Fifty years of the Very Hungry Caterpillar

Lynne with the board book version of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Picture: Ruth Ellis

Lynne with the board book version of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Picture: Ruth Ellis - Credit: Archant

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle was first published in 1969. Since then the book for small children has become a staple of bedtime and many parents know it by heart.

He was a beautiful butterfly Picture: HEDLEY D WRIGHT

He was a beautiful butterfly Picture: HEDLEY D WRIGHT - Credit: Archant

"In the light of the moon, a little egg lay on a leaf.

One Sunday morning the warm sun came up and - pop! Out of the egg came a tiny and very hungry caterpillar."

As we all know, over the next week, the caterpillar feeds voraciously on a variety of foods caterpillars probably don't eat in the real world (eg a lollipop and a slice of cherry pie). Then, having become a big, fat caterpillar he builds a cocoon around himself and a week later, he emerges as a beautiful butterfly.

If there is a more perfect story to share with a small child, I have yet to find it. It was told to my own children in the Eighties and now it is being told to my grandsons, some 30 years later.

A beautiful butterfly. Picture: CHRISTOPHER CROSS

A beautiful butterfly. Picture: CHRISTOPHER CROSS - Credit: CHRISTOPHER CROSS

Although it has just 224 words, it has sold more than 50 million copies worldwide... that's an average of over million a year, since it was published.

When I first encountered this children's masterpiece of storytelling and illustration, it was popular but it has since become iconic.

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Children dress up as the caterpillar for World Book Day and there are board books and touchy-feely versions as well as a seemingly limitless range of clothing and other merchandise featuring the caterpillar. He was even on a stamp.

One of the wonderful things about the book is that the caterpillar is the hero; his metamorphosis into a butterfly is just the punchline.

A beautiful butterfly. Picture: Amanda Burgess

A beautiful butterfly. Picture: Amanda Burgess - Credit: Archant

Moreover, he is a great eater - who'd have thought a caterpillar could become an role model for eating greens? Not only does he scoff all manner of fruit, pies and processed food, he also settles his tummy with a nice green leaf before heading into his chrysalis.

The man behind the words and pictures is Eric Carle who was born in New York, brought up in Germany and returned to New York in 1952 with just $40 in his pocket. He worked as a graphic designer at The New York Times and later became the art director of an advertising agency.

The first children's book he illustrated, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? was a best-seller ? a collaboration published in 1967. Then he then began to both write and illustrate his own stories. The Very Hungry Caterpillar, his second book was published in 1969. And though it was not an instant success it has since made up for its slow start.

Eric Carle's instantly recognisable artwork is created using hand-painted papers, which he cuts and layers to form bright and colourful images in a collage.

In a past interview he said he likes children but "I don't want to be surrounded by them."

Experts (they alway appear, don't they) have pointed out that the butterfly's wings are upside-down. Carle, who will be 90 later this month, is unperturbed. He is quoted as saying: "They are upside down but it's a fantasy. I am the artist and can do whatever I want."

He is, and he can.