Why I hate Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Oct. 8 2009 9:38 AM

The Very Grouchy Daddy

I've read The Very Hungry Caterpillar to my daughter 796 times. Please, make it stop.

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This might not be a problem for children, who are typically more interested in Carle's pictures than his stories. But for the parent, who unwraps the birthday presents and stacks the mounting pile of Carle books on the nursery shelf, it increasingly comes off as fraudulent—a venal, decades-long coasting on a couple of successes.

Anyone who thinks that writing a good book for a 2-year-old is easier than writing a good book for a 32-year-old is deluded. The children's author has a monumental task. First, he must entertain, educate, stimulate the imagination of, etc., the child. That's primary. But he must also entertain, educate, stimulate the imagination of, etc., the parent. This is secondary but, for the continued sanity of the reader-parent, of great importance. Toddlers are strong-willed; they will choose the books they want to read, and the parent has to comply at pain of tantrum. Lesser writers manipulate this fact. They serve only the child. Pat the Bunny is like this: flat, rote, simplistic—cheaply exciting for the toddler, who is happy to know what's coming next and how everything is going to end, but a source of excruciating boredom for the parent.

Great children's writers never forget their dual audience. Think of almost any book by Maurice Sendak, who among living children's authors is the only one who has enjoyed success on par with Carle's (success we're about to be reminded of with the release of Spike Jonze's feature film and Dave Egger's novelization of Where the Wild Things Are later this month, and a subsequent Jonze documentary on Sendak).

The too-often ignored difference is that Sendak's success has been hard-won and is wholly deserved. Not only has he never repeated himself from book to book—each is sui generis—but within each book, he lays in sustenance for both child and parent. This doesn't mean the books are more difficult, although the language does tend to be more fluid, less monogamously wed to subject-verb-object simplicity than what you find in Carle. It means Sendak injects into simple, alluring, toddler-graspable tales enough mystery, poetry, and startling symbolism to keep parents interested while their kids sit in their laps.

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Consider In the Night Kitchen. Like Where the Wild Things Are, it's a dream sequence: A little boy named Mickey hears a noise, descends into a strange kitchen where cooks are baking cakes, has an adventure, and drifts back to bed. A leave-taking, a return. Kids can easily relate to the story. Parents, meanwhile, get what they need—namely, a book that does not exhaust itself with repeated readings. There is delightful strangeness (the cooks mistake Mickey for milk and use him as an ingredient—why?), and linguistic and rhythmic beauty ("Stir it! Scrape it! Make it! Bake it!"; "He kneaded and punched it and pounded and pulled"; "I'm in the milk and the milk's in me. God bless milk and God bless me!"). There is more than a touch of adult-level menace: The cooks are stout and have narrow rectangular moustaches, like Oliver Hardy, but also like Hitler. In a 2003 interview on NPR's Fresh Air, Sendak stated that he intended the book to evoke the Holocaust.

It's possible, to be fair, that there is educational value in Carle's method, that children benefit from the repetition and the stark association of labels and pictures in his books. This, in any event, would appear to be the official position. In 2004, on the occasion of Caterpillar's 35th anniversary, Bethan Marshall, an education lecturer at King's College, London, told the Guardian, "Children learn to read in three main ways: prediction, pattern, and picture cues. The Hungry Caterpillar does all of them." My wife, who in addition to being the mother of my daughter is a literacy specialist at a Brooklyn elementary school, shares this view. "You don't know what you're talking about," she said when I first told her that I'd rather drink a glass of warm Lysol than read another Carle book, and she went on to try to explain to me, in sharp pedagogical detail, how clearly and quickly young children absorb the basics of reading comprehension from Carle's work.

I say "try" because, for all her expertise and good-faith effort, I remain unconvinced, and firmly of the position that however important literacy instruction clearly is, you can't claim a literary success if you leave out the leavening ingredient of artful narrative. Not surprisingly, this minority position has had some consequences. Lately, when I visit my wife's school, I've noticed that she pre-empts any attempt I might make to express my opinion on Carle to her colleagues so that she can present it in the preferred light—which is to say, as a deep-rooted, untenable eccentricity.

I bristle, but I keep my peace so as not to embarrass her. I will keep my peace, too, when tonight my daughter pulls The Very Hungry Caterpillar off the shelf for the 797th time and that bright, cylindrical shock of green comes again into view, causing my skin to tighten, my spine to shiver, and my synapses to dull. I'll do everything I'm supposed to do. I'll act delighted with each turning page and surprised by the ending. I'll recite the lines in an engaged voice. Against every impulse, I won't rush or roll my eyes. It's one of the sacrifices I'm willing to make for my daughter. May she never know such suffering.

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