Revisiting The Very Hungry Caterpillar

Recently, in a post introducing the idea of S.M.A.G. (Society of Mutual Admiration and Gratitude), I reflected upon my blogging journey and the gradual growth of readership and development of a S.M.A.G. over time. With this reflection came the realisation that many have missed earlier posts. That realisation, along with a comment by Sarah Brentyn, prompted me to share a few of my favourites.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar

The first posts I will revisit are from a series about using Eric Carle’s picture book The Very Hungry Caterpillar for educational purposes in an early childhood setting.

The series of four posts;

  • explores benefits of reading picture books to children
  • questions the place of factual information in fictional texts, and
  • suggests the importance of teaching critical literacy from a young age.

Nor and Bec reading

I will provide a brief overview of each post. I would be delighted to have you  follow the links to read the posts in full.

Searching for meaning in a picture book — Part A

In this post I explained that sharing picture books with children has many benefits, including:

At home:

  • It can help strengthen the parent-child bond, becoming a special time of togetherness and of sharing stories and ideas.
  • It has a very positive effect upon their learning, helping them develop language, knowledge of print and books, and exposes them to new ideas and concepts.

8-12-2013 7-38-33 PM

In early childhood classrooms, The Very Hungry Caterpillar provides opportunities for work in many subject areas including:

  • Literature appreciation
  • Reading
  • Maths
  • Visual arts, and
  • Philosophical inquiry, but not Science (as I will explain later)

 

Searching for purpose in a picture book – Part B

In this post I discuss some purposes for using picture books and raise some questions about their content.

A sampling of purposes:

  • encourages a love of reading and books
  • develops vocabulary and knowledge of language
  • provides a link between the language of home and the language used in the wider community and in education
  • supports beginning readers
  • inspires imagination
  • provides opportunities to discuss feelings, emotions, ideas, responses
  • develops feelings of empathy, identification, recognition, hope
  • instils an appreciation of art

spiderswirl2

Some questions:

Do fictional picture books have a role, and do picture book authors have a responsibility, in imparting factual information in their books?

Does it matter:

  • that, although lions don’t live in jungles, they are often referred to as “King of the jungle” and appears in that setting in many stories?
  • if animals that don’t co-exist, for example penguins and polar bears, appear in stories together?
  • if the portrayal of animals in stories is not anatomically correct, for example spiders shown with legs joined to their abdomens rather than cephalothoraxes?

Do errors such as these influence children’s understanding of the world?

How should adults handle the misinformation when sharing books with children?

 

Searching for truth in a picture book – Part C

In this post I refer specifically to inaccuracies in The Very Hungry Caterpillar and the pervasiveness of the misconceptions, if not totally attributable to the book, then at least in part. I suggest how acknowledging the inaccuracy can help develop critical literacy.

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!”

Monarch butterfly

However, as this (hopefully correct) information from the Australian Museum shows, butterflies do not spin cocoons around themselves. Moths do. Some butterflies and skippers do form a silken shelter, but not a cocoon as in Carle’s picture book.

Unfortunately many articles found in an internet search share the same misinformation. I wonder how many adults grew up believing what Carle shared through his picture books. Even teachers have been surprised to learn that butterfly caterpillars do not spin cocoons.

In the original post I share some lovely videos related to butterfly and moth metamorphosis. It is worth taking a peek at them.

Does it matter if children (and adults) think that butterflies hatch out of cocoons? Eric Carle didn’t seem to think so. Do you?

Finding power in a picture book – the main event

In this post I argue that The Very Hungry Caterpillar has no place in a science lesson because of the misinformation contained therein: caterpillars do not eat many different foods and butterflies do not come out of cocoons.

ryanlerch_thinkingboy_outline

The greatest value of the book is as a tool for teaching critical literacy; for teaching children that just because something is in print, doesn’t make it true. It is also important to realise that misinformation is not restricted to picture books, and that they need to question all sources of information for the author’s credentials and purpose in writing.

I suggest that teachers and parents:

  • point out inaccuracies and inconsistencies
  • encourage children to evaluate what they are reading and hearing against what they already know
  • support children to verify the source of the information and to check it against other more authoritative/reliable sources
  • help children to recognise that every author has a purpose and to identify that purpose
  • invite children to ask questions about what they are reading and to interrogate the content
  • encourage them to question, question, question.

Eric Carle says “If we can accept giants tied down by dwarfs, genies in bottles, and knights who attack windmills, why can’t a caterpillar (sic) come out of a cocoon?”

 

What do you think? Do picture book authors have a responsibility to be accurate? Is a butterfly coming out of a cocoon in the same realm as giants tied down by dwarfs? Would we accept a child hatching out of an egg? What parts of a story should be based in reality and which parts can be imagined?

 “Why can’t a butterfly come out of a cocoon?” asks Eric.

Well, Eric, they just don’t.

Thank you

Thank you for reading. I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts about any of issues I have raised in these posts.

 

36 thoughts on “Revisiting The Very Hungry Caterpillar

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

  2. Charli Mills

    Great idea to revisit these posts! It furthers the discussion, too. After spending two weeks in a house with five children, I saw many of these points in action. They are definitely a reading household. And, they use inaccuracies to learn or explain. For example, the 7-year old, reading a book about horses told me that palominos were not really that color. She told me the real coloring, yet she enjoys the book with the inaccurate illustration and is confident in her own knowledge to say so!

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Charli, and I apologise for taking so long to respond.
      That’s an interesting example you share about palominos, and it’s great to see the use and love of reading in the home. I guess the difference between the palomino story and the caterpillar one, is that the 7-year old knew about palominos, either from real-life experiences or being told or perhaps looking at pictures. There are probably other 7-year olds who don’t know and don’t have it explained. The confidence she has in her knowledge and ability to recognise the inaccuracies is similar to how I described my students’ responses to the inaccuracies in The Hungry Caterpillar. If only all homes could be as enriched as the one you describe!
      Thanks for sharing. Another great example of critical literacy in action! 🙂

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  3. Sarah Brentyn

    I read your earlier posts about this but wanted to say I like Steven’s idea (having a quick “Hey! Did you know that…” would be a wonderful addition). I don’t think it matters much (if at all) that board books are silly. Carle has another book where a father climbs up a ladder to get the moon for his daughter. Do children believe then that they can reach the moon? I don’t think so. I think it’s because this topic (chrysalis / cocoon) is an already often confused one. It has no place in a science lesson, for sure, but I think it’s just fun kid lit. My children were reading very young and they read well above their grade level now and part of this is from books like this. Again, though, a “fun facts” in the back of the book would only add to the book’s value.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks Sarah for popping back with your thoughts, and support of Steven’s idea. It is a good one isn’t it? I agree with you that The Very Hungry Caterpillar is a great book to lead children into reading and to forming a love of books. i think I wrote quite a bit about that in my post. Your children are very lucky to such an enriched environment provided by a loving, supportive, literature-loving Mum! What a fabulous start you have given them.
      I was thinking of your prodigious speller when this came up as the word of the day recently http://www.wordsmith.org/words/floccinaucinihilipilification.html
      It’s quite a long word for something worthless. 🙂

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      1. Sarah Brentyn

        Aww, thanks. They do love reading. Though I should take a picture of all our bookshelves sometime. It’s ridiculous. I think they didn’t have a choice. 😉 They have a lit-loving dad, too.
        Haha! That IS a long word for something so worthless. (P.S. I showed it to him and he had a blast spelling it. To each his own!) 😉

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        1. Norah Post author

          I would love to see photos of your bookshelves. I wonder how you have them organised. I bet they are beautifully arranged and neatly stacked. The boys are fortunate to have two lit-loving parents. What a great start! I’m pleased your son enjoyed spelling “the” word. I thought he might. 🙂

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  4. Bec

    Revisiting these posts was a great idea, Nor – so many different perspectives centred around a central topic. Some other visitors here have commented that it’s a pretty meaningless error, probably they’re right. But it seems like it is meaningless in the other way, too: there is no benefit to the lack of accuracy. While giants and dwarfs add to fantastical and imaginative stories, there is nothing gained through mis-representing the pupal stage of the butterfly (plus what’s not to like about the poetic sounding term ‘chrysalis’?). It’s also true that the whole premise of the story is false as another one of your readers mentions – the caterpillar wouldn’t be eating all the different foods included in the story. I suspect at some point in my life I learned that most species have a specific food source, so perhaps the mis-learning from the VHC mis-lead me in that way, too. But the variety does add to the story – it’s relate-able and interesting. But then, whatever makes for an appropriate trade-off between accuracy and interest is so subjective. I tend to feel the world is a fascinating enough place that we don’t need to invent silly falsehoods to make for interesting stories.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for joining in the renewed conversation, Bec. I agree with you entirely about the world being fascinating. It doesn’t hurt to get the little things right in an imaginative context, as Carle did with The Bad-Tempered Ladybird for example with ladybirds eating the aphids but the rest of the story being imaginative. I don’t think children would have difficulty realising that.
      When I first came across his book Mr Seahorse, which is about the responsibility of particular father fish for their young, I checked whether the “information” was true for each of the fish included. Seems it is, so Carle was obviously a little more careful with story details in this one, which was pleasing. If there hadn’t been the anomaly with the caterpillar I probably would not have thought to check. 🙂

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  5. MENTALLY ME (@stuckinscared)

    Such an interesting read Nora…one that had me googling to correct my ignorance, you see we (Littlie & I) have nurtured a few caterpillars through to butterfly stage, and though I did use the term chrysalis when teaching Littlie, it was more luck than judgement…because I always thought Chrysalis and cocoon were the same thing o_O … Learn something new everyday 🙂

    Perhaps if Eric had used the correct term, I’d have known the difference (without googles help) lol

    My kids have all enjoyed the hungry Caterpillar, I wonder if they have grown up believing butterflies hatch from cocoons…I’ll have to ask them. Perhaps correct term would have been best for educational purposes, but where would Eric have had to draw the line, because we all know caterpillars don’t don’t eat sausages and cake…don’t we 😉

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you so much for joining in the conversation and sharing your thoughts. There is quite of mix of opinions. I find it interesting that you Googled for the correct information for there seems to be just as many websites peddling misinformation as correct information on this topic. It’s funny. I am happy to accept the fictional eating of the variety of non-caterpillar foods but not so happy the cocoon issue. I think we all soon realise that caterpillars don’t eat all those foods, though I have found some in apples and strawberries from time to time! But never sausages or cake! You have made some interesting points and I think the best thing to do is to discuss these things with children so they become more aware.

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      1. MENTALLY ME (@stuckinscared)

        It’s funny that I too (now I’m aware of the issue) agree with you on the cocoon issue…but would be unhappy to loose the silliness of ‘Caterpillars’ diet. The fictional fun is a must (IMO) it’s what makes the book (and others like it) fun, magical, but facts are facts…the story would have been equally silly/fun/magical if butterfly had emerged from a chrysalis…and, perhaps daft old me wouldn’t be googling the difference at the ripe old age of 49 😉

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        1. Norah Post author

          Thank you for agreeing with me Kimmie. There has been quite a variety of opinions on this issue and I am happy to receive and consider them all, but it is nice sometimes to find someone agreeing with an opinion! I think I may have been older than you when I realised that butterflies do not “hatch” from cocoons, as many people say. I guess I found out when I had butterflies in the classroom and was reading factual texts to the children. I was surprised at, and embarrassed by, my ignorance when, butterflies are so common. Thanks for sharing. I apologise for taking so long to respond. I read your comment when you first posted it, but I’ve had a busy week and haven’t been to my blog to respond since then. 🙂

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  6. Carol Hedges

    My daughter loved this and now Little G loves it too. Who cares if it is NOT factually accurate? I’m sure A Tiger never came to Tea at Judith Kerr’s house….the joy of sticking your fingers thought the holes, and laughing at the caterpillar’s massive Saturday Feast is enough. Enjoyed reading this….

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you Carol. Those joys are definitely priceless. We wouldn’t trade them for the world. I appreciate your stopping by to share your thoughts. 🙂

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  7. roweeee

    Reblogged this on beyondtheflow and commented:
    One of my secret passions is reading children’s books and I’ve also been working on a few of my own. I thoroughly enjoyed Norah’s post which looks at a range of issies re reading to kids and kids literature xx Rowena

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  8. roweeee

    Thank you so much for tackling these topics and I am going to reblog your post so I can do it justice and read through it properly. I use the reblog function to follow up posts I find relevant but need further study as well as sharing them with readers.
    If you look at Jackie French’s Diary of a Wombat, it is written for a similar age group and has also gone on to attract quite a broad readship base. I am pretty sure Jackie and illustrator Bruce got their facts right. I did a workshop with Jackie Frech at the Sydney Writer’s Festival a few years back. She pointed out that the background in the illustrations is white, even though wombats are nocturnal. They did try them with a black background apparently but they didn’t work. When you look at the illustrations, however, it becomes clear that it’s night time so they are sticking to the facts.
    I would prefer the Hungry Little Caterpillar to be more factual about the cocoon. They story really gets into kids’ heads and there’s no need to put misinformation in there.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you for the thoughts re Jackie French’s Diary of a Wombat. You have made some very good points there about sticking to the facts. i love those books and as Jackie wrote them about wombats at her place, I guess she had first hand information and facts. I do think it’s important to not set kids up for misunderstandings. It’s too hard to unlearn later. I appreciate your comments. 🙂

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  9. Steven

    An interesting set of posts and facts. Such things do matter, but they also don’t matter.

    It doesn’t matter because the book is obviously intended to be fiction, however it does have an interesting twist due to its intent, audience and mass popularity. It is probably one of the first books for young people that may introduce the concept of science, or at least the natural sciences; not non-fiction but cis-fiction. It is a fascinating process and in this way, the book must seem like a reputable source to them (especially when reinforced by an adult). The spark is lit in the young mind and hence they remember it as fact all the way into adulthood, ready to pass on the myth to their offspring. It matters that most people have the facts wrong but fortunately it isn’t a harmful one to get wrong. I would hope that any adult actually needing to research the lifecycle of the butterfly would opt for a book of knowledge rather than “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”. However with “the Internet” now being one of the first (and main) sources of “fact”, there is some cause for concern. The Wikipedia entry for “cocoon” appears to be factual, but being community-maintained these is always a risk that inaccuracies from mass-belief may arrise.

    It is not unusual for science to (over)simplify something in order to increase overall understanding or usability. General Relativity will give you a better answer than Newtonian physics. Does this mean Newtonian physics is wrong? Yes, but it is still incredibly useful. Everyone adult knows that E=mc^2, but it is a Hungry Caterpillar too. That famous equation is not entirely correct (it is a simplification that excludes the effects of momentum). Unfortunately the (only slightly) longer version probably wouldn’t fit so gracefully on the front of t-shirts.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Steven. You’ve given me some new ideas to think about. There is obviously not a right nor a wrong answer to this question and, as you say, thinking a butterfly comes out of a cocoon is not harmful (unless the question is on a NAPLAN) test perhaps, or Who wants to be a millionaire? I don’t think one could argue, ‘But Eric Carle said’. Well, they could, but it wouldn’t be very effective! 🙂
      I didn’t know that E=mc^2 was a simplification; so that’s interesting. Thanks for letting me know. And while I have read books about the theory of relativity, Newtonian physics and Quantum physics, I’m afraid little of it has stuck beyond that theorem; and now I find it is only partly correct! 🙂
      Years ago I wrote a story for a picture book that I quite liked but it has an inaccuracy in it so I have discarded it. I’m wondering if, since inaccuracies in picture books don’t really matter, I could resurrect it. After writing these posts I might feel a bit hypocritical in doing so. Will give it some thought. Might get some responses in a future post.
      🙂

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      1. Steven

        I think the writer with a conscience, who would knowingly make inaccuracies in such books, would do well to include a short paragraph (in adult-sized text) over the last page describing the error(s). Imagine how much better this picture book would have been if Eric had such a last page, “This story was about a caterpillar, but did you know that…”. Countless adults reading the book to children would be aware of the error and it could prompt a thoughtful verbal discussion point with the children. That would have been a better introduction to science and nature.

        Think about ressurecting your work, but considering making a little amendment as well.

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        1. Norah Post author

          I like that suggestion re Carle’s book. It would have been a very effective addendum once his “error” was pointed out to him. I might write a post and include my story to get some feedback. Thanks for the encouragement. 🙂

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you, Michelle. I really appreciate that you went back and read and commented on each of those posts. They required a lot of reading which I would not have expected anyone to do in one sitting as you have done. A mighty effort. Thank you! 🙂
      Actually it makes me think of a story I wrote about ducklings and chickens. I quite like it, but it implies through events (doesn’t state) that chickens take longer to hatch than ducklings. In reality it is the other way round. I have discarded the story due to this inaccuracy. Maybe it doesn’t matter? After writing these posts I’d feel a bit of a hypocrite. Maybe I could use it and add the information at the back? It would be interesting to get some feedback on that idea. Maybe I should ask in a post. 🙂

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        1. Norah Post author

          Thanks for your encouragement Michelle. I just might write that post and share the story. Did I say it was good though? I apologise if I did. I just meant that I liked it! 🙂

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    1. Norah Post author

      It is a great book and one of my favourites. It will be good to extend the children’s learning by sharing the inaccuracy with them. I’d be interested to hear how they respond. 🙂

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    1. Norah Post author

      I loved the discussion we had about this topic back then. It led us in all sorts of directions – you, me and Bec. I really enjoy it when certain thoughts trigger a completely different train of thoughts in another, as often happens with us, and conversations touch many different topics and raise many more questions than answers. I have learned a lot from our discussions and love the opportunity to keep on learning. 🙂

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