While the renowned author and illustrator Eric Carle may be best known for his phenomenal work of children’s literature, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, it may come as a surprise that he additionally illustrated seventy more books, most of which were of his own creation. In today’s book market there are an unabashed 100 million copies of his books available, including The Very Hungry Caterpillar which has been sold in over 30 million copies around the globe, and has been translated into over fifty languages.
It is undoubtedly due to Carle’s extraordinary success that The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art was founded in November 2002, in Amherst Massachusetts. There the interested observer is able to learn more about Carle’s life and career, as well as view his dazzling art work. One such fact about Carle’s career is that he was playfully punching holes into a sheet of paper one day, when he was inspired to create The Very Hungry Caterpillar. To Carle’s brilliantly creative mind the holes and punched paper circles reminded him of a bookworm, and his mind began steadily concocting a story about a bookworm, which his editor later suggested he revise to a caterpillar. The rest, as they say, was history.
There is no doubt that the reason for The Very Hungry Caterpillar’s raging success in children’s literature is that it is so educational. Perhaps the most poignant lesson in The Very Hungry Caterpillar is the lesson of nature’s metamorphosis and change. Throughout the tale, a ravenously hungry caterpillar eats his way through a myriad of widely identifiable foods before becoming transformed into a beautiful butterfly. This depiction of nature’s gentle miracle quietly educates children on the cyclical process of metamorphosis, and ingrains into their minds the fact that, with time, caterpillars will transition from ordinary creepy crawly insects to vibrant winged pegasuses of bold color and light. Not only is this portrayal of dramatic change important to familiarize children with, but it is also an important gentle reminder to the adults who read the tale to their children, that extraordinary miracles occur every day all around them.
Towards the end of the story a stunning butterfly is revealed. When closely examined, it is evident through the illustration that many of the foods that the caterpillar had eaten are now visibly interwoven amongst the aura of colors on the butterfly’s wings. Under further speculation, this inclusion points the way towards the message that as one travels through a process or hardship, little things and happenstances along the way prove to be helpful and beneficial, though they may not be given much thought at the time. The lone and hungry caterpillar may not have realized that its humble beginning and digestive discomfort were merely temporary, but those which helped him on his journey only aided him in becoming who he was meant to be, and became visible in his new and redeemed identity.
While The Very Hungry Caterpillar may seem to some as a fairly recent literary work that cannot be deemed as rare, its original publication was actually in 1969, and has educated children for generations. It has been printed worldwide and is even available in Braille form, making its powerful message of hope and renewal accessible to children all over the globe and at all levels of functionality. Since its original publication, film versions have been made of the story for young children, stuffed caterpillars have been sold in stores and the stages of metamorphosis from the tale have been proudly displayed on the walls of childcare centers, to greet each child with friendly familiarity.
Though an original first edition of the 1969 publication of The Very Hungry Caterpillar is widely sought after, a true first edition of the book is nearly nonexistent. The original is known to have been published in 1969 by World Publishing Company, and is identified as having a Cleveland imprint, unlike the New York imprint which the reprints bear. Moreover, the original’s dust jacket is presumed to portray the price of an amount less than $3.95, the actual price of the first reprint published. While dedicated book collectors are searching for a true first edition, it is quite possible that none survived. On a more optimistic note, however, there are plenty of other signed Eric Carle books available for sale, at still quite reasonable prices.