Caterpillars are entry-level fauna. If you live somewhere where grass grows, they’re there, kid-size and kid-friendly: little, harmless, searchable. They’re ground-floor specimens, so you don’t need reach or height. The places they live aren’t distant or dangerous. They’re a good toddling, first-expedition find. If you have access to a lawn or a tree and enough patience to be vigilant, like a generous god or a short-order cook, the universe will provide.
But I didn’t. I grew up around concrete in New York City, a place that isn’t treeless so much as tree-agnostic: It’s entirely possible here to forget, if you’re inclined or condemned to do so, that things such as trees exist. (The great Frank O’Hara line: “I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.”) From knee-high, I was one of these. I don’t remember ever meeting, let alone discovering, an actual caterpillar. But I did know one. He was Very Hungry.
Everyone I knew knew The Very Hungry Caterpillar, the star of Eric Carle’s award-winning picture book. Carle, who died earlier this week at 91, introduced him in 1969; by the time I was first discovering books in the late ’80s, I would’ve been in the second generation of kids to encounter him. In Carle’s collages, he was blank-eyed but beautiful, a necklace of hairy hills borne on six little boot-like feet. Looking at him now, he’s more artful than I remembered, like a Jules Olitski painting rendered in vibrating Rothko colors.
The caterpillar doesn’t have a name; he just has a hunger. He is voracious. The journey of the book, a famished hero’s quest, takes him through the gorgeous products of the human world. What was relatable about him was that he was barely natural at all; he’s urbane. After an initial chomp through an apple, a snack you might find in the forest, he moves on to the glories of civilization: a piece of Swiss cheese, a slice of salami, a chocolate cake. He doesn’t explain his menu; he’s an epicure without being a blowhard. But I didn’t need an explanation. For a kid in the city, these are the wonders of the world. Everything he loves, I loved too. Then he gets a bellyache (relatable) and eventually blossoms into a gorgeous butterfly, resplendent in the colors of his snacks.
In interviews, Carle could be more curmudgeonly than we expect of children’s authors. “Everyone always assumes I love children,” he told the Times in the ’90s. “I do, but I don’t want to be surrounded by them. I’m about average when it comes to children: I like some, and some I don’t like.” But if he was grouchy, he wasn’t ungenerous. “Caterpillar is a book of hope,” he said in the same interview. “You, too, can grow up and grow wings.”
Look at that: We did! We were hungry; we were curious; we indulged in pleasure; we appreciated; we napped as necessary, self-actualized little connoisseurs. Last week, my baby godson turned 1. I am sending him The Very Hungry Caterpillar. He lives in Vermont, so he knows from trees. But has he met salami?