'Hungry Caterpillar' turns 40

Last Friday, Eric Carle's wonderful children's book "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" turned 40. Many bookstores and libraries marked the occasion with special displays or readings.

Perii Hauschild-Owen, children's librarian at Ashland Public Library, says there is good reason so many are celebrating the book's 40th anniversary.

"It's a special book," Hauschild-Owen said. "Not only is the story timeless, but his artwork is, as well. He introduced a new form of art to children's book illustration, with hand-painted tissue papers that he cuts and layers. He also popularized the concept of altering the pages of books with holes or torn pages."

"The Very Hungry Caterpillar" famously tells the story of a newly hatched caterpillar who eats his way through the book, leaving behind a trail of holes and lessons on counting, days of the week, healthy eating and the maturation of butterflies. It is easily Carle's most popular work and has sold 29 million copies. While millions know and love Carle's books, few know much about the author.

Eric Carle was born in 1929 in Syracuse, N.Y., to German immigrant parents. The family moved back to Germany when Carle was 6 years old. When World War II broke out, Carle's father was conscripted into the German military, and Carle's life at the time was one of fear and deprivation. A recent Newsweek article suggests that the "Hungry Caterpillar" symbolizes a fear of starvation that plagued Carle from childhood. But in a video found on Carle's Web site (www.eric-carle.com), Carle explains it differently.

"It is a book of hope," he said. "You can grow up to fly into the world with your talents. Growing up can be very difficult. It's a big secret, it's a big challenge for children. I like to help the children along." The video also shows Carle at work, painting his famous caterpillar for the camera.

Eventually, Carle graduated from a prestigious German art school and returned to the U.S., where he started a career in graphic design. When he was 38, his unique art caught the eye of a book publisher, leading to the now classic "Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?" He has since illustrated more than 70 books.

Hauschild-Owen recommends other Carle books. "His books have a lot to talk about, and they aren't all for very young children. The artwork is sophisticated and they are always a joy," she said. A few of her favorites include "The Lamb and The Butterfly," "The Hole in the Dike" and "Chip Has Many Brothers."

"The Very Hungry Caterpillar" is a well-loved book at my house. In fact, it has become positively gross with love. My oldest, who is now 6, used to chew the pages when he was a toddler, mimicking the very hungry grub. He went hog wild on the cherry pie. My youngest has rammed fingers, crayons, dog food, and something orange through the holes. The thick pages have been slept on, drooled on and hugged until they lost their sheen. Yet when a friend offered to replace their worn book with a new one, the boys wailed. Even now, it is still a frequently requested bedtime story.

For my children, their messy book, and countless happy bedtimes, I want to join the many people who are applauding this beloved book and its talented creator. Let's celebrate its anniversary with one piece of chocolate cake, one ice-cream cone, one pickle, one slice of Swiss cheese ... well, you know the rest.

Tidings staff writer Vickie Aldous and Tidings correspondent Angela Howe-Decker alternate as author of the weekly column Quills & Queues.

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