On Its 50th Anniversary, an Expert Discusses the Enduring Appeal of The Very Hungry Caterpillar
In the realm of children's literature, The Very Hungry Caterpillar is pretty much la crème de la crème.
Standing tall alongside classics like Goodnight Moon and Where the Wild Things Are, Eric Carle's seminal work about a caterpillar's journey through metamorphosis is essentially required childhood reading. And the numbers prove it. Since 1969, it has sold almost 50 million copies around the world, in more than 62 languages. Even now, a copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar is sold somewhere in the world every 30 seconds.
This week marked the 50th anniversary of the book, a milestone that's inspired us to examine its enduring appeal.
To find out what it is about The Very Hungry Caterpillar that manages to transcend time, The Atlantic spoke with Michelle Martin, the Beverly Cleary Professor for Children and Youth Services at the University of Washington's Information School.
It's Martin's belief that a big part of why both kids and parents love The Very Hungry Caterpillar is because it's an educational book that doesn't feel like an educational book. "It teaches something, but the best children's books teach without kids knowing that they're learning something," she explained. "You learn the days of the week. You learn colors. You learn the fruits. You learn junk-food names. In the end, you learn a little bit about nutrition, too. But most importantly, it's never "in your face."
And then there's the art, which is simultaneously whimsical, sophisticated, and approachable.
Martin points out that Carle uses bright colors and techniques like finger painting and overlapping paper cutouts that feel familiar to young readers. "Kids think, ‘Oh, I could do that!'" she noted, adding that the sun in The Very Hungry Caterpillar, even has a smiley face. And the "unusual" interactive elements like holes in the pages where the caterpillar has eaten make reading the picture book a particularly memorable experience for children.
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Overall, The Very Hungry Caterpillar has aged spectacularly well, which is why Martin told The Atlantic that she expects it to be around for another 50 years or more. "All those things are still around, that the caterpillar encounters," she says. "And kids are always going to need to learn the days of the week."