Top 100 Picture Books #2: The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
#2 The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle (1979)
One of the very few pictures books that is just perfect – language appropriate, interactive, a great story, a counting exercise and a science lesson all rolled together. – Pat Vasilik
Carle is a genius, pure and simple. Is there a 5 year old alive who isn’t familiar with this book? The caterpillar is the poster child for greed. – DeAnn Okamura
Eric Carle is a genius, and without a doubt this is his greatest book. – Hotspur Closser
Concept book perfection. – DaNae Leu
One wonders if this book would have done quite so well on this poll had it been known by its original title: A Week With Willie Worm. No. I’m actually not kidding about this one. Granted, “A Week With Willie Worm” is exactly the kind of fake title I would come up with if I were feeling cheeky, but back in the late 60s Carle thought this was a legitimate name to go with. The whole caterpillar concept didn’t really occur at first. We, the general public, got lucky. Now we find ourselves nearing the end of the Top 100 Poll, and voila! Here is the iconic insect with his big expressionless eyes and his frighteningly popular standing in the hearts and minds of adults and children everywhere.
The book’s description from B&N reads, “A caterpillar hatches out of his egg and is very hungry. On his first day, he eats through one piece of food; on his second, two, and so on. Little holes cut in the pages allow toddlers to wiggle their fingers through the food, just like the caterpillar. Vivid and colorful illustrations and ingenious layered pages help preschoolers learn the days of the week, how to count, and how a caterpillar turns into a butterfly.”
100 Best Books for Children discusses the Willie Worm dilemma, and places the credit of changing it to a caterpillar firmly in the camp of editor Ann Beneduce who suggested the switcheroo. It is also interesting to note that, “Although no printer in the United States could be found to manufacture economically a book with so many die cuts, Beneduce located a printer in Japan who was able to produce the book.” Apparently Carle got the idea for different shaped pages from the books he read when he was a child in Germany.
When asked in an interview with Metro.co.uk why the book was such a success, Carle had this to say: “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’.” I like his use of the term “psychobabble”. There’s also a truly wonderful Guardian article on Mr. Carle talking about his early years and discussing this book as well. “The book’s success has spawned a lot of crank interpretations. It has been described as an allegory of both Christianity and capitalism. ‘Right after the Wall fell, I was signing books in the former East Germany and was invited by a group of young librarians to have lunch with them. One said the caterpillar is capitalist, he eats into every food one little bit and then the food rots away. Wasteful capitalist. Interesting. I think that if you’re indoctrinated, that’s how you will see it’.” And if you’re looking for more there’s an older Guardian article that focuses entirely on the book that’s also worth reading.
Of course, back in the day children’s librarians were mighty sketchy on books that had “novelty” elements. And with die-cut pages, no matter how cute they might be, I wondered if the old-time librarians had problems with this fuzzy green guy. Leonard Marcus in Minders of Make-Believe seems to confirm my fears. “The book quickly became a major commercial success, more so at first on the strength of its popularity with parents and preschool teachers than with librarians, who remained mistrustful of books with toylike elements.” The Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature appears to be of the same mind. Calling the title “a rudimentary game book”, it goes on to say that, “The imaginative use of collage and very bright colors are characteristic of the period.” Huh.
Have you ever been to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art? It’s a trip, but a trip that’s worth the travel. I did a post about my own visit to the museum about a year ago and some of the pictures I took were wonderful Caterpillar-related shots. For example . . . .
Here’s the museum’s car:
All the cookies in the cafe have caterpillaresque holes in them:
The auditorium chairs have seven holes in their tops (which they will tell you was just a fortunate mistake):
And finally, the toilet seats. I dunno about you, but they look caterpillar-shaped to me:
Caterpillar-inspired art is everywhere, so I’ll only point out a couple examples here and there. For example, the children’s room at the Morse Institute Library in Natick, MA has this lovely stained glass window by artist Carol A. Krentzman. Their Swimmy isn’t too shabby either.
And for reasons unclear, the caterpillar is always showing up as a cake somewhere. I think this one is the most creative, though.
Even Google got into the act when it created a little caterpillar logo of its very own:
The video of the book is relatively evocative (I’m partial to the soundtrack) so check it out here:
Live theatrical productions have included the Nova Scotia Mermaid Theatre’s innovative puppet program of the book:
And you can watch the Amazon 40th Anniversary of this book here where Mr. Carle discusses the creation of Caterpillar.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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