A Tribute to "The Very Hungry Caterpillar"...


What’s the most popular picture book of all time? If you, like me, guessed “Goodnight Moon” or “The Cat in the Hat,” you’d be close, but wrong. The children’s picture book that has sold more than either of those classics is Eric Carle’s “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” with more than 29 million copies in print.

          The book just marked its fortieth anniversary, which explains why, earlier this month, the Google home page sported a special logo featuring the famous caterpillar looping its way over the double o’s. Now, that’s fame!

          The story of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” is deceptively simple. Readers follow the hungry little caterpillar as he eats his way through one apple, two pears, three plums and so on, and even through the book itself, thanks to the die-cut pages with holes for him to crawl through. After he recovers from his stomach-ache (all that pizza!), he turns into a beautiful butterfly in a gorgeous double-page spread that seems to include every color in the rainbow.

          Why has this simple story endured? First, it’s luscious to look at. Carle uses big, bold, bright colors to set a festive mood. The caterpillar’s strawberries are deliciously scarlet, the plums are a dusky purple, and every segment of the caterpillar’s body is a different shade of green.

          As children read the story, they learn their numbers, days of the week, and colors, but their learning is seamlessly wrapped up in a funny story with a spectacular ending.

          Eric Carle originally worked as a graphic designer before turning his hand to picture books at the invitation of Bill Martin, who was then an editor at Holt. Their first book together, published in 1967, was “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” Martin’s rhythmic, repetitive text invites children to chime in – “I see a red bird looking at me!” – while Carle’s illustrations are filled with color and texture. The book has become a favorite of parents and teachers promoting early literacy, and a favorite of preschoolers who love to predict what comes next.

          This first success was soon followed by Carle’s “1, 2, 3 to the Zoo,” a wordless story about a trainload of animals on the way to the zoo, inviting endless re-reading and counting by youngest listeners. “Do You Want to be My Friend?” is another wordless book that follows a little mouse as he invites one unsuitable animal after another to befriend him, with a big surprise for the mouse and for readers at the end.

          Since then, Carle has created new “very books,” like “The Very Clumsy Click Beetle” and “The Very Busy Spider,” and companions to “Brown Bear,” including “Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear?” His illustrations adorn poetry books, fables, and even a simple autobiography, “Flora and Tiger: 19 Very Short Stories From My Life.” His latest book, billed as the last in the Bear series, is “Baby Bear, Baby Bear, What Do You See?”

          Carle’s signature medium is colored tissue paper cut and layered onto the page, sometimes highlighted by broad strokes of paint. Oversized pages make his books perennial favorites at storytimes, where large crowds of children can enjoy each illustration, even from the back of the room. 

          Happy birthday to Eric Carle, who turns eighty this year, and happy birthday to “The Very Hungry Caterpillar!”   

First published in the 3/31/09 Free Lance-Star newspaper.