November 16, 2023
Let me begin with letting you all know that I love The Very Hungry Caterpillar and this article isn’t here to bash it. Instead, I’m just looking to share my thoughts on why I don’t think it’s one of the best books to use to teach butterfly life cycles.
Also, if you’ve used The Very Hungry Caterpillar to teach butterfly life cycles in the past, don’t worry! It’s a decent option as an introduction but hopefully after you read this article you’ll see why there are other picture books out there that are better for this subject. You may even discover new books about the life cycle of a butterfly to use in your classroom!
The Very Hungry Caterpillar Summary
If you’re unfamiliar with the book The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, here’s a quick run down. A little caterpillar hatches from an egg, eats a bunch of food, becomes a fat caterpillar, makes a cocoon, and transforms into a butterfly. Boom! One sentence summary!
This classic book written and illustrated by Eric Carle is a teacher favorite for its repetitive structure, use of counting, and introduction of the days of the week. It’s also often used to teach the life stages of butterflies for early childhood science.
My beef with The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
So, what’s my beef with The Very Hungry Caterpillar when it comes to teaching butterfly life cycles? It all has to do with the life stages as they are introduced in the words of the text.
Butterflies begin their lives as eggs, often laid on leaves; ✅ Eric Carle got that right. After hatching from its egg, the insect emerges in its larval stage called a caterpillar; ✅ Eric Carle got that right again. Then the caterpillar eats a ton of food and changes into its pupa stage known as a chrysalis; ⛔ this is where Eric Carle goes astray.
When it comes to butterflies, most of them emerge from pupae that are considered chrysalises – hard exoskeletons that are hung from a structure like a tree or fence. Most moths emerge from pupae that are considered cocoons – hard exoskeletons that have silky coverings spun around them and are buried in the ground or leaves. Eric Carle wrote that the caterpillar built itself a house called a cocoon where it stayed for more than two weeks before it emerged as a butterfly.
So why do I care that he used cocoon versus chrysalis? When working with early childhood learners it’s best to introduce the science that is most common versus the special cases; we are trying to build a foundation that can be fine-tuned later. In this case – most butterflies emerge from chrysalises and most moths emerge from cocoons. When your students are older and have the basics down, then it’s appropriate to introduce the special case scenarios.
*Also, as a side-note, butterflies do not nibble holes in their chrysalises before they emerge as indicated by Eric Carle at the end of his story. The exoskeleton is shed just like the coverings from the caterpillar’s instars. If you search in YouTube for a butterfly’s life cycle you will be able to see how the chrysalis changes and is pushed open by force, not nibbled.
What does Eric Carle have to say about the vocabulary?
Eric Carle must have been asked the question about cocoon versus chrysalis many times because he actually addressed it on his website. Here’s his thoughts about the subject:
“Here’s the scientific explanation: In most cases a butterfly does come from a chrysalis, but not all. There’s a rare genus called Parnassian, that pupates in a cocoon. These butterflies live in the Pacific Northwest, in Siberia, and as far away as North Korea and the northern islands of Japan.
And here’s my unscientific explanation: My caterpillar is very unusual. As you know caterpillars don’t eat lollipops and ice cream, so you won’t find my caterpillar in any field guides. But also, when I was a small boy, my father would say, ‘Eric, come out of your cocoon.’ He meant I should open up and be receptive to the world around me. For me, it would not sound right to say, ‘Come out of your chrysalis.’ And so poetry won over science!” (Carle n.d.).
Thanks to Eric Carle for his honesty, but it doesn’t change my opinion about The Very Hungry Caterpillar and its appropriateness for teaching life cycles with early childhood learners.
Activities with The Very Hungry Caterpillar
The Very Hungry Caterpillar definitely is a great tool to teach early childhood learners, don’t think that I don’t see where it could be a valuable read. However, I feel its value lies in being used for retelling, counting, and learning the days of the week.
Some activities with The Very Hungry Caterpillar that I think are developmentally appropriate for early childhood learners include:
- Incorporating retelling of the storyline during calendar in the morning – this activity provides practice for the days of the week as well as retelling the story.
- Counting the number of fruits on each page – this activity provides repetitive counting practice.
- Identifying the colors of the fruits on each page – this activity provides practice of basic colors.
- Discussing animal needs – this activity provides an opportunity to analyze text and illustrations for clues on what animals need to survive.
Books about the life cycle of a butterfly
After reading my thoughts about The Very Hungry Caterpillar, how about some alternative picture books to help you introduce and teach life cycles of butterflies?
Some of my favorite books about the life cycle of a butterfly include:
- A Monarch Butterfly’s Life by John Himmelman
- A Butterfly is Patient by Dianna Hutts Aston
- Where Butterflies Grow by Joanne Ryder
- Are You a Butterfly? By Judy Allen
- Butterflies Are Pretty Gross by Rosemary Mosco
- Monarch Butterflies by Ann Hobbie
- A Butterfly’s Life Cycle by Mary R. Dunn
Butterfly life cycle activities
Once you have your books about the life cycle of a butterfly ready to go, what should you do with them? Some butterfly life cycle activities to consider could be:
- Creating a science vocabulary bulletin board – butterfly life cycles include some weird vocab; work together as a class to create a display to help keep track of all the weird words that come with these life cycles.
- Making a butterfly life cycle comic strip – your students could get creative and develop their own comic strip story about the life cycle of a butterfly in order to help them remember the metamorphosis.
- Surveying your schoolyard for butterflies and their stages – give your students clipboards and pencils and have them look around on plants and in the air in your schoolyard to see if they can find eggs, caterpillars, chrysalises, and butterflies near your school.
- Designing an imaginary butterfly life cycle – have your students apply their understanding of butterflies and their life cycles by letting them design their very own imaginary butterfly life cycle making sure they include the four life stages.
There are tons more ideas, but these four can get your creative juices flowing. Have a third grade class studying life cycles but you don’t have time to develop your own butterfly life cycle unit? Check out my Butterfly Life Cycle Book Companion for literacy and science activities that can work with any picture book about butterfly life cycles.
So before you call me the Grinch of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, remember that I love this book just as much as the next educator. However, I have my misgivings about its use for introducing butterfly life cycles but see its value in teaching retelling, counting, and days of the week. Hopefully this article provided you some great options for alternative texts as well as some activity ideas to enhance your early childhood learners’ experiences!
Carle, E. (n.d.) FAQ Items. Retrieved from https://eric-carle.com/faq-items/many-of-you-ask-why-the-butterfly-in-the-very-hungry-caterpillar-comes-from-a-cocoon-not-a-chrysalis/
How do you feel about The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Looking for more life cycle books? Check out “11 Fantastic Animal Life Cycle Books by John Himmelman.”
Looking for more natural history about butterflies? Check out “What Butterfly Looks Like a Monarch and 4 Other Butterfly Survival Strategies.”