The Very Hungry Caterpillar is a children’s picture book designed, illustrated, and written by Eric Carle. The book features a very hungry caterpillar who eats his way through a wide variety of foodstuffs before going into a cocoon and emerging as a butterfly. It is one of the few childrens books I remember reading as a child, but my experience of it is not unique as it has sold almost 50 million copies. Or as some have put it, it’s sold the equivalent of a copy per minute since its publication. Please pause to consider that stat for a moment. Wow.
What makes the book so unique is the innovative design, not only of the collage based illustrations, but also the way the pages in the middle of the book are not the same size and have a hole in them.
Carle said he was inspired to create the book by a hole punch: “One day I was punching holes with a hole puncher into a stack of paper, and I thought of a bookworm. He wrote a story with a worm as the main character, but was told by his editor that a “green worm would not make a likable protagonist.” Ah editors – they do know things (see Hawking’s experience and my forthcoming post on Harper Lee). The editor suggested a caterpillar instead which made Carle think of a butterfly. In turn, this gave the idea for how the story unfolds.
Some have interpreted the caterpillar as a metaphor for Jesus, others as a capitalist. Neither interpretation holds much weight with the author. When asked why the book was such a success, Carle replied: “My guess is it’s a book of hope. That you, an insignificant, ugly little caterpillar can grow up and eventually unfold your talent, and fly into the world. As a child, you can feel small and helpless and wonder if you’ll ever grow up. So that might be part of its success. But those thoughts came afterwards, a kind of psychobabble in retrospect. I didn’t start out and say: ‘I want to make a really meaningful book’.” (https://metro.co.uk/2009/03/20/hungry-caterpillar-author-on-zoo-maths-566674/)
My guess is that it is successful because it covers so many simple educational themes: counting, days of the week, foods, and a butterfly’s life stages in a complete yet simple way. Combined with the detail in the collage images, these elements give the book a surprising amount of depth for such a small amount of words. As such there are delights to found upon multiple readings. Many parents have loved the book and get a thrill from sharing it with their own children, as I did with each of mine. I guess that is why I like the book so much – I was able to share it with my children and see them appreciate its depths over many readings. I hope they in turn get to have the same experience with their own children one day.
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