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.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

There comes a time in the life of a writer when he has to straighten his spine, gird his loins, and—facing the certain opprobrium of his peers and the disdain of his friends and family—proclaim an ignored, essential verity.

Eric Carle, the most successful children's book author of our time, sucks.

I recognize that this viewpoint would appear to be contradicted by ample evidence. In March, when The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Carle's most revered book, celebrated its 40th anniversary, dozens of newspapers and magazines noted the milestone, often citing the same staggering statistics: The book had sold 29 million copies, been translated into 47 languages (can you even name 47 languages?), and continues to sell at the rate of a copy every 30 seconds. This makes The Very Hungry Caterpillar one of the most popular children's book of all time—more successful than Goodnight Moon and The Cat in the Hat and second in sales only to Peter Rabbit.

Just because something is the object of effusive affection, however, doesn't mean it's worthy of that affection (q.v. Mao Zedong, Sex & the City). Indeed, it is when a cultural artifact has become this gargantuanly successful that we most need the help of an expert—an arbiter to pore over the work and honestly assess its qualities and flaws. I nominate myself.

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What are my credentials? As of this writing, my daughter is 2 years, 2 months, and 5 days old. Because Eric Carle's books are practically distributed on maternity wards along with baby formula and nipple salve, and because my wife, like everyone else, thinks they're wonderful, I have read one of them to my daughter nearly every nap- and bedtime since she was born: 796 consecutive days. That's probably more times than Harold Bloom has read King Lear.

The experience hasn't been all bad. Before he became an author, Carle worked at an advertising agency, and from Madison Avenue, he absorbed useful lessons about visual boldness and simplicity of form. His illustrations—which he constructs out of pieces of paper he paints with watercolors, cuts, and layers—are bright, beautiful, and memorable. The famous illustrations of the food the caterpillar tunnels through before he retreats to his cocoon—Swiss cheese, sausage, cherry pie, a lollipop, a slice of watermelon—are so sharp and evocative they'd work well as stand-alone images, framed and hung in a living room.

My objection isn't to Carle's artwork. It is to his lack of narrative creativity—a laziness and repetitiveness that in time can breed deep parental resentment. Like many successful children's book authors—Karen Katz, author of the Where Is Baby's … series of books, is a more recent example—Carle sticks closely to field-tested formulas. He's a franchise-builder, the Nora Roberts of the toddler set. When the first book he illustrated, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? (1967), turned out to be a hit, he followed up with Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear?, Panda Bear, Panda Bear, What Do You See?, and Baby Bear, Baby Bear, What Do You See?Each proceeds along the same monotonous line: Animal No. 1 perceives Animal No. 2, who perceives Animal No. 3, and so on and so forth until the sequence ends, more or less arbitrarily.

When The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969) was much more than a hit, Carle flooded the market with parables about insects steadily overcoming some physical or emotional obstacle: The Grouchy Ladybug, The Very Busy Spider, The Very Quiet Cricket, The Very Lonely Firefly, The Very Clumsy Click Beetle. (Caterpillar, incidentally, is one of George W. Bush's favorite books.) These books are as repetitive as the What Do You See/Hear books. They are devoid of surprise or even amusing digression. In each, an animal proceeds from obstacle to obstacle until the inexorable and preordained solution is achieved: The lonely firefly finds friends, the industrious spider completes her web, the clumsy beetle gets back on his feet. Often Carle prints the same line page after page: "The firefly saw a light and flew toward it," "The spider didn't answer," "How very clumsy of me!" The structure of the books is that of a straight road punctuated by speed bumps at fixed intervals.