LAST week saw the death of children’s picture book writer and illustrator Eric Carle, at the age of 91.

There can be few people under the age of 50 who didn’t have his most famous book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, read to them as child.

And there can be few parents or grandparents who haven’t read that book to their children or grandchildren.

First published in 1969, The Very Hungry Caterpillar has gone on to sell over 50 million copies and has been translated into over 66 languages.

Someone with perhaps too much time on their hands has worked out that somewhere in the world, a copy of the book is bought every 57 seconds.

Like other 1960s illustrated titles such as Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak and The Tiger Who Came To Tea by Judith Kerr, Carle’s book has sustained as a children’s classic for every generation since.

The original starting point for the book was, apparently, a hole punch.

Carle was punching through a stack of paper when he got the idea of a picture book built around holes. But when he developed the concept, his original protagonist was a bookworm.

His editor, Ann Beneduce, however, was less convinced about A Week With Willie Worm. She wasn’t sure about the lead character or the story: Carle’s original version didn’t really have an ending.

It was Beneduce who suggested that a caterpillar might be more appealing. And now (plot spoiler) there was a proper ending with our hero turning into a beautiful butterfly.

Carle got to work with his wonderful, distinctive, brightly coloured illustrations and his caterpillar chewed his way through a selection of fruit, a Saturday binge of anything and everything (you can have a point for naming each of the ten items he devoured) and then a cleansing green leaf on Sunday.

Interviewed by Metro in 2009, Carle ascribed the book’s success to it being ‘a book of hope.

That you, an insignificant, ugly little caterpillar can grow up and eventually unfold your talent and fly into the world.

As a child, you can feel small and helpless and wonder if you’ll ever grow up.’ It’s a more convincing explanation than some of the allegorical theories around the book’s true meaning, with various people arguing it is in fact a metaphor for Christianity, or that the caterpillar’s insatiable appetite is somehow meant to depict the worst excesses of capitalism.

Carle didn’t only write about caterpillars: his other 69 books would also feature bad-tempered ladybirds, mixed-up chameleons and very busy spiders.

But it is very hungry caterpillars that he will remain best known for: a simple story, economically written, beautifully illustrated, and loved by millions.

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