Been thinking a lot about The Very Hungary Caterpillar recently, mainly as I seem to have to read it at least 4 times an evening to the young chap (and no, I’m not talking about George Dubya here) as it is one of his favourite reads. So ok, the caterpillar is born and is hungry, good premise so far. His diet over the first week, if you have forgotten, is thus:
Monday – one apple
Tuesday – two pears
Wednesday – three plums
Thursday – four strawberries
Friday – five oranges
So far so good, but then, as we know, he goes for the blow out smorgasbord on Saturday:
One piece of chocolate cake, one ice cream cone, one pickle, one slice of Swiss cheese, one slice of salami, one lollipop, one piece of cherry pie, one sausage, one cupcake, and one slice of watermelon.
And that night, as the story goes, he had a stomachache.
But what is this story trying to tell us, really?
Is the book trying to say that eating a lot of food isn’t a good idea? This seems to be the case as the caterpillar goes from eating five bits of fruit to eating a whole load of stuff. So the underlying message to the young mind might be ‘only eat as much as you need and don’t stuff your face else you’ll end up a fat wheezy kid no one picks for their team’.
But wait; if we look at it from a nutritionist’s point of view might the problem be with the choice of food? I mean the caterpillar, for the first 5 days of his life is following a strictly fruitarian diet – on raw fruit dropped from the bough. But then on Saturday he suddenly gets into complex sugars and starches, diary products, processed and cured meats and strong acidic vinegars. Wow, that would be a shock to anyone’s system, surely? So perhaps what the book is really trying to say is ‘keep as far away from man-made, processed foods and unnecessary fats and sugars as they are not good for you and will mean you have to detox your body else you’ll end up a fat wheezy kid no one picks for their team’. (Ok, similar sort of message but from a very different perspective)
However it might not be as simple as either of those possibilities. What if the book, and its author Eric Carle, is actually trying to suggest to young minds that there is a radical and destructive dichotomy in the world between the haves and the have-nots? In the first 5 days of his life the caterpillar eats as if he is in a pastoral/agricultural economy, what might be construed as the third world, where food is raw and unprocessed and what is eaten is whatever can be grown. But on the Saturday the caterpillar, Gulliver-like, is transported to the ‘first’ world, where he gets to eat all he rubbish that is regularly consumed by overweight westerners who have lost touch with what it means to nurture and grow food and who are at a loss if faced by something raw and unpackaged. No wonder the caterpillar gets sick, we think, but not sick on the food but on the consumerist over consumption of junk whilst half the world starves. So the message might be ‘don’t eat and eat and eat all this rubbish food but realise there is a whole world of starvation out there and anything you can do to help them is a good thing’. (Perhaps the one nice green leaf the caterpillar eats the next day to make himself feel better could be a metaphor for overseas aid and the good work of bodies like Oxfam and the UNHCR).
But of course the nutritionist would be asking “where are the vegetables in this caterpillar’s diet?” And, perhaps more to the point, what does he drink?
I never realised that picture books for young children could be radicalised in quite such a way. But do the kids get it, that’s the important question? I mean, I have been reading the book for a few months now but it has taken me quite a long time to realise that there are far deeper layers than at first you might assume (a bit like Rousseau comparing society to the layers of an onion, in whichever book it was that he wrote that (but I wouldn’t want you to think that I am comparing TVHC to Rousseau, I think the caterpillar is way beyond anything that tiresome French windbag could come up with, though they are both obviously very into their pastoral)). Naturally now I am trying to read all Marcus’ books first, but now with an open mind to see if hidden ideas can be discerned. My worry is, of course, that that in some innocent looking story about a train taking animals to the beach there will be a subliminal message exhorting the youngster to become an accountant, or something equally devastating.
Of course I might be reading too much into it, but don’t get me started on Curious George...
...to my cousin Matthew who was married to Beáta on a boat in Budapest on Saturday. We couldn’t be there, I am very sad to say, but as soon as someone sends me some photos of the actual wedding I will glad put them up in their honour.