In my storytime bag this past month I’ve been carrying The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. I don’t always use it, but I like having it with me — I know it will always work. When I pull this book out of the bag, there are smiles, clapping sometimes, and always a chorus of “I have that book!”
The Very Hungry Caterpillar is fifty years old this year. I tell the children the book and I are the same age and they marvel out how well we’ve both weathered the years, how vibrant we remain at fifty. If they are old enough, we count to fifty together and they’re truly astounded how old that is, given that they are three or six and their older sibling is only eight, their mother thirty-two.
I don’t remember this book from my childhood. But I read it with my own kids — our copy was in board book form. Although there are many fabulous things about this book, the key for my kids was always that the foods the caterpillar ate each had one perfectly round hole through it — a real hole in the page! A hole through Monday’s apple, a hole through both of the pears of Tuesday, and on through the fruits as the caterpillar “eats the rainbow” through Friday. Then, marvelously, a hole through each of the foods on Saturday’s eating binge.
Because of how the book is laid out, and because holes necessarily poke through both sides of a page, when the caterpillar has a stomach ache as a result of all he’s eaten, and the page is turned and he eats through one nice green leaf, there is not one, but five holes through that leaf.
#1 Son counted those five holes each time we came to them. I think he counted them before he learned to count as I always had to wait for him to poke his chubby finger into each of the five holes, one after the other, before we could turn the page again. Sometimes I counted, sometimes I didn’t. It was all about the hole, really. So perfectly sized for a toddler or pre-schooler finger. Today those holes look a little worn in our board book. We read The Very Hungry Caterpillar a lot.
When I read the book in storytime, the kids are not on my lap and so they don’t poke their fingers through the holes. My less durable but larger copy of the book has held up fine. They’re happy to count with me as I point (and I never point at the hole, leaving it visible to all.) They revel in the page turns, even as they know what food is next. And the hilarity of the caterpillar’s rapid growth, the interesting fact of his cocoon, and the beauty of his transformation never fails to satisfy. It’s a winner every time.
Last week, after storytime had ended and I was chatting with the kids’ grown-ups, I turned around and there was a little boy looking through The Very Hungry Caterpillar on his own. Very gently he turned the pages, scanning the art, pointing to the egg on the leaf…the moon…the sun…the tiny caterpillar. And when the caterpillar started to look for food, the little boy took his curious three-year-old pointer finger and gently placed it in the hole of Monday’s apple. He turned the flap/page and placed his finger in the hole of first one pear and then the other. He proceeded through all the holed fruits in this way, and then counted aloud the five holes in the nice green leaf.
I watched, transported twenty years back by his chubby little pointer finger. When he got to the butterfly at the end, he smiled and gently closed the book. By then I was sitting beside him, riveted. He held his finger just exactly like my son had.
He handed the book to me and said, “I love this book. It makes me hungry.”
He was gone before I could swallow the lump in my throat.