Reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar has been a rite of passage for small children (and their parents) for 50 years now.
This book has been a bestseller ever since it first came out in 1969, with more than 50 million copies sold and 62 different translations. Which means it must have been a bedtime stories billions of times – a mind-boggling thought. It has certainly racked up a good few reads in our house alone.
The man behind it, Eric Carle, has gone on to become one of the most successful children’s author-illustrators of all time, thanks to his joyful collage-style artwork and ability to tackle first concepts and stories about the natural world in a fun and accesible way. His other classics include The Bad-Tempered Ladybird, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? and The Mixed-Up Chameleon.
So why does the 89-year-old think his simple story based around the life cycle of a humble caterpillar and his amazing appetite continues to appeal to so many young readers?
“I have come to believe most children can identify with the helpless, small, insignificant caterpillar, and they rejoice with it when it turns into a beautiful butterfly,” says the American author and illustrator. “I think it’s a message of hope. It says: ‘I too can grow up. I too can unfold my wings and fly into the world’.”
And what inspired him to write this quirky story? “One day I was innocently punching holes with a hole puncher into a stack of paper, and I thought of a bookworm and so I created a story called A Week with Willi the Worm,” he reveals.
“Then later my editor, Ann Beneduce, who didn’t like the idea of a worm, suggested a caterpillar and I said ‘Butterfly!’. And the rest is history.”
To celebrate the iconic book’s 50th birthday, we asked Eric to share some of the stories, characters and authors who have inspired him over his long career. Here are his choices…
My favourite childhood read
I didn’t have many books as a child, but I have very fond memories of sitting on my father’s lap while he read the Sunday Funny pages to me. I enjoyed Mickey Mouse and Flash Gordon. But it is the closeness with my father, the connection we shared that made the most lasting impact.
I feel strongly that by reading with your child, by the simple act of holding them close while you read to them, you let them know that you care for them, have time for them and love them. Then sharing a book becomes more than pages with words and pictures.
The book I admire
One of my favourite books for children that I did not write is Leo the Late Bloomer, written by Robert Kraus and illustrated by Jose Aruego. I love how this book, in a very simple and straightforward manner, embraces the fact that we all learn and develop in our own particular way. I also love the illustrations!
The authors and illustrators I like best
I admire the work of Leo Lionni, Maurice Sendak, Jose Aruego, Lisbeth Zwerger, Mitsumasa Anno, Ezra Jack Keats, Jerry Pinkney, Shaun Tan, Peter Sis and Chris Van Allsburg. Each has an individual and distinctive style and approach, and speaks from his or her soul.
My most loved children’s book character
Leo the Late Bloomer. I was a late bloomer just like Leo and have identified with the main character in this delightful story.
My personal favourite
Of my own work, Do You Want To Be My Friend? But there is a special place in my heart for The Very Hungry Caterpillar and I’m very happy to be celebrating the caterpillar’s 50th birthday this year.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar: 50th Anniversary Collectors’ Edition by Eric Carle is available now. £12.99 (hardback), Penguin
Discover the favourite fives of other well-known children’s authors…