A Very Happy 50th Birthday To 'The Very Hungry Caterpillar'

Jun 12, 2019
Originally published on June 12, 2019 10:07 am

On average, every 30 seconds someone in the world buys a copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Maybe it's for a grandchild, an expectant parent or a dear friend's new baby. Nearly 50 million copies have been sold since the classic picture book was first published in 1969, and it has been translated into over 62 languages.

Author Eric Carle, now 89 years old, lives in Key West, Fla. He was too frail to talk with NPR for this story, but earlier this year, Penguin Random House released a commemorative video of Carle musing on the book's success.

"I think it is a book of hope," he says. He's wearing suspenders and a shirt that matches his lively blue eyes. "Children need hope. You, little insignificant caterpillar, can grow up into a beautiful butterfly and fly into the world with your talent. Will I ever be able to do that? Yes, you will. I think that is the appeal of that book.

"Well, I should know. I did the book, after all!"

Carle didn't start writing books for children until he was almost 40. Born in Syracuse, N.Y., he remembers an early childhood filled with art, light and walking through nature holding his father's hand. His immigrant parents decided to return home to Germany — his mother was homesick — and they arrived just in time for World War II.

Eric Carle and his most famous creation, during a 2009 appearance on the Today show.
Richard Drew / AP

Carle was beaten by teachers and shot at by soldiers, and his beloved father disappeared into a Russian prisoner-of-war camp for years after being drafted to fight for the Nazis. The man who wrote The Very Hungry Caterpillar experienced hunger firsthand.

Carle headed straight back to the U.S. after graduating from art school at age 23 and was immediately hired by The New York Times. He served in the U.S. military during the Korean War and, upon return, moved into advertising.

Perhaps that career helped him prepare for using the simple, resonant language of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Michelle H. Martin, a professor at the University of Washington who studies children's literature, says The Very Hungry Caterpillar's writing helps little kids grasp concepts like numbers and the days of the week. ("On Monday he ate through one apple. But he was still hungry. On Tuesday he ate through two pears, but he was still hungry.")

And the book builds literacy by gently guiding toddlers toward unfamiliar words. For example, Martin says, when Saturday comes around and the hungry caterpillar binges on "one piece of chocolate cake, one ice-cream cone, one pickle, one slice of Swiss cheese, one slice of salami, one lollipop, one piece of cherry pie, one sausage, one cupcake, and one slice of watermelon," words like "salami" and "Swiss cheese" might be new to 3-year-olds already familiar with ice cream and lollipops.

Martin and other experts suggest that children have 1,000 books read to them before they begin kindergarten. Repeated readings of the same book count toward the total.

Some parents may feel as though they've read The Very Hungry Caterpillar at least a thousand times. But the repetitive language makes it easy and fun for children to "read" the book with their parents.

Carle wanted The Very Hungry Caterpillar to serve as a literary cocoon for children getting ready for kindergarten. It's intended for children, as they prepare to leave the warmth and safety of home for school, to identify with beautiful butterflies.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

One of the most beloved picture books in the world is turning 50...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERIC CARLE: (Reading) In the light of the moon, a little egg lay on a leaf.

MARTIN: ..."The Very Hungry Caterpillar," read there by author Eric Carle. Since the book's publication in 1969, it has sold almost 50 million copies, been translated into over 60 languages, adapted to television stage and song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR SONG")

MATT REVER: (Singing) I'm a caterpillar. I'm a caterpillar. I'm very hungry...

MARTIN: NPR's Neda Ulaby has more.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: The caterpillar in Eric Carle's illustrations is a fuzzy squiggle, with emerald eyes and an oval, vermillion head. He nearly started as a very hungry worm, but a very clever editor made the author change it. Today, Eric Carle is almost 90, too frail for an interview, but there's a 2012 online video of Carle reading the book.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARLE: (Reading) On Saturday, he ate through one piece of chocolate cake, one ice-cream cone, one pickle, one slice of Swiss cheese, one slice of salami, one lollipop, one...

ULABY: The lollipop, the salami and the caterpillar shine on the page. They're collages of layered and painted tissue paper. Michelle Martin is a professor at the University of Washington who studies children's literature. She says the author's simple, resonant language helps kids grasp concepts like numbers and the days of the week and unfamiliar words. Martin recently read the book with her 4-year-old niece.

MICHELLE MARTIN: And when she got to salami, it stopped her because, you know, she knew about sausage, she knew about hot dogs, but she didn't know what salami was.

ULABY: That's literacy-building. Eric Carle wanted his book to evoke the joy he remembered as a child making art with big paint brushes and bright colors and walking through nature with his dad. But Carle's immigrant family moved from the U.S. back home to Germany in the 1930s because his mother was homesick. His childhood was defined by the violence of World War II and physical punishment by teachers. As a young man, Carle returned to the U.S. and worked in advertising before switching to picture books. He wanted, he said, to make childhood sweeter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARLE: (Reading) On Wednesday, he ate three plums. But he was still hungry.

LIAM CICHOWICZ: Three plums.

ULABY: Childhood is sweeter for a 3-year-old named Liam Cichowicz (ph), thanks to "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" and his very patient dad.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: He ate through how many strawberries?

CICHOWICZ: Four strawberries.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: But he was still hungry.

ULABY: Little kids can stick their fingers through holes in the book's pages, as if a caterpillar tunneled through the story. It makes the book a bridge between a book and a toy. Eric Carle wanted "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" to be a literary cocoon for a child getting ready for kindergarten, with a happy ending.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) He was a beautiful butterfly.

ULABY: As in this recent video version, "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" tells little kids they can fly.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.