A Combination of Words and Images: "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" as an Example of a Picture Book

Term Paper, 2013

9 Pages, Grade: 1,7


1. Introduction

The caterpillar ‘built a small house, called a cocoon, around himself. He stayed inside for more than two weeks. Then he nibbled a hole in the cocoon, pushed his way out and… he was a beautiful butterfly!’[1]

- Eric Carle

The picture book The Very Hungry Caterpillar [2] was written, designed and illustrated by Eric Carle and published in 1969[3]. It can be classified as a picture book since it corresponds to a picture book’s usual definition as ‘a combination of verbal texts and visual images’[4]. Picture books like Carle’s Caterpillar are usually given to young children who are not yet able to read, hence they include pictures and they assume that ‘pictures communicate more naturally and more directly than words, and thus help young readers make sense of the text they accompany’[5]. Picture books can usually have the purpose to either teach children or they are intended to simply please them[6]. Can they really be divided so clearly or are there also picture books that fulfil both functions? The Caterpillar basically deals with the development of a caterpillar from being an egg to becoming a very colourful butterfly whereas the main focus is on the stage of the caterpillar that is very hungry and eats a lot of things during one week before pupating and finally becoming a butterfly[7]. At first glance, Carle’s Caterpillar seems to belong to the educational type of picture books since it probably aims at teaching the life cycle of a butterfly. However, children often feel attracted by features such as pictures and illustrations, format, length, colour, and type of print[8]. Consequently, one can assume that particularly younger children, who are not aware of this educational purpose, feel attracted by the design, the colours or the pictures of Carle’s book or even by the caterpillar itself, even if the function of the pictures basically is to illustrate what is said by the words[9]. When considering this and reading Carle’s Caterpillar, it becomes evident that this picture book is interesting in many different respects like the design of its pictures and pages, the relation between the images and the words, the age of its recipients and their response to the book, and the actual purpose and scope of it. In this assignment, I am going to discuss whether picture books represent a wide variety of themes through a combination of words and images with particular regard to Eric Carle’s Caterpillar. Assuming that Carle’s book aims at very young children at the ages of three to five years[10], I claim that the pictures appeal to children of that age, even though they seem to be simple, and therefore foster the children’s understanding of the caterpillar’s development more than the text. In order to examine whether this claim is true or can rather be discussed, I am first going to explain what makes The Caterpillar suitable for a certain age group before I actually analyse Carle’s book with regard to the relation between the words and pictures. When analysing the relation between text and images and the design of the book, I am going to focus not only on how the content is designed, but I am also trying to explain why. In chapter four I am going to point how Carle’s book contributes to the education of its reader before drawing a conclusion that summarises the results of this paper.

2. What Makes The Very Hungry Caterpillar Suitable for a Certain Age Group?

According to Hickman The Very Hungry Caterpillar is designed to be read by preschool and kindergarten children at the age of three to five years[11]. Children at this age typically have a very short attention span and they are very active[12]. Therefore, they have to be able to complete the respective books in one sitting[13]. Furthermore, children at this age enjoy ‘participation such as naming, pointing, singing, and identifying hidden pictures’[14]. The Caterpillar actually fulfils at least some of these criteria. It observes the fact that young children can only be attentive for a short time by being rather short and having a continuous narrative with only one protagonist – in this case a caterpillar. The tiny caterpillar is probably appealing to children of that age since its design is realistic and colourful, and therefore it probably becomes simpler for them to follow and to understand the caterpillar’s development which the book deals with. Active participation for a child that reads the Caterpillar on its own, even if only by carefully regarding the pictures, is difficult to provide since the paper itself is plain and does hardly offer any interesting tactile features for the child. However, the book is tactile because of the little holes in the things that the caterpillar eats and the ‘die-cut pages’[15] which become longer according to the amount of fruit the caterpillar eats and the progressive days of the week. These features probably stimulate the child’s playfulness and curiosity to a certain extent because the child can discover the shorter pages and the holes by touching them. Therefore, it understands that the caterpillar has eaten through these things even if there is nobody to read the story to the child. If there is an adult, the child’s activity and will to name and to point at things can actually be supported by activities that the adult proposes or questions he or she asks the child regarding the names of the fruits and food in general, the colours, the days of the week, the numbers and things like that. The latter aspect shows that The Very Hungry Caterpillar offers more educational potential than is obvious at first. This will be examined in more detail in chapter four. All in all, The Caterpillar corresponds to the needs and interests of three to five year-olds.


[1] Eric Carle, The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1994), pp. 16-18.

[2] The Very Hungry Caterpillar is often referred to as Caterpillar or The Caterpillar during this assignment.

[3] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/5021384/Google-celebrates-Eric-Carles-Very-Hungry-Caterpillar. html (retrieved 25/05/2013).

[4] Perry Nodelman, ‘Decoding the Images: Illustration and Picture Books’, in Understanding Children’s Literature, ed. by Peter Hunt (London: Routledge, 1999), pp. 69-80 (p. 70).

[5] Nodelman, pp. 69-80 (p.70).

[6] Ibid., pp. 69-80 (p.76).

[7] Eric Carle, The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1994).

[8] Children’s Literature in the Elementary School, ed. by Susan Hepler, Janet Hickman and Charlotte S. Huck (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, 1989), p. 57.

[9] Nodelman, pp. 69-80 (p.72).

[10] Hepler, Hickman and Huck, p. 74.

[11] Ibid., p. 74.

[12] Ibid., p. 74.

[13] Ibid., p. 74.

[14] Ibid., p. 74.

[15] http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/very-hungry-caterpillar-eric-carle/1100472822?ean=9780399213014 (retrieved 08/06/2013).

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A Combination of Words and Images: "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" as an Example of a Picture Book
University of Malta  (English Department)
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eingereicht und korrigiert an der Universität Malta, Originalnote B+
combination, words, images, very, hungry, caterpillar, example, picture, book
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Isabel Mund (Author), 2013, A Combination of Words and Images: "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" as an Example of a Picture Book, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/232700


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