A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I remember quite clearly the moment that I first encountered The Very Hungry Caterpillar. I was in the first year of primary school and the teacher brought out this huge book – much larger than the neat little board book I have now for my own daughter – and she opened the first page to reveal a small caterpillar egg. I remember my sense of wonder as I watched the egg’s tiny little caterpillar eat through various foods until he built himself a cocoon and transformed into a magnificent butterfly. This was not a book that we had at home and, apart from that one time in school, I didn’t see the book again until I bought it for my own child. But the book’s story (and determined protagonist) made such a great impression on me, that I never forgot it. That is the power of The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
According to Wikipedia, The Very Hungry Caterpillar has sold thirty million copies. How has a little caterpillar worked such magic on generations of children? Well, it’s a story of growing and of transformation, so one can see the appeal of those things, especially to children. It’s also a story of eating. Of enjoying food. Of food changing little bodies and allowing them to become bigger and stronger.
The caterpillar eats a lot of fruit (good caterpillar. Let’s hear it for healthy snacks) but on the Saturday, he also eats things like chocolate cake, ice cream, lollipops and cherry pie. And he does that classic kid thing of only eating a little bit of a certain food before moving onto the next item, because his eyes are most certainly bigger than his belly. But, *lesson alert* he eats so much of this rich food that he gives himself a stomach ache. Thankfully, he feels better the next day and is ready to build himself a cocoon…
So, as well as being lots of fun, the book is also educational. We learn the obvious things: that eating makes us grow big and strong, that caterpillars pupate and turn into butterflies (or moths, I suppose). But there is more subtle learning, too. The caterpillar eats a different food stuff every single day, so here we have a book teaching us the days of the week in an interesting manner. He eats two of one thing, then three of another, then four, etc, so the book is also teaching us counting, and we can practice that as we go along. The caterpillar eats fruits that are different colours, so we can practice those colours in a fun way without being hammered over the head with Learning. The book also invites questioning: what are those weird green things on the butterfly’s head? Where did his wings come from? Does he still have a stomach ache? What is a pickle? And these are all delightful questions for the reader to (try to) answer.
The book is famous for its collage illustrations and each page has holes punched into it to show where the caterpillar has nibbled his way through various foods. This makes the book particularly tactile, as little hands reach to touch the holes, and these can be counted too. The colours used in the illustrations are vibrant and attractive and, even though the book was first published in 1969, it still feels very modern.
All of which is to say that I am a huge fan of The Very Hungry Caterpillar and if you’ve never read it – or even if you have – I would urge you to get hold of a copy.
Now, what do you suppose that caterpillar was called? Colin? Kevin? Cuthbert? I vote for Cuthbert.
Puffin Books. Board book. £6.99. ISBN-13: 978-0140569322