Is that right? The Very Hungry Caterpillar teaches kids to eat right?

March 17, 2011

A new campaign aims to teach kids about eating healthfully by following the exploits of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.”

Having read that book a zillion times to my own kids when they were little, I'm not sure how I feel about that.

In Eric Carle's famous and rightfully classic picture book (published in 1969) a caterpillar (who starts as a mere egg) eats his way through far more than his little body's weight in food. The food he dines on accumulates as he worms his way through the book, until he ends up a very fat caterpillar who gets a stomachache from overindulging. Thankfully, he finds a nice green leaf that makes him feel better. Next thing you know, that caterpillar's become a gorgeous butterfly, spreading his colorful wings.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, in collaboration with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation and with Eric Carle's blessing, has made the V.H. Caterpillar the centerpiece of an initiative that will place copies of a special edition of the book in 17,500 pediatrician offices, along with growth charts and parent guides to help drive the book's nutrition message home. Here are some tips from the guide:

“Teach your child that apples, pears, plums, strawberries, and oranges are all fruits. Ask them if they can name other fruits.

“Talk to them about how fruits are good for your body.

“Talk about how when the caterpillar overeats, he gets a stomachache — so it is important to stop eating when you feel full.”

That’s all well and good. But the book's real message, as I read it, has to do with realizing your fullest, wonderful potential after feeling unremarkable for much of your life. That's why I kept reading it with my kids.

That, and the sheer tactile pleasure of Carle's illustrations, not just of healthful berries and other fruits but of a lollipop, a chunk of cake, an ice-cream cone. And not once did it occur to me to pause and point out that some of what the caterpillar consumed counted as "sometimes foods." If anything, reading the book made me want a piece of chocolate cake — and a big pink wedge of watermelon.

I know that too many kids in America don't eat the way they should and that too many weigh far too much. And I suppose that any tools we can enlist to help remedy those situations should be fair game. But (perhaps because I write picture books myself), I don't like seeing books co-opted for such didactic purposes. On the other hand, if Mr. Carle is on board, who am I to complain? (Interestingly, Carle's first version of the book was called “A Week with Willi Worm,” and it ended simply with a very fat worm. A savvy editor intervened and suggested the worm become a caterpillar; the butterfly wasn't far behind.)

I do hope the campaign works, and that many kids come away from The Very Hungry Caterpillar knowing that they'll feel sick if they overeat, that they should eat lots of fresh fruit and vegetables and that sweets should be occasional treats.

But I also hope the book's other message doesn't get buried in all those lessons.

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