In Germany we had a saying: 'The dumbest peasants grow the biggest potatoes' - maybe it's just that I've grown the biggest potatoes." Eric Carle is certainly not dumb, and nothing could be further from the idea of a lumpy potato than his bold, joyous, luminously coloured children's books. They include The Very Hungry Caterpillar, one of the best-known of the century, with 12 million copies sold across the world.
Carle is genuinely modest and self-effacing. In many respects he has never recovered from the brutality of an education in Nazi Germany, which stifled his creative spirit and confidence. He continues to be perplexed by the way his picture books have captured the hearts, minds and imagination of children everywhere. Earlier this month, at a celebration for his 70th birthday organised by his UK publisher, Puffin, this creator of dozens of breathtakingly simple and colourful fables still referred to himself as "not very clever".
Carle spends every possible moment in his studio in Massachusetts, and is dismayed by the calls on his time that fame has generated. Every day brings a pile of correspondence: every one gets a reply - he sends out 10,000 signed postcards a year.
"My days are about inspiration and work, creativity and work and work and work. I don't have any hobbies and I'm not the sort of person who can turn out a kids' book in a weekend," he says.
Carle uses collage for most of his pictures, cutting out sheets of painted tissue paper to make shapes and patterns which he sticks on to white card. This gives a translucent effect that makes the finished work shine like stained glass. He spends weeks at a time painting sheets of tissue in a variety of colours and patterns, cataloguing and banking them until they are needed for a particular image. "As I grow older I am finding it harder to cut into those sheets, which can be beautiful in themselves," he says. For the past two years he has also been making two- and three-dimensional works of art out of the painted tissue, metal and glass.
He is horrified by the thought of creating a book to order or to fit a formula. For most of his 30-year career in children's books he has been protected from relentless deadlines by his editor, Anne Beneduce (who now works for Philomel Books), with whom he says he has had "a love affair through the book". Beneduce saw his first sketches and recognised what she later called a "unique ability to distil the essence of his message". It was her professional eye that led to the creation of The Very Hungry Caterpillar in 1969. At first, Carle had the idea of a green worm munching its way through food, but Beneduce wasn't keen on the worm. What about a caterpillar? "A butterfly!" responded Carle, and so the book was born.
"It's a book of hope," says Carle. "This small insignificant thing can unfold its wings and go out into the world and achieve. The child can identify with that. When I was young I knew I wasn't dumb but I wondered how I would ever grow up and achieve things."
The process of creating his colourful, bold and simple narratives has, he says, enabled him to rediscover the happiness of his early childhood and those essential years of transition between home and school.
Carle was born in 1929 in Syracuse, New York, to German parents who returned to their home in Stuttgart when he was six. His first love of school, fostered in a sunny art room in Syracuse by a teacher who spotted his emergent talent, was soon snuffed out in Germany, where he found himself in a regime based on corporal punishment. The "large sheets of paper, colourful paints and fat brushes" of Syracuse were gone; instead he encountered "a small room with narrow windows, a hard pencil, a small sheet of paper and a stern warning not to make mistakes".
He hated school for the next 10 years, and darker times still were in store. The war started, the young Carle was eventually evacuated. He was hungry, he dug trenches, prisoners of war shared their rations with him, men were machine-gunned and died next to him. His beloved father, to whom he attributes his fascination with nature, was a prisoner of war in Russia. Though his father returned home, he was broken physically and emotionally, and the intimacy they had shared on Eric's childhood nature walks was gone.
There were moments of lightness and revelation during this time. His school art teacher braved Nazi retribution to show him prints by the "degenerate" German Expressionists and told him to remember their free and loose style.
When he finally became a graphic and commercial art student in Stuttgart, he counted himself lucky to study under Ernst Schneidler, who pointed him towards an apprenticeship in a typesetting department. He writes in his autobiography, The Art of Eric Carle (Philomel pound;20), of how the discipline he acquired there has shaped his work ever since.
He returned to New York in the early Fifties and became first a poster designer, later art director for an advertising agency. Only when he was asked to illustrate Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin, first published in 1967, did his imagination catch fire.
His trademark is not only the boldness of his shapes, but the powerful white spaces in between. "I started out as a poster artist and my pictures are still like posters. A bird is a bird, a house a house. The child in me likes to know very quickly what the image is. I have a missionary zeal to simplify."
The white background is there, not only to enhance colour, but also to provide breathing space within which the child's imagination can run free. The simplicity of Carle's books, the simple opportunities for learning to count, or learning about the life cycle of a seed, are what endear them to many teachers and parents as well as children.
But for Carle the lessons must be camouflaged. "The child must be given a choice to accept or not accept how the book is to work. If he or she wants to create a dialogue from the meeting of mouse and elephant (in Do You Want To Be My Friend?) rather than doing a counting exercise, that must be his or her choice. I don't like the pointing finger."
Do You Want To Be My Friend?, in which a mouse seeks a companion among the largest creatures, is Carle's personal favourite from his own books (more than 40 of them). "Friendship is the most important thing to me," he says. When he left Syracuse, his close friend Carlton Mayer wrote to him in Germany: "I would like to see you so bad, when are you coming home again?" Mayer still recognised Carle when he turned up on his doorstep 20 years later. That friendship, Carle said, was one of the most important of his life - a friendship "from the very heart".
The original hardback editions of 'The Very Hungry Caterpillar' and 'Do You Want To Be My Friend?' have been republished by Puffin, pound;11 each Noew-carle A colourful imagination: Eric Carle (top) and illustrations from his 'The Very Hungry Caterpillar'