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Top 100 Picture Books Poll Results (#3)

#3: The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle (1969)
230 points (36 votes, #3, #3, #6, #5, #4, #3, #1, #3, #4, #5,  #1, #4, #1, #6, #2, #9, #8, #8, #8, #3, #1, #10, #3, #9, #4, #4, #2, #7, #6, #6, #5, #2, #6, #8, #3, #3)

I fell in love with this book as a kid. My fingers read the holes like Braille, and my eyes salivated at the textured colors of Eric Carle’s incomparable collage art. – Candace Ryan

My earliest library memory is of taking The Very Hungry Caterpillar home from the Fort Fairfield Public Library.  Let me tell you, I thought the “but he was still hungry” pages with the holes were the most clever invention ever.  Now that I’ve been raising a couple of kids of my own, The Very Hungry Caterpillar has remained important to us.  The repetition is nice, and it’s always fun to rattle off the list of foods consumed on Saturday.  And, I don’t know about everyone else, but on the last spread I always move the book so that it looks like the butterfly is flapping his wings. – Amy Graves

The images are bold.  The colors are rich.  The ideas are simple.  And I’ll never forget the way that pickle looked. – Julie Phillipps

One wonders if this book would have done quite so well on this poll had it been known by its original title: A Week With Willie Worm.  No.  I’m actually not kidding about this one.  Granted, "A Week With Willie Worm" is exactly the kind of fake title I would come up with if I were feeling cheeky, but back in the late 60s Carle thought this was a legitimate name to go with.  The whole caterpillar concept didn’t really occur at first.  We, the general public, got lucky.  Now we find ourselves nearing the end of the Top 100 Poll, and voila!  Here is the iconic insect with his big expressionless eyes and his frighteningly popular standing in the hearts and minds of adults and children everywhere.

The book’s description from B&N reads, "A caterpillar hatches out of his egg and is very hungry. On his first day, he eats through one piece of food; on his second, two, and so on. Little holes cut in the pages allow toddlers to wiggle their fingers through the food, just like the caterpillar. Vivid and colorful illustrations and ingenious layered pages help preschoolers learn the days of the week, how to count, and how a caterpillar turns into a butterfly."

100 Best Books for Children discusses the Willie Worm dilemma, and places the credit of changing it to a caterpillar firmly in the camp of editor Ann Beneduce who suggested the switcheroo.  It is also interesting to note that, "Although no printer in the United States could be found to manufacture economically a book with so many die cuts, Beneduce located a printer in Japan who was able to produce the book."  Apparently Carle got the idea for different shaped pages from the books he read when he was a child in Germany.  

When asked in a recent interview with why the book was such a success, Carle had this to say: "My guess is it’s a book of hope. That you, an insignificant, ugly little caterpillar can grow up and eventually unfold your talent, and fly into the world. As a child, you can feel small and helpless and wonder if you’ll ever grow up. So that might be part of its success. But those thoughts came afterwards, a kind of psychobabble in retrospect. I didn’t start out and say: ‘I want to make a really meaningful book’."  I like his use of the term "psychobabble".  There’s also a truly wonderful Guardian article on Mr. Carle talking about his early years and discussing this book as well.  "The book’s success has spawned a lot of crank interpretations. It has been described as an allegory of both Christianity and capitalism. ‘Right after the Wall fell, I was signing books in the former East Germany and was invited by a group of young librarians to have lunch with them. One said the caterpillar is capitalist, he eats into every food one little bit and then the food rots away. Wasteful capitalist. Interesting. I think that if you’re indoctrinated, that’s how you will see it’."  And if you’re looking for more there’s an older Guardian article that focuses entirely on the book that’s also worth reading.

Of course, back in the day children’s librarians were might sketchy on books that had "novelty" elements.  And with die-cut pages, no matter how cute they might be, I wondered if the old-time librarians had problems with this fuzzy green guy.  Leonard Marcus in Minders of Make-Believe seems to confirm my fears.  "The book quickly became a major commercial success, more so at first on the strength of its popularity with parents and preschool teachers than with librarians, who remained mistrustful of books with toylike elements."  The Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature appears to be of the same mind.  Calling the title "a rudimentary game book", it goes on to say that, "The imaginative use of collage and very bright colors are characteristic of the period."  Huh.

Have you ever been to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art?  It’s a trip, but a trip that’s worth the travel.  I did a post about my own visit to the museum about a year ago and some of the pictures I took were wonderful Caterpillar-related shots.  For example . . . .

Here’s the museum’s car:

All the cookies in the cafe have caterpillaresque holes in them:

The auditorium chairs have seven holes in their tops (which they will tell you was just a fortunate mistake):

And finally, the toilet seats.  I dunno about you, but they look caterpillar-shaped to me:

Caterpillar-inspired art is everywhere, so I’ll only point out a couple examples here and there.  For example, the children’s room at the Morse Institute Library in Natick, MA has this lovely stained glass window by artist Carol A. Krentzman.  Their Swimmy isn’t too shabby either.

And for reasons unclear, the caterpillar is always showing up as a cake somewhere.  I think this one is the most creative, though.

Even Google got into the act when it created a little caterpillar logo of its very own:

The video of the book is relatively evocative (I’m partial to the soundtrack) so check it out here:

Live theatrical productions have included the Nova Scotia Mermaid Theatre’s innovative puppet program of the book:

And you can watch the Amazon 40th Anniversary of this book here where Mr. Carle discusses the creation of Caterpillar.

Previous Top 100 Picture Book Posts include:

































About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. Well, I expected this one to be higher. Not that #3 is shabby but for a week my friend and I have been discussing which one of two books would be #1 and this was our pick!

  2. Rachael says:

    Oh boy oh boy! My favorite now has a 50% chance of coming in at #1! Or, you know, not at all, but that’s unthinkable.

  3. Jennifer Schultz says:

    Wow! Can’t wait to found out what the last two books are! I love that cupcake cake. It’s too pretty to eat (but I’d manage).

  4. Els Kushner says:

    You know, I’ve never emotionally connected to this book the way a lot of people do. But in the last few weeks I’ve told it twice as a feltboard story, and am finally coming to truly appreciate the amazingly felicitous combination of elements that makes it so well-loved: the colors, the numbers, that overwhelming litany of food on Saturday, and then the eye-popping beauty of the butterfly at the end. (We should all have such transformations.) Even hardened 4-year-olds who know the story by heart are happy to hear it again and again.

  5. Rasco from RIF says:

    Els Kushner’s note hit a cord with me…this has never been a book to which I felt any strong emotional attachment. And then while becoming acquainted with William, my first grandchild, over the month of April, I discovered a new affection for the art AND the story! The “a-ha” moment was perhaps when William’s 5-year old Aunt walked into the house, saw this book and a caterpillar toy and said “I know who the author of that book is and it is Eric Carle and he is GOOD!” She proceeded to read the story to William and I found myself hearing and seeing the book in a new way….thank you, Aunt Sarah!

  6. Genevieve says:

    Those toilet seats are definitely caterpillar-shaped! I love it. And especially the cookies.

  7. From the moment Betsy announced this list I have known what 1, 2, and 3 would be, and in what order they would appear. People, this book is out of order! What do I need to do to help you get it right, actually vote next time? Although I rarely use video footage in my library lessons, I love to show PICTURE WRITER every year. Both my students and I watch the delightful Mr. Carle in awe and say *I want to try and do that.*

  8. Candace Ryan says:

    We were so lucky to have Eric Carle at the L.A. Times Festival of Books recently. I was a total fangirl and stood in line with half of L.A. for a signed copy of THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR.

  9. ssutherland says:

    In my mind this is as close to a perfect picture book as you can get. It’s endearing, lovely, tactile, appeals to just about every adult and child who reads it, PLUS it teaches about counting, days of the week, the downside of junk food, the biological concept of metamorphosis, and the deeper meaning of what it means to be alive and to grow and change. How can such a tiny book have so much in it? Like I said, a perfect 10!

  10. Claudia Butschli says:

    I’m wondering if there is any way to get just a list of the top 100 books, not the reviews.

  11. kim baker says:

    I just saw the Mermaid Theatre’s performance tonight with my kid! It was lovely and enchanting.

  12. Saurooon says:

    Interesting, I`ll quote it on my site later.