Eric Carle, Eric Carle, Let Me Ask You Something for a Change

"IMG_0790" by d squared is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Eric Carle, Eric Carle, I hope you can see:

This daddy (that’s me) reading stories to three.

Eric Carle, Eric Carle, your words that I’m reading,

they’re the last my kids hear each night before dreaming.

Eric Carle, Eric Carle, please don’t think me a stalker,

even though I know your stories by heart, as do my sons and my daughter.

Eric Carle, Eric Carle, I must confess

I’m bored with your stories (thank goodness that’s off my chest).

They’re fun and they’re cute and my kids love them so much,

but I’ve been reading them for ten years; enough is enough!

With a sudden hankering to read something new,

I Googled your name as my kids snored and snoozed

Eric Carle, Eric Carle, my goal was simple at its core:

to learn about your life, to learn about your lore.

In 1935, your family moved when you were just six,

to Germany so mommy could have her motherland fix.

Soon Hitler came calling and drafted your dad,

forcing him into the Reich; oh, how very sad.

Your father was captured near the end of the war,

and the Soviets locked him away to rot to his core.

Eric Carle, Eric Carle, how traumatic that must’ve been,

not just for your father, but for you and your kin.

Years later, when the Russians returned him home,

he was mentally devastated, all skin, all bones.

But before we go further, let us not forget,

the Deustche Armee drafted you, too, to serve as their pet. 

Eric Carle, Eric Carle, you had the world’s worst chore:

digging trenches for the Germans during the second world war.

You were barely a teen then but saw people die?

That doesn’t show up in your books, and I think I know why.

I mean:

Dead body, dead body, why do you smell?

Perhaps hungry caterpillars shouldn’t discuss heaven and hell.

I have more to report, but first I have to admit

these rhymes are getting tiresome, so I’m going to stop for a bit.

Eric, here’s the simple truth: I didn’t know a thing about you until very recently. I’ve read all your stories, taken my children to plays based on your books, rhymed your words in the rhythms you demanded, and did so without knowing if you’re even still alive (good news, Eric: you are!). Here’s what else I learned: you once broke two vertebrae in your back after falling from a tree; you rarely visit schools in person these days; you once envisioned careers in forestry and the food industry at different points in your life; and years after Germany forced you into their war efforts, America did the same, drafting you into the Korean War and assigning you to a post back in Deutschland. You previously worked for the New York Times and have even had sex at least twice in your life (and I’m sure your son and daughter are thankful for this).

I’m glad I learned these things, Eric, because I owed it to my children to know something about the man whose ideas are present in our home more frequently than extended family. My children know your very quiet cricket and mixed-up chameleon better than they know any of their grandmothers’ maiden names. They can recall everything that your polar bears can hear, everything your brown bears can see, but struggle understanding which cousin belongs to which side of our family. This is my fault, of course: I choose to tell them your stories, not my own or our family’s. I’ve often wondered why this is. There’s plenty of love and generosity and selflessness in our history, much photographic and anecdotal evidence to show that we support the characteristics you trumpet in your books. There are also many stories planted deep in the soil of the seven deadly sins, PG-13 and rated R tales we keep hidden behind walls of introversion and redirection.

So why don’t I tell my children these stories, both the happy endings and the sour? I never had an answer for that question until I read through your biography and learned that you don’t like to reflect upon your father’s imprisonment or your time digging those trenches, that you avoid thinking about the three people you saw killed that first night with a shovel in your hand, that your wife thinks you have PTSD because of all this trauma.

Eric Carle, Eric Carle, I read this and knew

that some stories, especially those so close to us, are harder to tell when true.


Photo at the top of the page is by d squared and is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Needles’ Eyes, Wealth, Learning and Virtue

How do those who claim to be Christians today reconcile the modern world’s quest for material gain with Jesus’s severe injunctions against riches? Most notably in verses 10:25-26 of The Gospel According to Mark: “But Jesus answereth again, and saith unto them, Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (King James version). 

I suspect a representative answer came from a pink-cheeked young business major when I asked that question in a core literature class years ago. Without a second’s hesitation, he told me, “Things were different then.”

And so they were. According to theologian Sakari Häkkinen, “In the Ancient world poverty was a visible and common phenomenon. According to estimations 9 out of 10 persons lived close to the subsistence level or below it. There was no middle class. The state did not show much concern for the poor.” In fact, exploiting the poor was the primary source of income for the fraction at the financial top who made their fortunes as provincial governors, tax collectors and moneylenders. By condemning the rich abusers, Jesus was, in effect, preaching to the destitute choir.

Leap ahead fifteen centuries when flourishing proto-capitalistic commerce in Europe spread the proceeds of trade, and the good life was enjoyed by an expanding middle class. As seen in the meticulous details in paintings by Jan van Eyck, Pieter de Hooch, Rogier van der Weyden, and others, material objects were prized, driving the accumulation of the profits needed to acquire them.

This new emphasis on the things of this world is explained by Harold J. Cook in Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine, and Science in the Dutch Golden Age. Ships sailing about the known world made the acquisition and sharing of physical goods a possible goal. Scientists transformed their field by turning their attention to the study of concrete articles. Nonscientists—a larger number—attributed great value to concrete possessions. An expansion in disposable income led to a consumer revolution. A large proportion of this new wealth was spent on literal consumption. Merchants and others with the means were “acquiring well-crafted furniture, linens, antiquities, painting and sculpture, books and manuscripts, strange and lovely items of nature, and other rare and beautiful objects.” Cook concludes that “Valued objects had become ‘goods’ alongside personal virtues. As the historian of art and society Richard Goldthwaite has put it, ‘possessions become an objectification of self,’ perhaps ‘for the first time.’”

But what about Biblical condemnations of riches? In a period when Europeans took the Bible much more seriously than they do today, the affluent sought a loophole to avoid the threat of Mark 10:25-26. Would accumulations of fine jewels, linens, and spices of the East condemn the owners to forsaking eternal salvation?

The Renaissance theologian, poet, and historian Caspar Barlaeus (1584–1648) proposed an answer by defending commerce as beneficial to virtue and wisdom. His argument is explained by Cook. Before Barlaeus, Dirk Volkertsz Coornhert, in 1580, wrote that wealth and virtue were compatible if the profits were given to charitable causes or even supporting military defense. The critics of this position asked why anyone would seek profits they couldn’t keep.

Barlaeus took a different tact, defending self-interest as natural and essential to social interaction, mutually supporting others and ultimately fulfilling God’s purpose for each of us. He claimed that great wealth led to great learning and that virtue and magnificence came from the union of learning and worldly activity. Cook summarizes the core of Barlaeus’ beliefs: “It was not from doctrine but from the interactions found in buying and selling, and in the search for knowledge that was another aspect of exchange, that modesty, honesty, and natural truths emerged.”

While a camel might be stymied by the needle’s eye, a Dutch burgher would sail right through. That is, because for Barlaeus, as much as he defends the basis of capitalism, wealth was not an end in itself but rather a means to the betterment of society and human kind. In his more carefully formulated argument, he echoes my pink-cheeked student in justifying the differences of his period’s economic circumstances from the time of Jesus.

Today, we appear to be in a throwback to Galilean imbalance, with wealth burgeoning exponentially for the few. Inequality is escalating, the top 0.1 percent having as much of the bottom 90 percent. While the 90 percent don’t live in Galilean poverty, the middle class is withering, the working class falling behind, millions resentful at the loss of what they once had and seeing no promise of regaining it. Rather than following Jesus by threatening the rich with the loss of heaven, they—unaware—are closer to Barlaeus in calling for a reallocation of wealth to achieve a better society. Yet, we are a long way from the modesty, honesty, and truth that might result from a search for knowledge.



Harold J. Cook. Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine, and Science in the Dutch Golden Age. Yale University Press, 2007. 

Sakari Häkkinen. “Poverty in the first-century Galilee.HTS Theological Studies,  2016

Photo at the top of the page: © Trustees of the British Museum.