THE GROWING PAINS OF
THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR
Why this children’s classic is actually the purest coming of age story
A deep dive into the greatest children’s books ever written – through the grown-up eyes of authors Lola Akinmade Åkerström and Kiran Millwood Hargrave
I once saw a table comparing the activities of
Hungry Caterpillar, God,
and Craig David.
There is no caterpillar so famous as The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Lewis Carroll’s smoking grub and A Bug’s Life’s Heimlich might be waiting in the wings, but they’ll never quite reach the lofty heights of our beloved hungry chap.
For more than fifty years, the unmistakable emerald-bodied insect has blown the minds of tiny humans, as he munches his way through a smorgasbord of delicacies, before (spoiler) undergoing the ultimate transformation into a butterfly. But take a look back on this simple tale, and it’s more than the story of an all-you-can-eat garden buffet. Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar is our purest coming of age story. The childlike indulgence. The solitary journey. The misunderstood character. And finally, the optimistic explosion into adulthood.
It begins, in fact, with an egg. It’s only page two when Hungry Caterpillar undergoes his first transformation – from egg to insect. And he has an appetite for life. The sun is warm, things are looking positive. This innocent being has his whole life ahead of him, and a naive optimism to propel him forwards. But as he starts to search for something that will satisfy his appetite, he finds the world lacking.
He eats apples, pears, plums, and he’s still hungry. Five-orange Friday doesn’t cut the mustard, and things get dark. He tosses aside the fruit medley, follows his cravings, and in a flagrant disregard for his caterpillar-sized stomach he turns to the good stuff. Cherry-topped chocolate cake. Swiss cheese. Salami and sausage. It’s what he wants, but it’s not what any insect needs, even if it feels really great at the time. He staggers out the other side of a cupcake and watermelon combo, clutching his belly and tossing and turning through the night.
The next day, he turns to a salad cleanse. After munching through a leaf, he feels better. The previous episode, his canter through vice after vice and his search to find something that satisfies him, has been forgotten. He is absolved. He rests.
The caterpillar is finally ready for his transformation into adulthood. He’s no longer hungry and curious. He knows what he needs to be. He steps away from all the temptations of the world and takes a long, hard look at himself. He physically cocoons himself. He emerges, confident in those glorious butterfly wings.
I wish I could remember the source, but I once saw a table comparing the activities of Hungry Caterpillar, God, and Craig David. On Monday, they’re all fairly busy – the caterpillar eats an apple, in the Bible God creates light, and in 7 Days Craig David “met this girl.” Caterpillar spends the week emptying the fruit bowl and cleaning out the snack drawer; God whips up the entire contents of the sky, vegetation, and all living things; and Craig David “took her for a drink on Tuesday,” before remaining extremely busy together for the rest of the week. Caterpillar, God, and Craig David alike, chilled on Sunday.
I started seeing children’s books through adult eyes when I read them to my child. I’m fairly sure my son just sees a caterpillar in need of a good meal, as did I.
To really examine The Very Hungry Caterpillar, let’s hold it up to some classic coming of age tales.
Just as in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, and a large proportion of Bret Easton Ellis novels, the caterpillar is navigating his transition into adulthood without the guidance of adults. As in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic novel The Secret Garden, our caterpillar hero undergoes personal growth. In his case, it’s literal. He grows actual wings. He moves through youth into adulthood, taking a journey that helps him understand the world over a mere 22 pages.
William Golding’s Lord of the Flies might be one of the best-known coming of age novels. Stranded schoolboys lose their innocence as they fall prey to a mob mentality, flipping from well-behaved children into violent beings. Luckily, Hungry Caterpillar keeps any tendencies to violence in check. But left to fend for himself, he too throws aside any pretence at social order. That chocolate cake, ice cream, Swiss cheese, salami, lollipop, cherry pie, sausage, cupcake, watermelon and pickle combo might sound like a great night in (and the potential menu for my next dinner party), but it’s undeniably indulgent. It’s the resulting stomach ache that teaches our favourite caterpillar restraint. Maybe, in an imagined sequel, he’d learn indulgence is actually ok. Nobody wants to exist on leaves.
It’s not just the caterpillar – bears too
Nigerian-American and based in Sweden, Lola Akinmade Åkerström is the award-winning author of In Every Mirror She’s Black, a stunningly complex and compelling exploration of Black womanhood and the experiences of misogynoir. We asked the writer and photographer about the children’s book she now sees in a different light.
“I loved Paddington Bear as a child and still do (the movies are hilarious). But the sweet story of a bear moving from Peru to start a new life in London has, over time, taken on a deeper, more serious commentary on immigration and assimilation versus integration,” Lola says.
“I see now, as an adult, how that traumatic experience of moving from one country to another, and learning new societal structures and unspoken codes from scratch was oversimplified.”
Lola explains how she moved from Nigeria to the US at the tender age of 15. Later down the line, she relocated to Sweden, which happens to be the setting for In Every Mirror She’s Black, a story of three wildly different and complex women drawn to Stockholm. These three Black women try to change their lives in a society dominated by white people. The immigration experience, Lola says, is hard emotionally and mentally. The sense of belonging in a new space is difficult to grapple with. Looking back as an adult, she didn’t see this reflected in her beloved Paddington.
“It also glosses over casual racism such as references to ‘darkest Peru’, as well as giving him the name ‘Paddington’ because his hosts couldn’t pronounce his own name,” Lola says. “This subconsciously reopens scabbed-over emotional sores within people who have had to change their names from Mohammed to Magnus just to get called in for job interviews in the Nordics.”
Paired with her own experience, Lola has taken a lot from Paddington.
“Though cloaked in beautiful, heartwarming narratives for children, over the years, the book has definitely made me more aware of the loneliness, identity crisis, and unmoored sense of belonging refugees and asylum seekers face as they long to find new homes and places where they can feel safe, accepted, and seen,” she says.
There are hidden themes to be found in children’s stories, and there are things missing too. Like Lola, Paddington is also one of my favourites, but the observations she makes certainly take the tang out of your marmalade sandwich.
Lola Akinmade Åkerström‘s recommended reading
Lola is drawn towards “nuanced narratives of our modern world while spotlighting complex multidimensional relationships in a fresh way”. She recommends…
Don’t forget the Moon
Kiran Millwood Hargrave is the author of books for both children and grown ups including the very excellent young adult book The Girl of Ink & Stars. Just after the release of her new book The Dance Tree, Kiran’s mind might still be swirling with her latest (grown up) novel’s story of a dancing plague in 1518 Strasbourg, but she’s got plenty to say about children’s literature.
Kiran admires how Eric Carle never judges Hungry Caterpillar for feasting. He’s simply hungry. For Kiran, one of the books that she sees differently through adult eyes is Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, a simple tale where the narrator says goodnight to everything in sight, including my personal favourite line, “Goodnight nobody”.
“At the time, it really was just a comforting moment. And I could reenact it with my mum. We’d say goodnight to everything in the room,” Kiran remembers.
“Now, it really feels like an elegy to the loss we experience as an adult where we lose our attention. We lose sight of the everyday loveliness and everyday comfort and everyday wonder that surrounds us. And really, it’s sort of a mindfulness exercise, looking around and noticing your surroundings.”
Kiran goes on to explain that when she was learning to cope with panic attacks, her therapist would encourage her to look around, notice the room she was in, how the chair felt underneath her, and so on.
“That noticing actually creates this wonderful calming effect,” Kiran says.
Children, she reflects, are so good at noticing.
“Goodnight Moon is this real celebration of attention and how attention is really a form of love and a form of worship,” she says. “I love how in Goodnight Moon, she says ‘Goodnight moon,’ and then in the next breath, she’ll say ‘Goodnight lamp’, like they’re worth the same level of attention and devotion.”
For Kiran, Goodnight Moon is grounding. As a bedtime story, designed to calm children down with a peaceful routine, it has a similar effect.
As adults, we’re so often drawn to coming of age novels. There’s something magnetic about books like The Girls by Emma Cline, Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones, and simply everything written by Donna Tartt and Zadie Smith. Kiran, who’s written plenty of her own coming-of-age novels, thinks we’re so attracted to these tales because adults have the luxury of retrospect.
“When you’re a child, you’re living it, you’re too busy caught up in the sensations, the hormones, the difficulties, the excitement of growing up, so it’s really only when you’re an adult that you can actually reflect on it,” she says.
Kiran might be right. Is this why we all love our Hungry Caterpillar so much?
Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s recommended reading
Kiran is a big fan of Sophie Anderson, and thinks adults shouldn’t shy away from children’s books. “She just has this incredibly timeless quality of taking these enormous, unwieldy, dark themes and making them so full of light and so approachable for a child.”
From egg to butterfly – and other stories
When I look back now, I can see how children’s stories shape us. Paddington might have been my first exposure to refugee issues, and laid the grounds for compassion, even considering Lola’s very valid concerns about an over-simplified take on migration. I didn’t read Goodnight Moon as a child, but I witness now how it calms (for a moment at least) my toddler, and perhaps me as well. Guess How Much I Love You demonstrates that unquantifiable, boundless parental love, and Peepo! tells of all the things we do not see. The hide-and-seek baby does not notice the Wartime Britain that the adults do.
As an adult, I can see which parts of the human experience were missing from children’s literature as I grew up (most human characters were white-skinned, most relationships heterosexual, most families “nuclear,” and on and on). It’s important to look back and notice this. But I can also see what subtly coded themes were playing out right before my eyes, as the caterpillar left his egg life behind and munched towards his brilliant butterfly self. Maybe it was The Very Hungry Caterpillar that set me up for a life-long love of coming-of-age novels. There’s a lot that can come from one little egg.
What’s so good about this?
There’s so much we can learn from revisiting children’s books – and it might just help us make sense of the adult world. Flicking back through a picture book is a sure-fire way to indulge in some nostalgia, and if you look a little closer you might find something deeper than your five-year-old self imagined possible.
Meet the writer
When she’s not pretending to be a beaver holding back the rivers, Katie Dancey-Downs is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for human stories, nature and culture. She is also assistant editor at Index on Censorship, an award-winning quarterly magazine. She’s travelled the world to report on issues such as vegan activism in Toronto, regenerative farming in India, and the destruction of Sacred Natural Sites in Kenya. She can usually be found with her head in a book, stomping through the forest, or wishing she looked cool on a surfboard. @Katie_Dancey.