If the story had stayed in its original incarnation as Willi the Worm, perhaps The Very Hungry Caterpillar would not be celebrating its 45th anniversary this month.

But Eric Carle’s original idea of a bookworm munching its way through the pages evolved into the best-selling children’s classic when his editor Ann Beneduce suggested the protagonist should be a caterpillar instead.

And so the story of the green larva, which goes on an eye-popping eating spree, has delighted generation after generation of children since it was first published in 1969.

The caterpillar, which grows very large and feels a bit sick, eventually builds a cocoon around itself and emerges as a beautiful butterfly.

“It’s a book of hope,” Carle told the Metro newspaper. “That you, an insignificant, ugly little caterpillar can grow up and eventually unfold your talent and fly into the world. But those thoughts came afterwards. I didn’t start out and say: ‘I want to make a really meaningful book’.”

Part of the appeal may also be down to the sheer naughtiness of munching through chocolate cake, ice cream, Swiss cheese, salami, cherry pie, sausage, cupcake and watermelon, among other things.

Carle, 84, was born in New York State to German immigrants, but the family returned to Germany when he was 6, as war loomed large in the 1930s. His father was drafted into the German army when Carle was 10. When he was 15, he was conscripted to dig trenches, before being reunited with his mother in Stuttgart as the war ended. It was not until a few years later that his father, who had been a Soviet prisoner of war, returned to the family.

Carle moved to New York City in 1952 and began working as a graphic designer. In 1967, he was asked to create artwork for the story Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? and he has illustrated or written more than 70 books since.

But it is The Very Hungry Caterpillar, at just 28 pages and a little over 200 words, which has sold more than 30 million copies and become a classic, combining punched salami slices with the sheer joy of living.

Questions for debate and discussion

  1. Why do you think Eric Carle’s editor suggested changing the character from a worm to a caterpillar?
  2. Eric Carle describes The Very Hungry Caterpillar as a “book of hope”. What other lessons can we learn from this simple book?
  3. The Very Hungry Caterpillar has been translated into many languages. Why do you think it has gained such worldwide success?
  4. Why do we celebrate the anniversaries of books?

Relevant resources

The Very Hungry Caterpillar – healthy eating board game
Use counters to move around the caterpillar-themed board, learning about healthy and unhealthy treats.

Food bingo cards
Use these Very Hungry Caterpillar themed bingo cards for a plenary or spelling activity as part of a topic.

Keywords for display
Make a display of the key vocabulary featured in this iconic story, using these printable banners.

True or false?
Test your students’ knowledge and understanding of this book with a handy ‘true or false’ quiz.