Back when my little girl was just a month or so old, a screenwriter friend called to ask if I’d lately come across any novels that might make for a good film adaptation. The only book that popped into my sleep-starved, love-drunk mind was The Very Hungry Caterpillar. “It has a great beginning, middle and end”, I enthused, warming to my theme.
While being of absolutely no help to my friend, I stick by my recommendation. There’s a reason The Very Hungry Caterpillar is translated into every language under the sun and has already been adapted for stage and screen: it’s hands-down ingenious.
While Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? isn’t in quite the same league, its pages are nonetheless captivating. There are Carle’s collaged images, of course – big, bold, juicily coloured and textured in a way that makes your fingertips tingle. And do they have character, these animals!
Half a century on, Carle is still influencing children’s illustration – one of my favourite picture books from 2016 is Bee by Britta Teckentrap, whose radiant, multi-layered images, while being their own kind of glorious, nod to Carle.
Brown Bear was Carle’s first book. American-born and German-bred (his homesick mother moved the family back to Stuttgart when he was six years old), Carle started out as a graphic designer. When Bill Martin Jr., an educator and author (he co-wrote Chicka Chicka Boom Boom), took a shine to a red lobster that Carle created for an ad, he suggested they collaborate. The result was Brown Bear.
The text couldn’t be simpler – there’s no real story, nothing about counting, just some colours and a wonderful menagerie of beasts. And yet it works an incantatory charm, its rhythmic relay leading the reader on a tour of the natural (and not-quite-so-natural, viz. the beautiful blue horse and purple cat) world, enrapturing and lulling in equal measure.
A bestseller when it was published in 1967, Brown Bear launched Carle’s career (my favourite of his is The Bad-Tempered Ladybird). This celebratory paperback edition comes with a CD of Martin’s text read aloud by Carle. It’s short, as you’d expect, and both readings (the second features a sound that lets budding readers know when to turn the page) are prefaced by some lovely plinkety-plonk jazz. As for Carle’s voice at 88, it’s as soothing to the adult ear as to a child’s, somehow evoking lake cabins and patchwork quilts and an altogether kinder, more gracious America.