It happens pretty much the same way every time. The day after I’ve partaken in some sort of weekend or holiday eating-and-drinking binge—i.e., the Monday after the Super Bowl, the fifth of July, the first week of January after the entire Thanksgiving-through-New Year’s season officially comes to a close—I engage in the same detoxifying, repenting ritual: the consumption of a fresh, nutrient-rich salad. Somehow, in my mind, the more vividly green the leaves in the salad, the more purifying the ritual will feel, and with that first crunch on a crisp piece of greenery, I hear a tiny voice in my head, murmuring, “The next day was Sunday again. The caterpillar ate through one nice green leaf, and after that he felt much better.” A pivotal line from a formative piece of literature that I, like many thousands of other now-adults, first encountered in childhood: The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar—in which a caterpillar hatches out of an egg on a Sunday, proceeds to eat vibrantly colored fruits it finds in escalating quantities from Monday to Friday, goes on a junk-food-eating rampage on Saturday, eats a nice green leaf on Sunday, and then nestles into a cocoon for two weeks and emerges a beautiful butterfly—was released 50 years ago, on March 20, 1969. In the years since, it has sold almost 50 million copies around the world, in more than 62 languages; today, according to the book’s publisher, Penguin Random House, a copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar is sold somewhere in the world every 30 seconds. And its enduring appeal, according to librarians and children’s-literature experts, can be attributed to its effortless fusion of story and educational concepts, its striking visual style, and the timelessness of both its aesthetic and its content.
Michelle Martin is the Beverly Cleary Professor for Children and Youth Services at the University of Washington’s Information School—meaning that every day, she trains future teachers and school librarians in how to teach reading and literacy. She also publishes reviews of children’s books. In Martin’s field, if you don’t have a good grasp of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, “you are children’s-book illiterate,” she says with a laugh.