There comes a time in the life of a writer when he has to straighten his spine, gird his loins, and—facing the certain opprobrium of his peers and the disdain of his friends and family—proclaim an ignored, essential verity.
Eric Carle, the most successful children’s book author of our time, sucks.
I recognize that this viewpoint would appear to be contradicted by ample evidence. In March, when The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Carle’s most revered book, celebrated its 40th anniversary, dozens of newspapers and magazines noted the milestone, often citing the same staggering statistics: The book had sold 29 million copies, been translated into 47 languages (can you even name 47 languages?), and continues to sell at the rate of a copy every 30 seconds. This makes The Very Hungry Caterpillar one of the most popular children’s book of all time—more successful than Goodnight Moon and The Cat in the Hat and second in sales only to Peter Rabbit.
Just because something is the object of effusive affection, however, doesn’t mean it’s worthy of that affection (q.v. Mao Zedong, Sex & the City). Indeed, it is when a cultural artifact has become this gargantuanly successful that we most need the help of an expert—an arbiter to pore over the work and honestly assess its qualities and flaws. I nominate myself.
What are my credentials? As of this writing, my daughter is 2 years, 2 months, and 5 days old. Because Eric Carle’s books are practically distributed on maternity wards along with baby formula and nipple salve, and because my wife, like everyone else, thinks they’re wonderful, I have read one of them to my daughter nearly every nap- and bedtime since she was born: 796 consecutive days. That’s probably more times than Harold Bloom has read King Lear.
The experience hasn’t been all bad. Before he became an author, Carle worked at an advertising agency, and from Madison Avenue, he absorbed useful lessons about visual boldness and simplicity of form. His illustrations—which he constructs out of pieces of paper he paints with watercolors, cuts, and layers—are bright, beautiful, and memorable. The famous illustrations of the food the caterpillar tunnels through before he retreats to his cocoon—Swiss cheese, sausage, cherry pie, a lollipop, a slice of watermelon—are so sharp and evocative they’d work well as stand-alone images, framed and hung in a living room.
My objection isn’t to Carle’s artwork. It is to his lack of narrative creativity—a laziness and repetitiveness that in time can breed deep parental resentment. Like many successful children’s book authors—Karen Katz, author of the Where Is Baby’s … series of books, is a more recent example—Carle sticks closely to field-tested formulas. He’s a franchise-builder, the Nora Roberts of the toddler set. When the first book he illustrated, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? (1967), turned out to be a hit, he followed up with Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear?, Panda Bear, Panda Bear, What Do You See?, and Baby Bear, Baby Bear, What Do You See?Each proceeds along the same monotonous line: Animal No. 1 perceives Animal No. 2, who perceives Animal No. 3, and so on and so forth until the sequence ends, more or less arbitrarily.
When The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969) was much more than a hit, Carle flooded the market with parables about insects steadily overcoming some physical or emotional obstacle: The Grouchy Ladybug, The Very Busy Spider, The Very Quiet Cricket, The Very Lonely Firefly, The Very Clumsy Click Beetle. (Caterpillar, incidentally, is one of George W. Bush’s favorite books.) These books are as repetitive as the What Do You See/Hear books. They are devoid of surprise or even amusing digression. In each, an animal proceeds from obstacle to obstacle until the inexorable and preordained solution is achieved: The lonely firefly finds friends, the industrious spider completes her web, the clumsy beetle gets back on his feet. Often Carle prints the same line page after page: “The firefly saw a light and flew toward it,” “The spider didn’t answer,” “How very clumsy of me!” The structure of the books is that of a straight road punctuated by speed bumps at fixed intervals.
This might not be a problem for children, who are typically more interested in Carle’s pictures than his stories. But for the parent, who unwraps the birthday presents and stacks the mounting pile of Carle books on the nursery shelf, it increasingly comes off as fraudulent—a venal, decades-long coasting on a couple of successes.
Anyone who thinks that writing a good book for a 2-year-old is easier than writing a good book for a 32-year-old is deluded. The children’s author has a monumental task. First, he must entertain, educate, stimulate the imagination of, etc., the child. That’s primary. But he must also entertain, educate, stimulate the imagination of, etc., the parent. This is secondary but, for the continued sanity of the reader-parent, of great importance. Toddlers are strong-willed; they will choose the books they want to read, and the parent has to comply at pain of tantrum. Lesser writers manipulate this fact. They serve only the child. Pat the Bunny is like this: flat, rote, simplistic—cheaply exciting for the toddler, who is happy to know what’s coming next and how everything is going to end, but a source of excruciating boredom for the parent.
Great children’s writers never forget their dual audience. Think of almost any book by Maurice Sendak, who among living children’s authors is the only one who has enjoyed success on par with Carle’s (success we’re about to be reminded of with the release of Spike Jonze’s feature film and Dave Egger’s novelization of Where the Wild Things Are later this month, and a subsequent Jonze documentary on Sendak).
The too-often ignored difference is that Sendak’s success has been hard-won and is wholly deserved. Not only has he never repeated himself from book to book—each is sui generis—but within each book, he lays in sustenance for both child and parent. This doesn’t mean the books are more difficult, although the language does tend to be more fluid, less monogamously wed to subject-verb-object simplicity than what you find in Carle. It means Sendak injects into simple, alluring, toddler-graspable tales enough mystery, poetry, and startling symbolism to keep parents interested while their kids sit in their laps.
Consider In the Night Kitchen. Like Where the Wild Things Are, it’s a dream sequence: A little boy named Mickey hears a noise, descends into a strange kitchen where cooks are baking cakes, has an adventure, and drifts back to bed. A leave-taking, a return. Kids can easily relate to the story. Parents, meanwhile, get what they need—namely, a book that does not exhaust itself with repeated readings. There is delightful strangeness (the cooks mistake Mickey for milk and use him as an ingredient—why?), and linguistic and rhythmic beauty (“Stir it! Scrape it! Make it! Bake it!”; “He kneaded and punched it and pounded and pulled”; “I’m in the milk and the milk’s in me. God bless milk and God bless me!”). There is more than a touch of adult-level menace: The cooks are stout and have narrow rectangular moustaches, like Oliver Hardy, but also like Hitler. In a 2003 interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Sendak stated that he intended the book to evoke the Holocaust.
It’s possible, to be fair, that there is educational value in Carle’s method, that children benefit from the repetition and the stark association of labels and pictures in his books. This, in any event, would appear to be the official position. In 2004, on the occasion of Caterpillar’s 35th anniversary, Bethan Marshall, an education lecturer at King’s College, London, told the Guardian, “Children learn to read in three main ways: prediction, pattern, and picture cues. The Hungry Caterpillar does all of them.” My wife, who in addition to being the mother of my daughter is a literacy specialist at a Brooklyn elementary school, shares this view. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said when I first told her that I’d rather drink a glass of warm Lysol than read another Carle book, and she went on to try to explain to me, in sharp pedagogical detail, how clearly and quickly young children absorb the basics of reading comprehension from Carle’s work.
I say “try” because, for all her expertise and good-faith effort, I remain unconvinced, and firmly of the position that however important literacy instruction clearly is, you can’t claim a literary success if you leave out the leavening ingredient of artful narrative. Not surprisingly, this minority position has had some consequences. Lately, when I visit my wife’s school, I’ve noticed that she pre-empts any attempt I might make to express my opinion on Carle to her colleagues so that she can present it in the preferred light—which is to say, as a deep-rooted, untenable eccentricity.
I bristle, but I keep my peace so as not to embarrass her. I will keep my peace, too, when tonight my daughter pulls The Very Hungry Caterpillar off the shelf for the 797th time and that bright, cylindrical shock of green comes again into view, causing my skin to tighten, my spine to shiver, and my synapses to dull. I’ll do everything I’m supposed to do. I’ll act delighted with each turning page and surprised by the ending. I’ll recite the lines in an engaged voice. Against every impulse, I won’t rush or roll my eyes. It’s one of the sacrifices I’m willing to make for my daughter. May she never know such suffering.