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Last Updated: Tuesday, 26 July 2005, 11:11 GMT 12:11 UK
Counting on the Caterpillar
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News

Child with book
A clear favourite with children... and the US president

It's said to have sold a copy for every minute it's been in publication and now the film rights have been sold for a seven-figure sum. So what sets The Very Hungry Caterpillar apart from the thousands of other charming children's books?

"Waan, tooo, foooor, five! Six, seven, ate, nine tin! Big fat caterpillar!"

Now call me a doting dad, but the minor fact that my 23-month-old daughter has a blind spot for the number three is a mere temporary obstacle.

But as we try to find out what happened to it, she has in her hands a little helper: a dozen or so pages of one of the finest children's works of our age: Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

It's said that one copy a minute has been sold since it was released in 1969. George Bush is said to rank as one of its most avid fans; film and TV rights have just been bought for 1m, and it's rumoured to be part of a package of books the UK government is to send to every toddler.

But in a publishing world besieged by children's titles, what makes this one so special?

First there's time...

It is the story of life itself: of how a little egg, on a leaf by the light of the moon, becomes a little hungry caterpillar, who becomes a very big caterpillar and, finally, transforms into a beautiful butterfly.

From caterpillar to butterfly - an amazing lifecycle
Is that it? Well, no. Not by all the nibbles of pickles and pieces of cherry pie.

Eric Carle's gift to children is a manual for the youngest of minds.

Caterpillar tells our children about time - his egg appears at night and is born under the morning sun. Each page takes us into a new day, and the final pages introduce the concept of distant time as we wait for Caterpillar to reappear from his cocoon.

There is the physics of movement and space and the psychological identification with place, home and belonging.

Then, as the toddlers become more self-aware, there is the chemistry of bodily functions as Caterpillar over-indulges on the salami and gets an upset tummy.

Carle's visual dictionary is a riot of colour, but also an astonishingly controlled use of form that mirrors nature itself. His collage-like style succeeds where other children's illustrators fail because he shows the budding artist how a few circles, squares and repeated sequences can lead to endless possibilities.

...maths and chemistry

And then there is the counting.

Each day Caterpillar eats one more piece of food than the day before. Each piece of fruit has a little hole through which little fingers pass.

The genius of The Very Hungry Caterpillar is in the message not to children but to parents
The next number is carefully introduced on pages that become larger as the number increases, emphasising the first fundamental law of mathematics.

I will never forget my daughter's expression on the day she first grasped this key concept, that you can place two separate units together and, in doing so, create something greater than before.

All of a sudden, as with all children, it opened up a world of possibilities (although she kept us amused for months with her conclusion that one is one, two is two and anything bigger is logically "TWOOOOOOOOO!")

The genius of The Very Hungry Caterpillar does not however come down to its counting or its art or even the story-telling for children. It is his message for new parents.

Like the Caterpillar, our children are embarking on a long road through life. Today, they are small and at the mercy of the world but eager to consume all around them.

So Eric's message is simple: keep stuffing them full of the important things in life and, with a little luck and a lot of hard work, they too will grow up to be butterflies every bit as magnificent as the one that flies away at the end of his tale.

Your comments

It seemed perfectly normal to my daughter that, after eating his way through so many things, the hungry caterpillar finished it off with a "stomach cake"....a truly wonderful and engaging piece of work.
Ellen's & Will's Dad, S.Cambs

I cannot believe that I forgot this book! My abiding memory is within its simplicity. In fact, I'm fairly confident that most people of my age (I'm 32) would have been introduced to this book as a child. What probably makes this more enchanting is it cannot be hijacked by an older audience a la Harry Potter.
Patrick O'Brien, Reading, England

i love this story and i think that it is great
Fay Hill , kidbrooke

I've read The Hungry Caterpillar to my 5-year-old son dozens of times. It's been one of his -- our! -- favorites since he was 2 years old. I don't think we'll ever outgrow it.
Evan, Paris

As a lover of the book and a new parent to a 12 day old baby daughter, who already owns a copy of the Very Hungry Caterpillar, this article made me cry (something I understand us new mums are prone to anyway!). It is nice to think of the hope personified in that very special little book.
Fiona White, Nottingham

The story is incredibly simple and unique as it encapsulates the children as it is a true story on how a caterpillar becomes a butterfly and I know when I have read the story to children I work with they all are so excited when they see a caterpillar in real life and somewhat niavely expect to see the transformation from a caterpillar to a butterfly in the short time as in the book - the book is a must for all children and highly reccomendable for a short bedtime story.
Richard, Leeds

I love this book, it is absolutely brilliant. I am intending to buy a copy so that when I have children they too can read and enjoy it as much as I did
Tabitha Sutton, Bristol

Is it an ironic tribute to the simplicity of the book that the writer's explanation of it requires far more words than the book has?
Ed, London

That brings back very hapy memories to this 32 year old who still remembers it vividly!
Loz, Manchester, UK.

My two daughters have both loved this book as a bed time read. My youngest daughter, who is two and a half, knows the story off by heart and will shout out key words such as 'moon', 'egg', and my personal favorite 'melon water slice' (instead of 'slice of water melon' for those who haven't read this great book). It has given my children hours of enjoyment and deserves to sell in even greater numbers.
Neil Stockley, Altrincham, Cheshire, UK

As a child I loved this book, when my first child was born this was the first present I bought her. I remember vividly reading this book in a class room 30 something years ago. I hope my daugter and son get the same wonderfull feelings when they eventually read this story to their children. Mr Carle I Thank You.
Debbie, Canada

We've been reading this book to our son (12 months old) for many months now and he loves turning the different size pages, over and over again ! It is great in that is has so many different learning points in one neat little book. Days of the week, colours, a variety of foods, counting, to name the obvious ones. Well done Eric ! I can't imagine what the movie will be like, but we'll look out for it. Thank you.
Karina De Silva, Woking, UK

Made me want to cry reading about this. I've got real contact problems with my 11 & 13 year old daughters and they used to absolutely love this book. We got many hours of pleasure from it. Wonderful innocence !
Paul, Sutton, Surrey

I love The Very Hungry Caterpillar, but in adulthood my love of the book stems from its condoning of blatant consumerism. Buying things makes you beautiful and everyone will like you. A motto for my '80s generation. Turning out gay with the shopping gene (a double whammy), this is the book that set me up for life. Viva the Caterpillar!
Daniel Hale, Leeds, UK

It's got to be the holes...... As a child this was the most exciting book available, and I and many other parents have made sure that it becomes a firm favorite with our own children.
Louise Slater, Hitchin, UK

I remember this book well... racing to the childrens section in the library with the "cool chairs" every week when my mum dragged me to get her next installments of Mills and Boon, to find the book with the holes in the pages and the huge watermelon picture. This book will live with children and adults forever and for me, will be waiting on the shelf in the nursery for my baby when it comes into the world in February 06. A delight to read, for me even now - I cant wait, storytelling has never been so magical.
Claire Thomas, Basingstoke

Our eldest who is five still loves this book, i love to think back to his first attempts to say "alami" and now his 18 month old sister is interested in the book too, just how a good story book should be, passed along and enjoyed by new readers
david gore, liverpool

Having had a copy of this book hanging around since my wife's childhood, I had no idea it was so popular with the rest of the world until I read this article. Obviously I knew it was popular with my two children (woe betide me if I ever tried to skip a page or a number to speed up the bedtime process!) as they still love it and are 6 and 4 respectively.
Greg Mortimer, Fleet, UK

I am fully underwhelmed by this rather pretentious article. So its a book for kids.. an old one. I learned to count before it ever came out so its hardly essential. But, hey, George Dubya likes it and apprently still reads it. That says it all I think. Does the BBC website really need spacefillers like this?
Alex, London UK

I had this wonderful book as a child, as did my wife, and our two daughters were introduced to it as soon as they took an interest in books. Definitely a firm family favourite, and we now have a video of the story as well, which includes a number of other wonderful Carle stories we never even knew existed. I had never thought of the moral element beyond the counting practice, but as my daughters worked their way through a selection of fruit to reach a slice of salami, a pickle, a lollipop, a piece of chocolate cake and an ice cream, perhaps the message is also 'you only get treats if you eat all the things that are good for you beforehand'!
Phil, Farnborough, Hants

I loved this book as a kid. I remember our copy was rather dog-earred and well loved and still sites on my parents bookshelves! I have bought a copy of this (along with a toy caterpillar) for my 2 month old son. Perhaps that'll be his bedtime book for tonight!
Rachel, Bracknell, Berkshire

The "Hungry Caterpillar" is visually stimulating, the range of colours are exciting and interesting. Most importantly, it is fun and a book that children want to read.
Dan Cox, Rushden, UK

Have you hever tried walking round a supermarket trying to match the food to the book! "Mummeeee I've found the orangeeez" and "Look Mummeee sun cream??!" - For everybody who hasn't read the book, don't panic! Sun cream isn't the staple diet of every caterpiller. It is just that my 2yr old keeps getting that and ice-cream confused!!
Joy Cassidy, Armadale, Scotland

This is a magical book. The first time I really saw my son learning something abstract, was when he read it along with me one night. He was still years off being able to read for himself, but our repeated story telling meant that he'd learned it off by heart.
Gareth Marlow, Cambridge, UK

A brilliant story for my children that is never far away during the day or night ( well worn and torn )
Marc Jones, York

As a infants teacher I used this wonderful story many times. The follow-up work was always quite incredible. I believe I saw the making of many little butterflies. 26th July 2005
Ruth Marie Stuart, Redditch, England

Quite simply a wonderful book ! Its up there with Cat in the Hat - and not a Harry Potter in sight ! My daughter of 13 months has loved it since the age of 4-5 months. I don't think I or my wife will ever tire of reading it to her. I'm off searching Google now to see if I can find more info on the author.
Paul Buckle, Leeds

My three-year-old son, James, loves it and we have read it time and time again over the past couple of years. It's one of his favourites and I get as much out of it as he does. The day will come when he doesn't want to read The Very Hund=gry Caterpillar with me anymore and a sad day that will be. A Simple but brilliant book.
Mark, Enfield, England

I just want to run out and get this book for my grandson - and for me!
Anne Stocker, Cobble Hill, BC, Canada

Our just-turned-two year old son, Luc, is a huge fan. His favourite parts are finding the caterpillar crawling out the back of the different fruits and reciting (in perfect order and with no omissions) the list of foods he eats on Saturday. The latter trick is particularly impressive given that, like Mr Casciani's daughter, Luc has yet to see the value of the numbers 3, 5 and 8, when counting to ten!
Joanne Edes, Manila, Philippines

I'm glad it's book is still in print. I remember reading this book as a child, any thing i can remember from then must have ad a a fairly profound effect of me.
jon ayers, swansea

I have such fond memories of this book that I bought a copy for my first child while I was still pregnant. Pity they don't do the Scratch And Sniff version any more :-(
Lisa T, Cambridge, UK

I am 37 years old and saw this book again in a bookstore about a year ago, and had to get it for my 2 year old as I remembered how I loved it when I was small. I don't know why it's so popular, maybe it's because it's so colourful and the beautiful picture at the end, but it certainly holds my little girl's attention.
Mandy, Wiltshire, UK

My 2 year old Son loves this book, and I'm not allowed to interupt him when he tells me what the caterpiller ate on Saturday. The colours are great, and it's easy for the kids to understand.
Mark, Brighton

I think the Hungry Caterpiller is a fantastic book. I used to read it when i was younger and I can still remember it to this very day!!
carolyn , chester-le-street

The Very Hungry Caterpillar was one of my favourite books as a child and I remember very clearly why. It wasn't to do with the 'physics of movement and space and the psychological identification with place, home and belonging'. Nor was it to do with the 'chemistry of bodily functions' or maths. It was quite simply that it looked wondrously, magically alive. The caterpillar appeared to crawl through a 3 dimensional hole it had munched through the pages of the book, and as you followed it through, each new page revealed the most glorious, colourful, vibrant, delicious pictures. Even now, when I look at the cover of that book a feeling stirs reminiscent of the peculiar wonder and intense curiosity of discovering the world for the first time.
Vicky France, Belmont, Surrey

I prefer The Gruffalo, to be honest. And so does my daughter.
Andrew Cutting, Strasbourg, France

Thanks! Your article made me smile -- no small matter in the never ending series of bombings, deaths and general chaos perpetrated by our species on a daily basis.
Curt Carpenter, Dallas,Tx USA

This is one of the first books I was able to read on my own as a child and I loved it! Now as an adult I still love the book and get a lot of joy from reading it to the children in my family. The Very Hungry Caterpiller makes a lovely gift and is such fun.
Claire Holland, Sheffield

My children love The Very Hungry Caterpiller story, out of all the books they have that is the one they like the most.
ZED, Cardiff

This was one of my favourite books as a child, My Dad would keep us amused for hours on end by taking a huuuuuge breath and attempting to recite all the items of food on the final page as quickly as possible. I've still got my copy of this wonderful book, and I'm 22 now!
Lucy, uk

Eric Carle is a genius. His stories are so simple yet so clever and so beautifully illustrated. From the Very Hungry Caterpillar to Papa, Please get the Moon for Me he has captured the imagination of our kids and we love reading his stories to them.
Alick, London

I love this book and have bought it for every child that I know as a gift. From reading your article I have probably assisted with it's sales somewhat over the years. I have still got my copy and I'm thirty. Other than Alvin and the Strange Umbrella and my picture dictionary, it is the only book I have from my childhood. Great stuff.
Fiona Mackay, Lytham

What a lovely interpretation of the book - always one of my favourites. I have never been very good at maths, so it is very reassuring to know that all I need is one, two and twooooooooooo! Thanks
Annette Walters, Manchester

I am 34 and I read this book the other day after a very very long time! I was amazed that such a simple story had me so enthralled as a child (It did this time I read it too!)
A Peckish Caterpillar,

My eldest daughter read this book, now her daughter has it A truly lovely story for lttle ones
sharon adams , LONDON

Both my children were raised on this book. Its so simple and yet pure genius in its concept. It teaches children so much in such a manner that they learn something new with every read.
Marcus Booth, Bristol

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