 40 years and included 75 books, among them perennial favorites such as “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” and “The Grouchy Ladybug.” Carle touched on his art-happy childhood in Germany, and his early career as a graphic designer and art director. He even dished about that beloved caterpillar — the little fellow actually started out as a worm, Carle says.
But then his longtime editor, Ann Beneduce, urged him to think, well, fluffier.
“She did not like a green worm,” he says. “So we went back and forth, and she said, ‘How about a caterpillar?’ And I shouted, ‘Butterfly!’ So that’s how that was born.”
The following is an edited transcript.
What was your starting point for “The Nonsense Show”?
Life is full of nonsense, I think. I grew up in Nazi Germany, and my art teacher who had started out as a modern artist couldn’t teach that anymore. He could only teach realistic and naturalistic art. [But] he invited me to his home and secretly showed me reproductions — abstractions, German expressionists, maybe Picasso. . . . I was used to pretty paintings with a mountain in the background. Although I was shocked, I always carried that day in my heart.
You had a career in advertising and design. Did you even think of writing children’s books while you were doing that?
No, never. I started out as a poster artist and I still view myself as a poster artist, because if you look at my covers and my illustrations, they are little posters. . . . I was an art director for an advertising agency that specialized in pharmaceutical advertising and [author] Bill Martin saw one of my ads — it was a lobster, because people can be allergic to lobsters. He saw that and asked me to illustrate “Brown Bear, Brown Bear,” and I asked myself, “What if I was an author as well?” I developed all kinds of ideas and put them in a box. Then I started to freelance. I went to publishers and advertising agencies and graphic studios, and the publisher I went to was a small publisher — World Publishing — and the editor there was Ann Beneduce. She took me out to lunch. I said, “I also do children’s books.” I thought of my idea box. She said, “Bring it in.” That was the beginning of the caterpillar.
I was concerned to hear that “The Nonsense Show” might be your last book. But then I read that you’ve been saying for years that each book might be your last.
I have 75 books, and after each book I say, “This is the last book.” Ann just smiles. She says, “I know. I know.”
Do you ever get sick of talking about “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”? Is it like being the rock star who doesn’t want to sing his most popular song again and again?
Yes, it is. I have about 75 books and I think they’re fine books.
What’s your favorite?
My favorite book is “Do You Want to Be My Friend?” It’s a mouse looking for a friend, and I grew up as an only child and friendship was always so important to me. When I was 21, my parents had another child. My father was in the German army and when Germany capitulated he became a prisoner of war in a camp in Russia for 2 1⁄2 years. When he came back they had another child and that’s my sister, Christa, and I dedicated . . . [“The Very Hungry Caterpillar”] to her.
What’s next for you?
Quentin Blake is a leading British illustrator, and he started a museum in London, and he asked his colleagues to do eight illustrations on the theme of favorites, and I did seven likes and one dislike — the dislike was smoking. So we sent him these pictures, and he did an exhibition but I own the rights, so I thought we could do a nice book with that. So here I go!