Searching for meaning in a picture book — Part A

Do you recognise this book?

The Very Hungry Caterpillar

Chances are you do.

According to the website of the author Eric Carle, since its publication in 1969 it has been published in over 50 languages and more than 33 million copies have been sold worldwide. It ranks highly in the Wikipedia List of best-selling books.

Most primary schools, preschools and kindergartens would have numerous copies in their libraries with a copy in most classrooms as well as in teachers’ private collections. Most homes with young children would have a copy in their storybook collection.


In addition to the books, many of those schools, classrooms and homes would have some of the associated merchandise; including toys, games, puzzles, posters and colouring books, which are now available.

When I typed ‘the very hungry caterpillar’ into the Google search bar about 5,640,000 results were listed in 0.33 seconds!

 Google search the very hungry caterpillar

There are activities, lesson plans, printables, videos, and advertisements for merchandise. There is a plethora of suggestions for using the book as a teaching resource, including counting, days of the week and sequencing.

I think you would be hard pressed to find someone that hasn’t at least heard of the book. That is quite an impact, wouldn’t you say?

For a book to have done so well, it must have a lot going for it. And it does.

There are many things I like about this book, including:

  • The bright, colourful, collages with immediate appeal
  • The natural flow and rhythm of the language making it easy to read, dramatize and recall
  • The sequence of numbers and days encouraging children to predict and join in with the reading and retelling
  • The match between the illustrations and the text supporting beginning readers as they set out upon their journey into print
  • The simple narrative structure with an identifiable beginning, a complication in the middle with which most children can empathise (being ill from overeating) and a “happy” resolution with the caterpillar turning into a beautiful butterfly.

Reading to children

 Nor and Bec reading

Sharing of picture books with children from a very young age has a very powerful effect upon their learning.

There are many benefits to both parent and child of a daily shared reading session.


It can be seen as a special time of togetherness, of bonding; of sharing stories and ideas. It can be a quiet and calming time; a time to soothe rough edges and hurt feelings; a time for boisterous fun and laughter; or a time for curiosity, inquiry, imagination and wonder.

Whatever the time, it is always a special time for a book
; and all the while, children are learning language.

8-12-2013 7-38-33 PM

© Bernadette Drent. Used with permission.

They are hearing the sounds and rhythm of their language. They are being exposed to new vocabulary, sentence structures, concepts and ideas. They are learning important understandings that will support them on their journey into literacy e.g. they are learning that the language of a book differs from oral language and that the words in a book always stay the same.

They begin to realise that it is the little black squiggly marks that carry the message, and they may even start to recognise some words.

Robert 2

Many of these, and other, features make “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” suitable for incorporation in an early childhood curriculum, for example:

The Very Hungry Caterpillar

  • Literature appreciation – love of language, knowledge of story, interest in books
  • Reading – the clear, simple and predictable text make it an easy first reader
  • Maths – counting and sequencing the numbers, sequencing the days of the week
  • Visual arts – learning about collage and composition of a picture
  • Philosophical inquiry —sharing interpretations and discussing feelings about the story, asking questions raised including the ‘big questions’ of life


Eric Carle, in an interview with Reading rockets, describes it as a book of hope. He says:

You little, ugly, little, insignificant bug: you, too, can grow up to be a beautiful, big butterfly and fly into the world, and unfold your talents.”

He goes on to explain that,

I didn’t think of this when I did the book, but I think that is the appeal of the book.”

But I’m not going to let him have the last word!

While “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” has always been one of my very favourite picture books, I do have some misgivings about the impact that this book has had.

In future posts I will share what I consider to be some limitations of the text, and what I consider to be the most powerful use of all.

What do you think?

What appeals to you about this book?

What questions does it raise for you?

Please share your ideas. I look forward to hearing what you think.

14 thoughts on “Searching for meaning in a picture book — Part A

  1. roweeee

    Hi Norah,
    We frequently read this book when my children were smaller. My memories of it were as a funny book because he’s this greedy caterpillar eating all these fattening sometimes foods is such bulk that you think he’s going to explode and I think everyone relates to how he overdoes it and gets a tummy ache. Who hasn’t done that? However, there is method in his greed. He suddenly turns into a beautiful butterfly and when we reached that part of the book, I flapped the book like a butterfly, which I’m sure is hardly unique.
    I think many of us would like to change from being plain and ordinary into a beautiful butterfly! Wouldn’t it be great!
    xx Rowena

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Norah Post author

      The story of the butterfly’s metamorphosis is one of hope, and yes! Wouldn’t it be great!
      Thanks for going back to read an older post. I’m pleased you enjoyed it. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Which came first – the chicken or the duckling? | Norah Colvin

  3. macjam47

    I always felt the message here was more important than the accuracy of the butterfly’s life journey. Many children’s books expound upon the idea that everyone has beauty, whether in physical appearance or inwardly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Norah Post author

      It is a beautiful message, I agree. It’s not unlike the transformation of Marnie in my flash fiction stories, which I know you have been following and commenting on as well. Thank you. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Searching for truth in a picture book – Part C | Norah Colvin

  5. maryanne @ mama smiles

    This is one of my favorite books – we actually own TWO copies of it!

    I love the transformation from a caterpillar to a butterfly, the counting, all the different foods the caterpillar eats, and the holes in the pages! I think it may have been the first picture book I ever saw with cut-outs in the pages!


    1. nco04662 Post author

      Hi MaryAnne,
      Thank you for your comment. I can hear the excitement for this book in your words.
      It interesting that you mention the cut-outs as they seem so common place now. I’m not sure in which book I may have seen them first. I’ll be talking more about the transformation from caterpillar to butterfly in a future post. I hope you pop back to see what I’ve written then.
      Best wishes.



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