Eric Carle, the children’s author and illustrator whose classic The Very Hungry Caterpillar and other works gave millions of children some of their earliest literary memories, has died at age 91.

Carle’s family said he died on Sunday at his summer studio in Northampton, Massachusetts, with family members at his side.

On Thursday, all sectors of the creative community were publicly paying tribute to the author and his work, including Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, indie rock band the Mountain Goats and actor Mia Farrow.

Bestselling childrens’ book author, and creator of the Lunch Lady series, Jarret J. Krosoczka wrote: “To have spent some time with Eric Carle was the closest thing one could get to hanging out with the actual Santa Claus. His books and his advocacy for the arts will continue to ripple through time. But we in the children’s book community will miss him terribly.”

Sesame Street writer and illustrator Mo Willems – the man behind the hit Pigeon kids’ book series – described him as “a gentleman with a mischievous charm”.

Through books such as Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, Do You Want to Be My Friend? and From Head to Toe, Carle introduced universal themes in simple words and bright colours.

“The unknown often brings fear with it,” he once said. “In my books I try to counteract this fear, to replace it with a positive message. I believe that children are naturally creative and eager to learn. I want to show them that learning is really both fascinating and fun.”

The Very Hungry Caterpillar, published in 1969, was welcomed by parents and children with its story of the metamorphosis of a green and red caterpillar with a touch of blue and brown to a proudly multi-coloured butterfly.

Originally conceived as a book about a bookworm – called A Week with Willi the Worm – the hero, who eats through 26 different foods, was changed to a caterpillar on the advice of his editor. It has sold 40m copies and been translated into 60 languages, spawned stuffed animal caterpillars and has been turned into a stage play.

“I remember that as a child, I always felt I would never grow up and be big and articulate and intelligent,” Carle told the New York Times in 1994. “Caterpillar is a book of hope: you, too, can grow up and grow wings.”

Politicians like George W Bush and Hillary Clinton were known to read the book to children on the campaign trail. The American Academy of Pediatrics sent more than 17,000 paediatricians special copies of the book, along with growth charts and parent handouts on healthy eating. Fellow writer and illustrator Ted Dewan called the book one of the pillars of children’s culture. “It’s almost talking about how great the Beatles were. It’s beyond reproach,” he said.

Carle wrote and/or illustrated more than 75 books, sometimes partnering with Bill Martin Jr or other authors, but most with Carle working alone. One of his last books was 2015’s The Nonsense Show, which centred on a parade of flying fish, cat-taming mice and circus animals.

Born to German immigrant parents in Syracuse, New York, Carle and his family returned to Germany – Nazi Germany, at the time – when he was six. Under the Nazis, modern, expressionistic and abstract art was banned and only realistic and naturalistic art was permitted.

When Carle was 12 or 13, a high school art teacher would change his life by inviting him to his home, where he secretly showed his expressionist art, including Franz Marc’s Blue Horse.

“I was used to pretty paintings with a mountain in the background. Although I was shocked, I always carried that day in my heart,” Carle told NPR in 2011. As an illustrator, he said he chose to portray animals in unconventional colours to show his young readers that in art, there is no wrong colour. He thanked Marc in the pages of The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse.

His father introduced him to the wonders of the living creatures that he would later immortalise in his books. “When I was a small child, as far back as I can remember, he would take me by the hand and we would go out in nature,” he told The New York Times in 1994. “And he would show me worms and bugs and bees and ants and explain their lives to me. It was a very loving relationship.”

After graduating from a leading German art school, he returned to the United States in 1952. He worked as a graphic designer in the promotion department of The New York Times before switching to advertising.

In 2002, Carle and his late wife, Barbara Carle, founded the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. Based in Amherst, Massachusetts, the nonprofit, 40,000-square-ft arts center is a showcase for picture book illustrations from around the world. He received lifetime achievement awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and the American Library Association.

He is survived by a son and a daughter.