The 'Blue Horse' That Inspired A Children's Book

Oct 8, 2011
Originally published on April 27, 2012 3:44 pm

Even if you don't know the name Eric Carle, his work has probably made you smile. He's the author and illustrator of more than 70 children's books, including The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? His books brim with bold and unique collages, bursting with color and clever words.

Carle has a new children's book about an artist who — like the author — enjoys stepping out of the box. It's called The Artist Who Painted A Blue Horse.

The child in the book paints a number of animals with unconventional colors. The book opens with the child declaring, "I am an artist," and ends with the character, splashed with paint, saying, "I am a good artist."

The colorful animals were inspired by Carle's childhood. Born to German immigrant parents in Syracuse, N.Y., Carle and his family returned to Germany — Nazi Germany — when he was 6.

"Hitler dictated not only politics," Carle tells Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon, "he also dictated art."

Modern, expressionistic and abstract art was banned, but a high school teacher invited Carle to his home to see the work of "degenerate" artists.

Carle can't recall exactly what he saw, but he thinks that's where he saw expressionist Franz Marc's Blue Horse. Then, Carle says, the teacher said something courageous — or crazy.

"He said, 'The Nazis, they are charlatans. They haven't an idea what art is,' " Carle recalls. "I was shocked at the art, and I was shocked at him."

"That visit, and those reproductions, made a deep impression on me," he says. Marc's Blue Horse even makes an appearance in the back of Carle's new book.

It's an iconic image, he says, regularly shown as a symbol of expressionism. Carle hopes blue horses show his young readers that in art, there is no wrong color. "One must not stay within the lines," he says.

The point is to just enjoy color — but also to be surprised. Seeing a green lion or a polka-dotted donkey is still a bit of a shock, he says. "So in a small way, I repeat the shock I went through, I think. Of course, I'm not too sure it will work that way."

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Even if you don't know the name Eric Carle, his work has probably made you smile. "The Very Hungry Caterpillar," "Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?" and "The Very Busy Spider." He is the author and illustrator of classic children's books that brim with his bold and unique collages and burst with color and clever words.

Eric Carle has a new children's book out - about an artist who, like the author/illustrator, enjoys stepping out of the box with his work. His new book is "The Artist Who Painted A Blue Horse."

ERIC CARLE: (Reading) And an orange elephant, and a purple fox, and a black polar bear, and a polka-dotted donkey.

SIMON: Eric Carle is at the studios of New England Public Radio in Amherst, Massachusetts. Mr. Carle, thanks for joining us.

CARLE: It's a pleasure to be here.

SIMON: These are just beautiful illustrations, collage-like and bright and bold. And I will say, you know, if - donkeys ought come polka-dotted...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CARLE: Absolutely.

SIMON: The illustrations in the book. And I love the purple fox. It's just wonderful.

Help us understand the story you're trying to tell here, because I, you know, there's another name I think we should mention as far as that goes from your place of birth.

CARLE: Yes. I was born in Syracuse to German immigrant parents. And when I was six years old, they returned to Germany. I spent my boyhood until I was 15 in Nazi Germany. And, as you know, there was - Hitler dictated not only politics and everything, he also dictated art. And the art had to be realistic and naturalistic, Aryans with a flag and proud farmers.

But modern art, expressionistic art and abstract art was forbidden. But I had a wonderful art teacher in high school. And when I was about 12 or 13, he called me to his private home and showed me the work of the so-called degenerate artists, mainly German expressionists.

I have forgotten exactly what he showed me. But I would like to say I saw Franz Marc's "Blue Horse." And then he was very courageous, or crazy. And he said, the Nazi, they are charlatans. They haven't an idea what art is. So I was shocked at the art. And I was shocked at him.

SIMON: You have the picture of Franz Marc's "Blue Horse" in the back of your book.

CARLE: Yes. That's quite an iconic "Blue Horse," especially more so in Europe than here. The "Blue Horse" posters are shown, but they always show up someplace when they speak about Expressionism. And Franz Marc and his group are the founder of Expressionism.

SIMON: You did an interview with NPR in 2007, where you said your book, "Baby Bear, Baby Bear, What Do You See," that you thought that might be your last book. I guess it wasn't.

CARLE: I think that of every book. You have to speak to my editor, Ann Beneduce, with whom I've worked for 45, 50 years. And she just chuckles when I say, Ann, this is my last book. We've repeated this for 45 years.

SIMON: Little bit like Brett Favre retiring?

CARLE: I guess so.

SIMON: Mr. Carle, why is it important for you to let your young readers know that they can make a horse blue or a fox purple if they want?

CARLE: Well, there is no wrong color really. And also, one must not stay within the lines. That is part of the message. Part of the message is also just for the enjoyment of coloring. In a small way, the shock of a green lion or a polka-dotted donkey. So in a small way, I repeat the shock I went through, I think. Of course, I am not so sure it will work that way.

SIMON: Well, children see so much now, but I still think a purple fox will make them pay attention.

Eric Carle, of course, the author of more than 70 children's books, the illustrator of many more. He's also founder of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst.

Thank you for being with us, Mr. Carle.

CARLE: It was my pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.