Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Very Hungry Caterpillar turns 40!

Today is the official 40th birthday of the Eric Carle classic children's picture book 'The Very Hungry Caterpillar'. The date coincides with the official first day of Spring in the USA. Since its publication in 1969, the book has been published in 45 languages, and an estimated 29 million copies have sold worldwide. It is considered by experts, parents and children to be one of the best picture books ever published.

Eric Carle has written and/or illustrated more than 70 picture books. He was born in the U.S. but raised in Germany. His background is in graphic design but in the late 1960's he turned full-time to creating books after illustrating Bill Martin Jr's 'Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?' His illustrations are collages made with his own hand-painted tissue papers. He has also co-founded with his wife Barbara, 'The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art' in Amherst, Massachusetts.

What makes this such a good book?

We know the book is good, but why? Is it that it shares the common (and successful) narrative pattern that the central character leaves home, experiences a complication or significant event in their life before returning home or being transformed? Sendak's 'Where the Wild Things', the Dr Seuss classic 'The Cat in the Hat' (well the Mum leaves), Hans Christian Andersen's 'The Ugly Duckling', Janette Sebring Lowrey's ‘The Poky Little Puppy’, Marjorie Flack's 'The Story about Ping' and the Brothers' Grimm tale 'Hansel and Gretel' are just a few classic stories that fit this pattern. In each of these stories there is an episode of exploration, adventure or a journey, some challenging circumstances and then ultimately a return to the security of home or renewal.

But this isn't the only factor contributing to the book's success. It has many things going for it, including wonderful and economical use of language. Like 'Where the Wild Things Are', there are few words, but there is still linguistic complexity and good use of repetition. There is also perfect use of illustrations that support and complement the verbal narrative. As well, there is the opportunity to count your way through this book, be introduced to the days of the week and gain an insight to the life cycle of the caterpillar. And then of course there is the clever use of page layout and book design that supports in a tactile and aesthetic way the journey in words and pictures. This is a book that the child can follow numerically, verbally, pictorially and even physically as they go on a journey with the hungry caterpillar. It is a book that is ideal to read alone and with others. It works as a book that you experience snuggled up with mum or dad as well as lying face down exploring it alone or tucked up in bed before lights out. This is a book that any child can feel they are 'reading' almost from the time they are able to hold it.

Some more modern adaptations

I can't see many reasons to mess with this book but such a successful piece of literature was always going to be marketed and packaged in other ways. So who can blame Eric Carle or the publishers for bringing out a new edition in this the 40th year?

To mark the anniversary a new pop-up version of this classic has just been released. Purists may not like the idea. It has lots of new pop-ups, to give a 3D feel to the experience; but thankfully, the art has remained faithful. Carle has included some photos of children reading the book on his website (here).

The book was adapted for Television in 1993 by the U.K.'s Illuminated Film Company as part of an anthology called 'The World of Eric Carle' that included four other Carle stories, 'The Very Quiet Cricket', 'The Mixed Up Chameleon', 'Papa Please Get The Moon For Me', and 'I See A Song'. It has also been suggested from several sources that the film rights have been sold for approximately $AUS2 million.

The book is available in a variety of forms including, hardback, paper, board and 'Big Book' format for teachers. There is also a wide range of games and other merchandise available from 'The World of Eric Carle'.

There are a number of video and multimedia readings of the book, you can view one of the best below.

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