The Children's Book Garden

Reading and weeding through the best and worst of children's literature

My Daughter Calls Out Eric Carle March 14, 2010

The Very Hungry Caterpillar
Eric Carle

Fairy Flight
Tracy Cane

The Rave: The Very Hungry Caterpillar one of those classically, well-proportioned children’s books that hits all the right notes:

  1. It teaches counting, as the steadily increasing numbers of fruit consumed by the caterpillar in question are tallied, using the tactile experience of actual holes in the pages, pictured as those eaten through each fruit – children love sticking their fingers through
  2. The contrast between the junk food – sausages and ice cream – that causes a tummy ache and the nice, green leaf that makes the caterpillar feel better promotes healthy eating
  3. The fact that the caterpillar still is nice and fat and becomes a butterfly even though it didn’t always choose the best sorts of food translates to a lesson that doesn’t chide, but shows how the learning process causes growth and change, not repudiation
  4. What a nice happy ending, a lovely butterfly. What a great story. Very satisfying. And the board game is fun for little ones, too.
  5. Also nice that in this story, Big is Beautiful.

The Problem: Eric Carle, yes, the Great Eric Carle, got his biology wrong.

My 4-year-old daughter identified this to me last week.

“That’s not a butterfly,” she said, when we got to the last page.

“Sorry?” I said, wondering if we were in some imaginary scheme all of a sudden (that can happen with this age group). “I’m pretty sure it is.”

“It came out of a cocoon,” Jo pointed out. “Only moths come out of cocoons. Butterflies have chrysalises. So it’s a moth.”

And yes. She is right. Eric Carle writes that the caterpillar makes a cocoon. And: according to Wikipedia and other sources, moths and maybe some other insects make cocoons. But butterflies – yep. Chrysalis all the way.

Dang, dude.

I have to say, we do read a lot of books featuring butterflies. Fairy Flight, a favorite with my kids right now, follows monarch caterpillars as they weave chrysalises, change to butterflies, and travel from Canada to California. I find the fact that the little girls in the book think butterflies are fairies or vice versa – and the images suggest this may be so – annoying – anthropomorphizing a creature in order to celebrate its wonder seems so egocentric –  but the story covers a wide landscape of imagery and science, geography and fantasy, and along with a couple other nonfiction books we have, obviously schooled my daughter in a few facts some adults – me and Eric, at least – didn’t know.

Dear Reader, Some Questions:

  • Have you or has your child ever found a factual error in a children’s book? How do you deal with it? Write the author a letter? Do we think Eric knows he made a mistake by now?
  • What do you think about fairies? I’ve always considered them harmless preschool lore (maybe not sexyified Tinkerbell). But they do point to a belief system that nature occurs only through tiny humanoids making things work – which a very religious person might find objectionable, but so does a person like me, who wants my kids to be able to see nature as working without magic at all…
  • Do boys get into fairies? Why just girls?

Funny how some very tiny books can bring out some very big questions!


One Response to “My Daughter Calls Out Eric Carle”

  1. I think fairies are a personal choice a lot like Santa Claus. I think you can inject a little magic into their stories, but still teach logical science. When I choose books for my kids, I give them a wide range. I think it’s important that they are able to enjoy a story and know it’s not a REAL story because that’s an important concept for children that are exposed to so much media at such an early age.

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