'The Very Hungry Caterpillar,' By Eric Carle, Turns 50 Will author and artist Eric Carle's famously peckish creation be munching his way through some birthday cake? (Along with the salami, the pickle, the watermelon and the slice of Swiss cheese.)
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A Very Happy 50th Birthday To 'The Very Hungry Caterpillar'

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A Very Happy 50th Birthday To 'The Very Hungry Caterpillar'

A Very Happy 50th Birthday To 'The Very Hungry Caterpillar'

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

One of the most beloved picture books in the world is turning 50...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERIC CARLE: (Reading) In the light of the moon, a little egg lay on a leaf.

MARTIN: ..."The Very Hungry Caterpillar," read there by author Eric Carle. Since the book's publication in 1969, it has sold almost 50 million copies, been translated into over 60 languages, adapted to television stage and song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR SONG")

MATT REVER: (Singing) I'm a caterpillar. I'm a caterpillar. I'm very hungry...

MARTIN: NPR's Neda Ulaby has more.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: The caterpillar in Eric Carle's illustrations is a fuzzy squiggle, with emerald eyes and an oval, vermillion head. He nearly started as a very hungry worm, but a very clever editor made the author change it. Today, Eric Carle is almost 90, too frail for an interview, but there's a 2012 online video of Carle reading the book.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARLE: (Reading) On Saturday, he ate through one piece of chocolate cake, one ice-cream cone, one pickle, one slice of Swiss cheese, one slice of salami, one lollipop, one...

ULABY: The lollipop, the salami and the caterpillar shine on the page. They're collages of layered and painted tissue paper. Michelle Martin is a professor at the University of Washington who studies children's literature. She says the author's simple, resonant language helps kids grasp concepts like numbers and the days of the week and unfamiliar words. Martin recently read the book with her 4-year-old niece.

MICHELLE MARTIN: And when she got to salami, it stopped her because, you know, she knew about sausage, she knew about hot dogs, but she didn't know what salami was.

ULABY: That's literacy-building. Eric Carle wanted his book to evoke the joy he remembered as a child making art with big paint brushes and bright colors and walking through nature with his dad. But Carle's immigrant family moved from the U.S. back home to Germany in the 1930s because his mother was homesick. His childhood was defined by the violence of World War II and physical punishment by teachers. As a young man, Carle returned to the U.S. and worked in advertising before switching to picture books. He wanted, he said, to make childhood sweeter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARLE: (Reading) On Wednesday, he ate three plums. But he was still hungry.

LIAM CICHOWICZ: Three plums.

ULABY: Childhood is sweeter for a 3-year-old named Liam Cichowicz (ph), thanks to "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" and his very patient dad.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: He ate through how many strawberries?

CICHOWICZ: Four strawberries.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: But he was still hungry.

ULABY: Little kids can stick their fingers through holes in the book's pages, as if a caterpillar tunneled through the story. It makes the book a bridge between a book and a toy. Eric Carle wanted "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" to be a literary cocoon for a child getting ready for kindergarten, with a happy ending.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) He was a beautiful butterfly.

ULABY: As in this recent video version, "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" tells little kids they can fly.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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