Ollie experiences classic literature – but not the kind he expected

Lizzie teaches her husband that a book doesn’t have to be ‘worthy’ to be a classic, and proves the point using a book bought by Grandad Ron for Alice. (That’s not Grandad Ron in the picture; it’s Eric Carle himself, in a picture available on his website)

“Banks, this is a classic,” Lizzie told her husband Ollie as she waved a copy of The Hungry Caterpillar above her head; “a classic is children’s literature.”

“But it’s not what I thought you meant when you said you wanted to get Alice reading classics,” protested Ollie. “I thought you meant Dickens and the Brontes and Hemingway, and, Tolstoy and, and …” he tailed off, unable to think of another appropriate author.

Lizzie held the book up again. “This tiny book is as much of a classic as anything they’ve written, and probably more so when you’re only five, like Alice,” she said. “It was written in 1969, and since then someone, somewhere, has bought a copy more than once a minute.”

“He must have a very big bookcase,” Ollie ventured, raising his eyebrows and nodding, impressed.

“Not one person, you chump. Different people. All round the world. All the time. In different languages. Including your dad.”

“Dad sometimes talks in riddles, but I don’t think it’s a foreign language,” said Ollie, taking the book from her and flicking through it. It had been a gift from his father for Alice. “There’s not much of a plot. In fact, there are hardly any words,” he said.

“Less than 250,” said Lizzie. “And that’s part of the point. It makes its point very simply and straightforwardly, as people have been finding out for almost 50 years since Eric Carle wrote it. This book is a rite of passage for thousands of children, who remember it and the lessons it teaches. Your dad saw that, which is why he brought the book. Apparently, you had a copy when you were small.”

Ollie didn’t remember having the book, and couldn’t grasp that there were lessons in the slim volume. Very capable in his own professional sphere, he was unable to see what lessons could be taught by such a short as, as far as he could see, inconsequential story. He said as much. Lizzie corrected him. “Well, it teaches children about growing, about how they do that, and how they get bigger, and eventually transform into something else, which is magical, in its way. Remember that Grandad Ron said the bean seeds were magic when you were in the garden? This book teaches us that there is magic in even the apparently ordinary things, and that magic can happen to all of us. I think that’s a good lesson for a child to learn, don’t you?”

Ollie had to admit that he did. “But why has the book got holes in it?”

“More magic, Ollie; more magic. It’s a book, but it’s also a toy. And it’s both at the same time. A child can read the story or have it read to them, and explore the shapes cut into it. We can discuss how the holes got there. Did the caterpillar eat the book? Maybe so; maybe not. All the time it’s about encouraging thought, and planting the seed that wonderful things can happen – and often do.

“That’s what happened to the author, Eric Carle. I’ve been reading his web site. He says that when he was a small boy, his father would take him on walks across meadows and through woods. He would lift a stone or peel back the bark of a tree and show him the living things that scurried about. He’d tell him about the life cycles of this or that small creature, and then he would carefully put the little creature back into its home.

“That’s more magic, and it’s teaching young children like Alice that they’re part of something else; something bigger than they can imagine. I think that’s wonderful, don’t you?”

Ollie had to admit that it was, and vowed to take Alice out into the garden so they could look under some stones for themselves… He told Lizzie as much. “And whilst we’re doing that, you could write a blog about this book. I guess more people need to know about it – if there’s anyone who hasn’t heard of it already. C’mon, Alice, let’s go fund a caterpillar of our own.”

Alice ran to get her boots. “If we find one, can I keep it for a pet?

Picture: www.eric-carle.com