Copyright ©2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

It's time for our series, You Must Read This, when authors talk about books they love to read. A lot of authors in our series have picked highbrow literary selections. Today, we have a lighter choice, a children's book.

Marina Lewycka lives in England and she's the author of the just-published book, "Strawberry Fields." She also wrote the best-selling, "A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian." And here is her pick for You Must Read This.

Ms. MARINA LEWYCKA (Author, "Strawberry Fields"): You really must read "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" by Eric Carle, first published in 1969. It's not just a children's classic, it's a human classic - which is strange because it has no humans in it at all. It's about a big, green caterpillar.

The story is simple: the caterpillar is born, eats too much - far too much -learns to eat less, has a snooze, and it changes into a butterfly.

But, of course, there's far more to it than that. Carle's Hungry Caterpillar is an iconic figure whose journey from egg to butterfly is a metaphor for human development and progress, offering profound insights into the human condition.

As a thinker, he is second only to that great Greek philosopher, Aristotle, who first proposed that rational thought advances through thesis and antithesis -in other words, you eat a lot, and then you'd feel awful, so you stop eating. What could be more rational than that?

In fact, it was also Aristotle who taught us that moderation in everything was the secret of happiness, so he may well have been watching an ancient ancestor of Carle's Hungry Caterpillar nibbling his way delicately through a nice, classical Greek green leaf.

We will only find happiness, said Aristotle, if we can find a middle path between excess and the deficiency. Isn't there a lesson for us all in that, in these times of hyper-consumption that are threatening the very existence of our planet? The Hungry Caterpillar knew when to stop - do we?

But there's something puzzling about this book. All those things the Hungry Caterpillar ate - the sausage, the cupcake, the salami, the Swiss cheese - where did he find them? Surely those are not suitable food for caterpillars. Did someone leave them lying around, or did he go looking for them? It makes me wonder whether it was not Aristotle at all, but the visionary poet, thinker and mystical proto-hippie William Blake, who was the real voice of the Hungry Caterpillar. Blake takes the opposite line from Aristotle - the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. Without all that excessive eating, the caterpillar would never have been ready to pupate, and move on the next stage, the beautiful butterfly stage.

Then again, I've always thought there was a touch of Ludwig Wittgenstein about the Hungry Caterpillar. He was the founder of modern linguistic philosophy, famous for the statement: whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. Well, the caterpillar doesn't say a lot, does he?

Oh, forget all that. The real reason this is a great book is because of the little, round wormholes in the pages. Even if your own fingers are now too big to be able to fit through the wormholes, you can have huge pleasure reading this book with a young person with caterpillar-sized fingers and a butterfly-colored imagination.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: Marina Lewycka is the author of the recently published "Strawberry Fields." Her first novel, the best selling, "A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian" was translated into 30 languages.

For more You Must Read This recommendations, go to npr.org. You'll also find illustrations from "The Very Hungry Caterpillar."

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.