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When a fictional caterpillar chomps through one apple, two pears, three plums, four strawberries, five oranges, one piece of chocolate cake, one ice cream cone, one pickle, one slice of Swiss cheese, one slice of salami, one lollipop, one piece of cherry pie, one sausage, one cupcake and one slice of watermelon, it might get a stomach ache.

But it might also become the star of one of the bestselling children’s books of all time.

Eric Carle, the artist and author who created that creature in his book “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” a tale that has charmed generations of children and parents alike, died Sunday at his summer studio in Northampton, Mass. He was 91.

His son, Rolf, said the cause was kidney failure.

“The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” Carle’s best-known book, has sold more than 55 million copies around the world since it was first published in 1969, its mere 224 words translated into more than 70 languages. It is one of more than 70 books that Carle published over his career, selling more than 170 million copies, according to his publisher, Penguin Random House.

In 2003, he received the prestigious Laura Ingalls Wilder Award (now called the Children’s Literature Legacy Award) from the American Library Association, which recognizes authors and illustrators whose books have created a lasting contribution to children’s literature.

Carle’s career as a children’s book author took off in his late 30s, and he made his name tapping into his inner child.

“I had a lot of feelings, philosophical thoughts — at the age of 6,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 1995. “The only way I got older and wiser was that I got better trained. But that brain and soul were at their peak.”

Describing himself as a “picture writer,” Carle detailed much of his artistic process on his website.

He usually began with plain tissue paper, painting it with different colors of acrylic paint. Working with brushes, fingers or miscellaneous objects — like a piece of carpet, sponge or burlap — he would cover the tissue paper with different textures.

“Let’s say I want to create a caterpillar,” he explained in the “frequently asked questions” section of his website. “I cut out a circle for the head from a red tissue paper and many ovals for the body from green tissue papers; and then I paste them with wallpaper glue onto an illustration board to make the picture.”

Carle often used the term “art art” to refer to his more abstract and playful projects, like his work with tissue paper, to distinguish them from the more conventional and commercial illustrations he also did throughout his career.

Michelle Martin, the Beverly Cleary professor for children and youth services at the University of Washington, told The Atlantic magazine in 2019 that if you don’t have a good grasp of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” “you are children’s-book illiterate.”

Eric Carle Jr. was born June 25, 1929, in Syracuse, New York, to German immigrants. His mother, Johanna (Oelschlager) Carle, worked at a family business, and his father, Erich Carle, worked in a factory spray-painting washing machines.

“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.”

“I think in my books I honor my father by writing about small living things,” he continued. “And in a way I recapture those happy times.”

When Carle was 6, as his mother struggled with homesickness, she decided to take the family back to Germany, to Stuttgart, her hometown.

But, as Carle told The New York Times in 2007, disaster struck when his father was drafted into the German army and soon became a prisoner of war in Russia. Eric, who was then 15, managed to avoid the draft but was conscripted by the Nazi government to dig trenches on the Siegfried line, a 400-mile defensive line in western Germany.

“In Stuttgart, our hometown, our house was the only one standing,” Carle told The Guardian in 2009. “When I say standing, I mean the roof and windows are gone, and the doors. And … well, there you are.”

When his father returned from the war, he weighed a mere 85 pounds and was, Carle recalled, “a broken man.”

Carle studied typography and graphic art at the State Academy of Fine Arts in Stuttgart, graduating in 1950. Two years later, he decided to move to New York City, with $40 to his name. With the help of illustrator and art director Leo Lionni, he got a job in advertising, working as a graphic designer for The New York Times.

But he was soon drafted into the Army. He was stationed in Germany with the 2nd Armored Division as a mail clerk.

Though Carle didn’t speak often about his upbringing in Nazi Germany, he did say that his time spent in war zones had deeply influenced his work.

“The grays, browns and dirty greens used by the Nazis to camouflage the buildings” only heightened his love for intense and joyful colors, he told The Times in 2007.

After his military service he went back to work at The Times, then left the paper in 1963 to be a freelance artist.

His career in children’s books began when educator and author Bill Martin Jr. saw an advertisement that Carle had created and asked him to illustrate his children’s book “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” which was published in 1967. Carle wrote and illustrated his second book, “1, 2, 3 to the Zoo,” the following year.

His marriage to Dorothea Wohlenberg in 1953 ended in divorce in 1963. He is survived by their children, Rolf and Cirsten Carle, and a sister, Christa Bareis.

After his divorce, Carle was introduced to Barbara Morrison, known as Bobbie, a Montessori teacher who was working in the bookshop at the Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s medieval branch in Upper Manhattan. The two married in 1973 and moved to Northampton.

In 2002, on Bobbie Carle’s 64th birthday, they opened the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts. The museum has since welcomed more than 750,000 visitors, including 50,000 schoolchildren.

The couple eventually retired to Key Largo, Florida, and Blowing Rock, North Carolina, though Carle kept his studio in Northampton. After his wife died in 2015, Carle dedicated a meadow to her outside the museum.

In 2019, the 50th anniversary of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” was celebrated across the country. In an interview that year with Penguin Random House, Carle mused about why the book has remained so popular.

“It took me a long time, but I think it is a book of hope,” he said. “Children need hope.”

“You — little insignificant caterpillar — can grow up into a beautiful butterfly and fly into the world with your talent,” he continued.

But even decades after “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” first captivated readers, one question lingered: Why did the butterfly come from a cocoon, rather than a chrysalis?

“When I was a small boy, my father would say, ‘Eric, come out of your cocoon,’” Carle explained on his website. “He meant I should open up and be receptive to the world around me.”

“For me, it would not sound right to say, ‘Come out of your chrysalis,’ ” he continued, “and so poetry won over science!”

In addition to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, Carle’s honors included the Regina Medal in 1999, the NEA Foundation Award for Outstanding Service to Public Education in 2007 and the Original Art Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Illustrators in 2010.

He continued drawing until this month. His longtime aide, Jennifer Chanda Orozco, wrote in a personal essay that even during this time, “when words became clumsy and inefficient, it was his art that anchored Eric and allowed him to articulate himself in the language he knew best.”

Throughout his long career, Carle always believed that the most important feedback came from his most dedicated readers.

“Many children have done collages at home or in their classrooms,” he wrote. “In fact, some children have said to me, ‘Oh, I can do that.’ I consider that the highest compliment.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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