Here’s why Eric Carle’s ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ almost didn’t make it to print

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As the world mourns the loss of one of our favourite children’s book author and illustrators, we look back on how the book came to be.

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 it almost didn’t make it to print.

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. Each of the tasty items the caterpillar snacks on throughout the book feature a “bite” from the caterpillar, represented by a hole punch, and it was exactly this innovative and interactive feature that made the book so difficult to produce.

“I couldn’t find anyone in the US who could manufacture this book,” Carle’s editor Ann Beneduce revealed, referring to the challenges the hole-punched pages presented for American printers, along with the book’s unique bindings and page designs. But Beneduce was “determined to publish it.”

On a trip to Japan, she took the book with her to show Japanese printers and totally lucked out when publisher Hiroshi Imamura took such a liking to the book that he agreed to print it.

That’s not the only major impact Beneduce had on the book, either. In its early stages, the story’s protagonist was actually a worm named Willi, which Beneduce suggested be switched to a caterpillar.

“I didn’t think a worm was terribly appealing,” she explains, adding that the book didn’t have an ending at that point either. When she pitched the idea to Carle, he completely lit up, and as a pair they developed the idea of having the caterpillar turn into a butterfly at the end. From there, it was smooth sailing and apparently Carle finished the book nearly overnight!

Caterpillar or worm, hole-punched pages or not, we’re just glad the book made it into our hands and homes. And we’re equally as thankful for the book’s main message, which is ultimately one of optimism and inspiration.

“It is a book of hope,” Carle 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.” 

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Eric Carle and his publisher had a disagreement over the stomach ache scene in the book, which is not true.

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