Searching for truth in a picture book – Part C

Cocoon or chrysalis – what’s in a name?

In my previous post Searching for purpose in a picture book – Part B  I conducted this poll:

If you didn’t participate in the poll, but would like to, have a go now.

What did you answer?

If you are familiar with this book

The Very Hungry Caterpillar

you may have chosen both statements as correct along with one third of respondents in the poll.

In his book Eric Carle writes that

“He (the caterpillar) built a small house, called a cocoon, around himself. He stayed inside for more than two weeks. Then he nibbled a hole in the cocoon, pushed his way out and . . . he was a beautiful butterfly!”

If you either read or wrote one of the hundreds of thousands of articles about “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”, or about butterflies and caterpillars in general, published on the internet, you probably also identified those two statements as correct.

butterfly cocoons Cocoon to butterfly

But if you did, just like Eric Carle, you’d be wrong!

A caterpillar that undergoes metamorphosis to become a butterfly does not spin a cocoon and does not nibble its way out. The fully grown caterpillar moults into a chrysalis and, when ready, it splits the chrysalis to emerge as a butterfly.

Monarch butterfly

For a series of beautiful photos showing the last moult of a caterpillar as it becomes a chrysalis, and another series showing a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, click here.

Or watch this video by Strang Entertainment showing the caterpillar becoming a chrysalis

or this one by Neil Bromhall showing a butterfly emerging

A moth’s caterpillar does spin a cocoon and does nibble its way out (think of a silkworm cocoon and moth).

silkworms24a

This video shows silkworm caterpillars nibbling hungrily away at the mulberry leaves. Then when a caterpillar is fully grown (about 2 mins in) it spins it cocoon.

Compare the process with that of a monarch caterpillar forming a chrysalis. It is a very different thing.

It is impossible to rely on the information provided by many of the websites to guide one’s use of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” when working with children.

For example, on the website Math & Reading Help, these suggestions are made:

“Many Teaching Moments

Though it’s a very brief picture book with sparse and simple language, The Very Hungry Caterpillar conveys an impressive array of wisdom and lessons for children. Most prominent among these is the life cycle of a caterpillar. The caterpillar in the story begins his life as an egg, then progresses through the larva stage. The time in his cocoon is his chrysalis stage, followed by his adult appearance as a butterfly.

This is a factually accurate portrayal of how lepidopterans (sic), an order of insects including butterflies and moths, grow and change. It teaches your child to understand this biological process. When you encounter a caterpillar, you can refer to The Very Hungry Caterpillar and ask your child about what it’s doing, since it’s likely to be looking for food. Likewise, you can reference the book when you see a butterfly, noting how it’s a caterpillar that has emerged from its cocoon after its transformation.”

You have already picked out the inaccuracies in that statement, haven’t you?

Another website, Primary upd8 also suggests using the book for teaching children about the butterfly’s life cycle, and look how it promotes itself!

Uks most exciting science resource

This misinformation is so common and insidious that Jacqui, writing on the Monarch Butterfly New Zealand Trust website, said

“When speaking to teachers I often find raised eyebrows when I explain that butterflies’ larvae do not make cocoons. The teachers refer to Eric Carle’s book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, where he refers to a ‘cocoon’.

Why does this misinformation persist, and why did Eric Carle use misleading statements in his book?

Does it matter if children (and adults) think that butterflies hatch out of cocoons?

Eric Carle didn’t seem to think it did.

Unfortunately I was unable to locate for confirmation an article I’d read years ago. This article, if I recall correctly, reported a response of Carle’s to children enquiring why he had used “cocoon” rather than “chrysalis”. His response was one of disdain. What did it matter?

If you search Eric Carle’s current website for cocoon, this is the response you will receive:

Why a cocoon

While Carle concedes that most butterflies come from a chrysalis, he triumphantly states that one rare genus pupates in a cocoon! I confirmed this with the Encyclopaedia Britannica .

Does that one rare instance let Carle off the hook?

I think not.

In her article on the Monarch Butterfly New Zealand Trust website in response to Carle’s statement, Jacqui says

“Actually, the Parnassians pupate inside cocoon-like webs usually constructed among leaves or in rubbish piles.” (my underlining)

So not quite true and not quite off the hook Eric Carle.

In addition, although I couldn’t find the article I was searching for, I found this from Scholastic which shows that Eric was aware of the error and declined to change it.

“By the way, Eric already knows that a caterpillar emerges from a chrysalis, not a cocoon! So don’t bother writing to tell him. Eric explains how the famous “mistake” crept into the book:

“My editor contacted a scientist, who said that it was permissible to use the word cocoon. Poetry over science. It simply would not have worked to say, ‘Come out of your chrysalis!’ If we can accept giants tied down by dwarfs, genies in bottles, and knights who attack windmills, why can’t a caterpillar come out of a cocoon?”

There are many points for discussion in that statement:

  • His editor contacted a scientist – What sort of scientist? I would say one with questionable credentials or entomological knowledge.
  • Permissible to use the word “cocoon” – Why? For what purpose?
  • Poetry over science!!!!!!! Chrysalis is a beautiful word, specific to the butterfly. What could be more poetic than that? Poetic and scientific! What a great combination!
  • Why wouldn’t it have worked to say “Come out of your chrysalis”?
  • A caterpillar doesn’t come out of a cocoon. A caterpillar spins a cocoon; then a moth comes out of it; not a butterfly! (Except for the rare Parnassian butterfly.)

Is this issue, as Carle suggests, the same as giants and dwarfs, genies in bottles and knights who attack windmills?

What do you think?

Do picture book authors have a responsibility in imparting factual information to children?

Is it okay to choose “poetry over science”?

In his talk Reading and obligation (reviewed in an earlier post) Neil Gaiman said that

“We writers – and especially writers for children, but all writers – have an obligation to our readers: it’s the obligation to write true things, especially important when we are creating tales of people who do not exist in places that never were – to understand that truth is not in what happens but what it tells us about who we are. Fiction is the lie that tells the truth”

Not quite the same thing I know, but an obligation nonetheless?

Though not there now, when I first looked at the Reading Rockets interview with Eric Carle this quote was prominently displayed beside it:

 “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more you learn, the more places you’ll go.”

— Dr. Seuss

A bit ironic, don’t you think?

How much of the responsibility should remain with the reader to verify the correctness/accuracy of what is read? How does one go about that?

I have always been a believer in the “question everything” approach. “Don’t believe everything you read,” I say. But sometimes knowing what to accept and what to question can be a difficult thing.

I’d love to know what you think. Please leave a comment in the comment box.

Here are links to some of the articles I referred to in this post:

Monarch Butterfly Website

Reading Rockets

Eric Carle

Encyclopaedia Britannica

Scholastic

Ask.com

Google.com

Neil Gaiman lecture in full: Reading and obligation

This post is the third in a series

Searching for meaning in a picture book – Part A

Searching for purpose in a picture book – Part B

 

7 thoughts on “Searching for truth in a picture book – Part C

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

  2. macjam47

    I agree, Eric Carle should have researched the life of a caterpillar from it’s humble beginnings to becoming a beautiful butterfly. To me chrysalis is a beautiful word and worthy of a beautiful butterfly. (I love butterflies and have read a lot about them).

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    1. Norah Post author

      I agree. While I love this and his other books, I am disappointed he didn’t bother to get this right. The poetry for a butterfly is in its chrysalis, for a moth it’s in its cocoon. One is not more poetic than the other, each has its own right and place for beauty. 🙂
      Thanks for going back and reading and commenting on all these posts, Michelle. I really appreciate it. 🙂

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      Reply
  3. Bec

    As always very interesting, Nor. It’s disappointing that a misconception has been so perpetuated by one decision to favour “poetry over science”. Perhaps when there is the sense that a book is not just entertainment, but is educational too, and there is a false claim built into it – there should be a warning label. But I suppose in the midst of the so called “culture wars” over education at the moment it may bring into question “whose truth”. Fortunately, the difference between a cocoon and chrysalis are not as emotionally charged as evolution and climate change. I wonder though if books like this have the unintentional impact of creating critical thinkers, as children who read it will (hopefully) learn in time that the story was built on something false. Maybe it will be a reminder to consult appropriate experts, and weight different sources of information based on what they are and their purpose. Sorry for the unstructured thoughts! But thanks for writing the fodder for them 🙂

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    1. Norah Post author

      Hi Bec,
      Thank you for your very insightful and thought-provoking comment. I had thought about this issue (of misconception and truth) in relation to evolution as well, though hadn’t gone the climate change route, although can see how the link can be made.
      I’m delighted that you raised the notion of critical thinking for indeed that is where this series of articles is leading and was the impetus for writing them in the first place. The next post in this series, with a working title “Searching for power in a picture book” will deal with the most powerful use of the text “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” in developing critical literacy and critical thinking skills. While we often (or I often anyway) say that reading is power, even more powerful is being able to read and think critically – perhaps they are the super power!
      I hope you join me for the next post in this series and share your thoughts as you have done so well here.

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  4. Annecdotist

    Very interesting! I love butterflies but probably wouldn’t have picked up the inaccuracy, so it’s not only unhelpful to children but unhelpful to adults. Why perpetuate misinformation? Might be acceptable if a cocoon were a word already familiar to young children, but I doubt it would be. A lost opportunity for painless early learning about science.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for your comment and support, Anne. It’s amazing how pervasive this inaccuracy; and how little concern there seems to be when supporting it. I wonder what would have happened to the flat Earth theory if “flat” was considered more poetic than “round”!

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