Alison Padley-Woods invites Trish Phillips to tell us about an illustrator who has inspired her.

I don’t remember having favourite picture books when I was very young, however when I began to read more, I would lap up every adventure series by Enid Blyton I could get hold of. 

Reading these in the 60s and 70s, although I loved being taken back into the past as many were set in the 40s and 50s, the illustrations were often not as I imagined them in my head, so I would redraw my own and paste them in the books! 

Then, much to my parents disappointment I moved on to comic books, among other books, and my all-time favourite was Peanuts by Charles M Schulz; the characters were incredibly expressive with such simple gestures: a lifting of an eyebrow or a happy dance — this time I would be copying them exactly as they were, I guess I see life as a cartoon. 

Possibly this sparked my interest in illustration, but I digress, because as an adult I feel my work has developed and been influenced less by my childhood, and more by what I read to my children; to see what children’s books bring to them, how worlds open up, and what they learn was thrilling.

Cover of The Very Hungry Caterpillar,
published by Penguin Random House

I came across The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle in the library. It stood out on the shelf, a white beacon with a splash of colour and a simple message – ‘Read me’. Among what seemed like a jumble of coloured covers jostling for attention, this simple book caught my eye. Everyone knows the story of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. It is well loved by adults and children alike and for me that hits the nail on the head; it satisfied both the child in me and the grown up. 

The thing I love most about its cover is that it's so simple, it is immediately understood in any language by any age. The colours and textures are bold and spontaneous, the image is graphic and simple, and the character is tantalisingly naïve and yet sophisticated at the same time.

Carle’s style is an intriguing mix of flamboyant texture and flat graphic shapes, often against a white background which makes the character so readable and immediate. 

Playful collage, mixed media, pencil marks and rough-cut shapes tell the story so well that few words are necessary which is ideal for the very young. 

I find Carle’s style has impacted greatly on my work; he is a contradiction, managing to ‘break out of the box’ and yet still work within boundaries. His art is messy and yet precise, bold and delicate, childlike and sophisticated. I could go on, but I needn’t. The point is for me, that his work is captivating for his audience, few words are needed because the picture says everything else. This to me is the absolute art of children’s storytelling.

This has reflected on my own style in the use of quirky collage and taking that even further out of the boundaries of a book into three-dimensional pop-ups.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar is by far my favourite of Eric Carle’s work and I have contemplated for years what has made the book so successful.  Eric Carle believed the caterpillar is a symbol of hope for children, it is tiny and insignificant but grows to be a beautiful butterfly.

But it is not just this book, he published more than 70 books. What is the appeal? I think it is the simplistic, slightly wonky shapes, the animals are representational not perfect, so attainable to a child’s eye. Perhaps in their mind they see his pig in The Very Busy Spider for example, and think – I could draw a pig like that, rather than simply that is a pig. It is so relatable to them that they embrace rather than admire.

A selection of Carle's books

Also his use of bold colour is a celebration on a pure white page. For a child, the character is easy to pick out, the eye is focused on the often central image and not distracted by background colour. For some children there may be too much distraction in colour and it can be difficult to ‘read’ some pictures.

Here are some interesting facts about Eric Carle that I didn’t know:

Eric Carle was American/German, born on June 25 1929 in New York and at the age of six moved back to Stuttgart, Germany, where his mother was born. He studied at art school and the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, but eventually moved back to New York to work as a graphic designer.

I especially love to hear how famous illustrators began their career by chance, and Carle’s story does not disappoint: 

in 1967  author Bill Martin Jr sat in a doctor’s waiting room flicking through a medical journal and saw an illustration Eric had done of a big red lobster for an advertisement for antihistamines. This led to a collaboration with Bill Martin as writer to produce his first book Brown Bear Brown Bear what do you see? in 1967. How amazing is that!

Eric Carle's advertisement for antihistamine

The Very Hungry Caterpillar celebrated its 50th Anniversary three years ago in 2019. It has sold more than 20 million copies.

At the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art

The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art opened in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 2002

Eric Carle Discusses 50 Years of The Very Hungry Caterpillar 

Eric Carle (June 25, 1929 – May 23, 2021) 

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*Header image by Eric Carle.


With a BA in Graphic Design and MA in Children’s Book Illustration, Trish Phillips has written, illustrated and designed pop-up books for Caterpillar Books; a craft book on pop-ups for Quarto; illustrated books for various publishers; and produced workbooks for Children’s Bereavement Charities. More recently, she has had work exhibited by museums and shops in Whitby North Yorkshire, and holds paper craft workshops.

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