If you were a child in the 1960s and ‘70s, chances are your bedtime routine included Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” Don Freeman’s “Corduroy” and Eric Carle’s “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” (a best-seller upon its release in 1967).
With its soothing singsong rhythm courtesy of writer Bill Martin Jr. and parade of animals rendered in painted tissue paper against plain white backdrops, “Brown Bear” possesses a distinctive style and attitude even within the whimsical ranks of vintage children’s books, and is just one of the 70 books Carle has illustrated during his notable career.
“I See a Story: The Art of Eric Carle” at the High Museum of Art features images from some of Carle’s most famous books including “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” and “The Grouchy Ladybug,” along with a cursory examination of the author’s themes and personal history.
“I See a Story” was understandably created with the knee-high set in its sights. There are low, squishy fire engine red benches placed around the gallery where kids can thumb through one of the many Carle books on hand; a cozy reading area with a grassy rug where a docent gathered children for a Sunday afternoon reading of “Brown Bear.”
There are handy wooden stepstools provided for children so they can amble up to tall vitrines containing examples of Carle’s painted tissue paper, part of his unique collage aesthetic. That technique of using painted tissue paper against neutral backgrounds both foregrounds the centrality of the story and gives Carle’s figures their unique flat, shadow-puppet dimension, but also a sense of movement and excitement in those colorful layers of paper jumping out from the page.
Another vitrine houses “dummy” books in graphite, colored pencil, crayon and markers that the illustrator creates as mock-ups when conceptualizing his stories. A vertical vitrine holds Carle’s paint-splattered shoes and lab coat, the tools of his trade. Wall text delves into some of Carle’s themes: friendship, journeys and the delights of the animal kingdom. Themes of puniness also reoccur in the books: Bugs, mice, flower seeds and other overlooked creatures echo a child’s sense of invisibility and vulnerability in an adult world, but also invest his books with a child’s sense of spying on, and slipping through, the cracks of reality to observe.
As a child, Carle certainly had a unique perspective for observing adult behavior. The son of German immigrants, Carle spent his early childhood in Syracuse, N.Y., before his parents decided to whisk the family back to Stuttgart, Germany. It was a decision that badly coincided with the rise of Nazi Germany. His father was drafted into the German army and became a Russian prisoner of war, and Carle was eventually conscripted to dig ditches for the war effort.
Beyond such cursory personal background, there is not a lot of backstory or analysis of Carle’s style or themes or their context in the larger world of children’s books. “I See a Story” keeps things fairly light, which may be fine for younger children, but doesn’t seem to give their literature its due, or offer much engagement for the parents or grandparents who accompany them.
An exception is a discussion of Carle’s 2011 book, “The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse.” The book is Carle’s tribute to a definitive influence: the German expressionist painter Franz Marc, who shared Carle’s affinity for bright primary colors, the animal kingdom and almost cubist approach to his blocky, stained glass-evocative figures. Carle was introduced to Marc by his German art teacher, who took the potentially dangerous step in Hitler’s Germany of trumpeting the merits of this “degenerate” artist.