Here’s why Eric Carle didn’t want his hungry caterpillar to get a stomach ache

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As we mourn the loss of one of our favourite children’s book author and illustrators, here’s one more amazing reason to love him.

There’s a reason that every 30 seconds, on average, Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar is purchased somewhere in the world. There’s a reason the book has sold over 50 million copies globally, and there’s a reason it’s been a child (and parent) bedtime staple for more than 50 years.

The reason? The Very Hungry Caterpillar is more than just a soothing nighttime story. The book’s lively and bright images—which Carle apparently created by dabbing tissue paper with acrylic paint and then cutting out the proper shapes—coupled with the sensory, caterpillar-nibbled pages make it a memorable experience for readers of all ages.

But what most fans don’t know about the iconic children’s book is that one of its most memorable scenes actually stemmed from a rift between Carle, who passed away this week at age 91, and his publisher, over the topic of kids’ eating habits.

The story follows a hungry caterpillar who munches his way through a series of delicious foods in order to reach metamorphosis and become a beautiful butterfly. First, he eats a series of fruits, from apples to plums to pears, but he still feels hungry. Then, in a single day, the unsatiated caterpillar eats through ten tasty items that include chocolate cake, a pickle and a slice of Swiss cheese. That evening, he suffers a stomach ache, which he then overcomes in order to cocoon himself and evolve into a butterfly.

Carle told the Paris Review in 2015 that the tummy ache was never supposed to be part of the story.

“My publisher and I fought bitterly over the stomachache scene in The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The caterpillar, you’ll recall, feasts on cake, ice cream, salami, pie, cheese, sausage, and so on. After this banquet I intended for him to proceed immediately to his metamorphosis, but my publisher insisted that he suffer an episode of nausea first—that some punishment follow his supposed overeating. This disgusted me. It ran entirely contrary to the message of the book. The caterpillar is, after all, very hungry, as sometimes we all are. He has recognized an immense appetite within him and has indulged it, and the experience transforms him, betters him. Including the punitive stomachache ruined the effect. It compromised the book.”

When asked if Carle’s publisher was worried about encouraging gluttony, Carle had the perfect reply: “Perhaps, but that’s of no concern to the child—nor should it be. I don’t recognize childhood obesity. No one should.”

It seems that what Carle had intended to be a simple example of eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full, his publisher turned it into a wrist-slap moment where an innocently hungry caterpillar is penalized for apparently overeating. Honestly, can a caterpillar even overeat? To right his “wrong,” the caterpillar spends the following day nibbling on a healthy green leaf, which then allows him to reach his ultimate goal.

This was territory Carle had never intended for the book to cover. To him, the whole idea of criticizing a caterpillar’s eating habits (or a child’s, for that matter) was completely contradictory to the book’s main message, which is one of optimism and inspiration, not punishment and shame.

“It is a book of hope,” he said in a video celebrating the book’s 50th anniversary. “Children need hope. You, little insignificant caterpillar, can grow up into a beautiful butterfly and fly into the world with your talent. I think that is the appeal of that book.”

So next time you turn to The Very Hungry Caterpillar for a bedtime read, maybe consider skipping the stomach ache and heading straight to the metamorphosis. It’s the baby caterpillar’s hungry appetite that helps him transform into the big and beautiful butterfly, after all!

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