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

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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