The Very Hungry Caterpillar book is now over 45 years old (first published in 1969) and has sold over 37 million copies worldwide: it has literally entertained and intrigued generations of children!
And as well as a puppet show, it’s spawned all sorts of adaptations, some of which are probably more ‘official’ than others. A quick search on Etsy alone turns up everything from party favours and stationery to a crocheted hat and cocoon set, printed fabric, personalised hand towels and earrings. (images from The Crochet Closet TN and HMBM Jewels, both on Etsy)
So what is it about this picture book that’s stood the test of time?
This is a question we’ve been pondering about several old favourites recently.
There’s been a lot of discussion about Dr Seuss recently, following the release of his previously unpublished What Pet Should I Get? In July, Shirley Hughes, author of such favourites as Dogger, won the Booktrust Lifetime Achievement Award in the UK (if you’re a fan, do read Michael Morpurgo’s affectionate and admiring tribute speech).
And here in Australia, classics like Possum Magic and John Brown Rose and the Midnight Cat (published in 1983 and 1977 respectively) continue to delight new generations.
There was quite a surge in picture book publishing around the 1970s and 1980s (when most of us who are parents today were growing up), in part because colour printing became relatively inexpensive. So we were spoilt with wonderful books at a time when innovation and creativity were being encouraged.
And if we’re passionate readers ourselves, then naturally we want to share that passion with our children, and especially share those favourite books we remember with fondness.
But there are plenty of books I enjoyed as a child which I wouldn’t considering offering to little ones today, because they were somehow ‘of their time’ and no longer feel relevant.
The books that really last are those which have a special genius of illustration and concept that appeals to a broad range of kids across the years.
Jonathan Worsley, executive producer of the current Very Hungry Caterpillar puppet show season, told The Daily Telegraph, “I have a great fondness for children’s books. When they’re done well, they distil very complex ideas down to their simplest visual form … Great stories told well at the right age instil a love of reading for life, and for me The Very Hungry Caterpillar was the first book I remember reading.”
The Very Hungry Caterpillar has several hugely appealing elements: holes kids can poke their fingers through, the counting theme, food – a lot of it, often quite inappropriate and beyond any treat most kids are likely to be offered! – and that fabulous transformation at the end of the story.
It’s told in repeating text which is really appealing to kids, and supports early literacy. And the bright collage art style is fascinating to kids and can form the basis of many classroom activities.
When the book was first published, the holes in the pages were unprecedented. Author Eric Carle told Kate Taylor (Radio 4/ The Guardian) how he came up with the idea: “I wasn’t thinking of books or anything like that,” he says. “I didn’t have anything to do, so I took a stack of paper and a hole-punch and I playfully punched holes … then I looked at them. Straight away I thought of a bookworm”
In the editing process, that bookworm became a caterpillar.
Ann Beneduce, Carle’s editor, told Publisher’s Weekly:
“Having agreed on the changes needed [including the bookworm becoming a caterpillar], Eric produced a brilliant new dummy, complete with holes for tiny fingers to explore. By my rule, it was both beautiful and useful. But to my surprise and chagrin, I was unable to find any American manufacturer who could produce it. At that time—half a century ago—no one could guarantee to cut the holes in the odd-sized pages and bind them so that the holes lined up correctly.”
Beneduce was travelling to Japan with her husband-to-be, so she took the book dummy with her and set up meetings with publishers there:
“All of them liked Eric’s book—and I was excited to find that they thought they could manufacture it for me—but none of them seemed to be able to produce it at a price we could afford. None, that is, except for the late Hideo Imamura, who was then the chief editor at Kaiseisha. ‘We will find a way,’ he assured me, and he did.”
The following year rights to the book were sold to the UK and several European publishers (which meant – with all publishers printing together – that the production price decreased dramatically). And The Very Hungry Caterpillar was on its way …
The book changed Beneduce’s life too: “When I travel anywhere in the world and say that I was Eric Carle’s editor for this book, I find I have made an immediate friend.”
Which of your childhood favourites are you sharing with your kids today? Please tell us in comments.
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