Reading a book 200 times is a surefire way to find out whether you love it or want to throw its rhyming llama couplets into the diaper pail. Children's books especially do a tricky dance for an audience of squinty-eyed parents and wide-eyed tots: the best ones, like a syringe of infant-suspension Tylenol, have a little something for the parent at the end. These are the ones we are celebrating in This Book Belongs To — the books that send us back to the days of our own footed pajamas, and make us feel only half-exhausted when our tiny overlords ask to read them one more time.
It is a simple story that teaches basic concepts: counting, the days of the week, the names of common foods. But as is true with all the best children’s books, The Very Hungry Caterpillar has true depth.
Fifty years on, the story is as profound as ever. Shown through Carle’s delicate collages, a tiny caterpillar hatches from an egg. Though he eats more fruit with each passing day, he continues to be very hungry. Even a feast doesn’t help; the caterpillar eats every food in sight, but the overindulgence just makes him feel sick. A simple meal of green leaves is healing and, after his week of eating, he is finally full. The caterpillar is now big and fat. Ready for the next phase of his life he undergoes metamorphosis and becomes a butterfly.
He comes to each of his meals a different caterpillar than the one who ate the last.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar is about growth and change, in a way that takes these abstract concepts and makes them concrete for young children. You’re little and then you’re big; he’s a caterpillar and then he’s a butterfly. But growth and change, as we all experience, is not so simple and straightforward. The Very Hungry Caterpillar captures that, too. For one, change is perpetual. The caterpillar does not have just two existences, one as a caterpillar and one as a butterfly. Rather he is multiple iterations of himself as a caterpillar before he transforms into the butterfly. Each day he is bigger than the last, each day he is experiencing different foods. He comes to each of his meals a different caterpillar than the one who ate the last.
As a mother of three young sons I am acutely aware of how my children perpetually change, how they transform in front of my eyes seemingly without notice. I donate blanket sleepers that no longer fit, let them linger in my hands before boxing them up. I watch old videos, listening to tiny voices that charmingly mispronounce words, ones they now say correctly. I look at photos of baby cheeks that have melted and then at my children presently, find myself searching for a face within a face. Sometimes I catch myself in the mirror doing the same to myself, looking for a glimpse of the version of the woman I once was. It’s comforting to remember she’s in there, that my children will always be my babies. We all come into each new stage of our lives carrying iterations of our former selves, like nesting dolls.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar takes place over the course of a week. On Monday he eats one apple, on Tuesday two pears, on Wednesday three plums, on Thursday four strawberries and on Friday five oranges. As he matures his growth outpaces his appetite. A very hungry caterpillar on a quest to not be so anymore, he is motivated and driven to try new foods, to try more foods.
The colors of his wings are striking, pulled from the colors of all the foods he ate along the way. It’s a reminder that we bring into who we become who we once were.
My boys all loved these pages, so thoughtfully crafted. Each page actually lengthens as the caterpillar grows and eats more foods, holes punched out of the illustrations to represent the bites he takes. It’s a design element of the book I cannot help but see as poignant. As my children age the world expands, affording them new experiences and new opportunities. They will continuously outgrow things. I try to imagine what my house will look like when there aren’t crayons strewn across the kitchen floor, when The Very Hungry Caterpillar isn’t a book chosen for bedtime, when they no longer want to be read to at bedtime, when they ultimately outgrow even me. I ache a little, and it’s for them, too, watching their small hands trace the punched-out holes. A part of growing up is grappling with feeling empty, as life is essentially a pursuit of fulfillment, of that which makes us feel whole.
And a part of growing up is making poor choices, such as the caterpillar when he eats everything in sight in a single Saturday: a chocolate cake, an icecream cone, a pickle, a slice of Swiss cheese, a slice of salami, a lollipop, cherry pie, sausage, a cupcake and a slice of watermelon. He doesn’t know any better, believes this is what he needs, and comes to regret the decision. We all know people for whom this has transpired. I know when it’s been me. I am sure it will someday be my children. In our quest to feel whole we don’t always look in the right places, don’t always turn to the right things. But what we can wish, for our children and for ourselves, is that the search will ultimately lead us to a good place, no matter how we ache along the way.
The happy ending for the caterpillar is his transformation into a beautiful butterfly. He is illustrated with bright and bold wings spread wide. The colors of his wings are striking, pulled from the colors of all the foods he ate along the way. It’s a reminder that we bring into who we become who we once were. We are what we are made of, our past etched on our skin. Those bright and bold wings reflect just how bountiful and beautiful a life experience can be. There is so much to see, so much to take in, so much goodness to fill up on.
In this regard The Very Hungry Caterpillar reflects the hope we all have for ourselves, and for our children, one I certainly have for mine: that in our pursuit for fulfillment, the pursuit to feel whole, we fill ourselves with all the wonder a life and the world have to offer, that we find ourselves along the way, and see the beauty in who we ultimately become. For the past 50 years, Eric Carle’s story has been read to and loved in every corner of the world. It has such reach because it resonates, reminds us what it means to grow, what it means to live with our very hungry hearts.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar 50th Anniversary Collector's Edition is now available from Penguin Random House.