Books: Eric Carle's Very Hungry Caterpillar

Eric Carle has made millions from the efforts of a certain Very Hungry Caterpillar, but when it comes to hungry crabs—well, that's another story. Behind Carle's home near Key Largo, Fla., there's a tidy garden perched on the edge of the Florida Straits with a view that seems to stretch all the way to Cuba. Carle doesn't really know what he's put in the ground—"I know nothing about plants," he says—but he's created a vibrant quilt nonetheless, thanks to an unusual template. "I lay my garden out like my books," he says. "I want a patch of green here, a patch of red here, pink in between." Also like his books—which include "The Very Busy Spider," "The Mixed-Up Chameleon" and Carle's biggest hit, "The Very Hungry Caterpillar"—his garden is full of animals. On a normal sunny day, pelicans flock overhead, iguanas crawl around and you can sometimes see dolphins in the ocean on the horizon. We meet a harmless spider and a stray cat named Whitey. Then there are the crabs. Beneath the surface of this little patch of heaven, a colony of crustaceans has taken up residence, and like you-know-who, they're burrowing into everything in sight, especially a coconut palm tree near the water. "They dig from both sides and the roots are exposed to the air," says Carle, with a disheartened look on his face. "My garden is dying."

It's a surprising down note for a man whose 70-plus collected works are the kid-lit version of a ray of sunshine. In truth, Carle, 80, has plenty to smile about. His 200-word story about a caterpillar who devours a sausage, a cupcake, a watermelon and more—there are holes drilled into the book to represent all that nibbling—celebrates its 40th anniversary this week. "Caterpillar" has sold 29 million copies, making it the most successful picture book this side of "Peter Rabbit"—more popular than "Goodnight Moon" or "The Cat in the Hat." The empire of caterpillar pajamas, board games, cell-phone accessories and other Carle creations takes in $50 million a year. "My friends, my family, my editors, my publisher, we all wondered why it's been so successful," Carle says. "It is a book about hope. If you're an insignificant caterpillar, you can grow up to be a big butterfly in the world." But what most of Carle's fans don't know is that, like those crabs gnawing away at his garden, there's something dark lurking underneath his colorful bug book.

Carle was born in 1929 in Syracuse, N.Y., to immigrant parents from Germany. He remembers his first six years fondly: Mickey Mouse and Flash Gordon, family camping trips, the big windows in his kindergarten class. When he was 6, his mother got homesick and the family moved back to Stuttgart. They lived in a big, four-story house with many of his relatives. "My grandmother had nine sisters," Carle says. "I had an interesting, wacky family. They're all liars but wonderful storytellers." Carle had trouble adjusting to his new country. His first-grade teacher still haunts, especially because Carle once picked up a ringing phone, and the teacher lashed his palms with a bamboo switch in front of the class. "I was this free American kid," Carle says, "but I was careful after that."

When World War II broke out, Carle's father was drafted by the Germans and his family was engulfed in the chaos of war. "We spent many hours in our cellar," he says, his voice breaking a bit. "It was scary at times. The nearest bomb was maybe 20 feet away, and it shook the house. [The bombs] came closer and closer, and when it passed, my mother took my head and put it in her lap. I will never forget that. There was no panic. It was over." He developed a special bond at school with his art teacher, Herr Krauss, who secretly showed him the works of Picasso, Matisse and Braque, all banned by Hitler. He remembers wading in the Rhine when a warplane flew by and shot at him. The bullets missed him by a few feet. He also remembers an unexpected knock at his family's house, days before the Germans surrendered. "Some Nazi official came to the door and said to my mother, 'Your son tomorrow morning has to report to the railroad station, we'll give him a bazooka.' I thought it would be exciting to get a bazooka. But she didn't let me go."

The Americans saved him, in more ways than one. He went to work as a file clerk in the denazification department of the United States military government. After years of starving, he was allowed access to the troops' kitchen. In his autobiography, "The Art of Eric Carle," he remembers swiping "peanut-butter sandwiches, lumps of butter, cubes of sugar, leftover bits of steak" for his family. It took two and a half more years for Carle's father to return home; he'd been sent to a Russian prison camp. The man whom Carle met at the trolley looked like an 80-pound ghost. "He was different, and I was different," Carle says. "I was going to art school. I was into art and girls." And Carle still wanted to go back to America. He finally returned in 1952, with only $40 and dreams of a brighter future.

Carle didn't publish his first book until he was 38, and that was just the illustrations for the now classic "Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?" He had spent the first half of his professional career in advertising and graphic design, and he was able to woo a book editor named Ann Beneduce after he sent her his one-of-a-kind business card. "It was wonderful," Beneduce says. "It had a big whale folded around and inside, there was a ladybug. I had been kind of looking for somebody who could do illustrations that were appealing to children. It was so visually appealing." Carle created his art using a technique of layering colored tissue paper on a white board. In person, they're kind of like Matisse's enormous cutouts. One of the first ideas he suggested to Beneduce—he had so many, he kept them in a brown cardboard box—was a week in the life of a worm named Willi. Beneduce didn't think a worm was sympathetic enough. "We talked about other animals," Carle says, "and eventually she said, 'How about a caterpillar?' And I said, 'butterfly.' " There was just one last problem: "We couldn't find a manufacturer who could guarantee the holes would line up," says Beneduce, who had to go all the way to Japan to get the first printing of the "Caterpillar" books made. It became an instant bestseller.

Carle acknowledges, somewhat obliquely, how much his life in Germany affected his art. "With my books," Carle says, "I try to recapture a period I should've had and didn't—for more fun, more nonsense, more humor." But when you know his background it's almost impossible not to look at his work without seeing echoes from his past. Despite the colorful hopefulness of his stories, they're suffused with a sense of loneliness—that solitary caterpillar, making its way in the world. In fact, the opening of "Willi the Worm" read: "This is Willi Worm. He is very hungry. He hasn't eaten through anything for a long time." There's even something about the way he describes the caterpillar's diet ("On Saturday he ate through one piece of chocolate cake, one ice-cream cone, one pickle, one slice of Swiss cheese … ") that evokes the way he describes what he ate after the war when he went to work for the Americans. His own favorite book is "Do You Want to Be My Friend?" about a mouse that ventures on his own, in search of companionship, while a green snake slithers nearby. Carle says in his mind he dedicated the story to his best childhood friend from back in Syracuse. "He has the memory of one year in kindergarten in the United States, where he had every kind of color available," Beneduce says, "and all the things he didn't have when he got to Germany."

It's hard not to wonder if he hasn't constructed his life to purge those dark childhood memories. In person, he is the antithesis of dour. "He looks very much like Santa Claus," says his assistant, Motoko Inoue, and with his deep laugh and raspy voice, he sounds like Santa, too. He's a delightful host whose stories are punctuated by affectionate smiles. His house in Florida is bathed in color. The sun pours into the kitchen and big windows peer out to the blue coast. His desk is covered in scraps of rainbow tissue paper. He makes sure that every fan who writes to him gets a response. He also spends a great deal of time maintaining the country's first picture-book museum, which opened six years ago in Amherst, Mass. A friend designed the 40,000-square-foot building, but painting a housefly in each urinal was Carle's impish idea. "You have 80 percent less spillage because guys aim at it," he says. He hasn't written a book in two years, but he says that's only because he's content with taking it easy. He likes to sleep in, play solitaire and go for walks. Carle seems to have reached a sweet spot in his life—he posted a picture on his blog recently of him eating breakfast with a spoonful of his favorite food: Black Forest honey. "I'm very happy," he says. "In fact, I told my wife I've never been so happy." It might have taken him 40 years, but Eric Carle is finally as free as a butterfly.