Deep in the third trimester of my twin pregnancy, I arrived in the 'decorator' stage of nesting and pasted Very Hungry Caterpillar decals all over the nursery walls. So maybe it goes without saying that I came to Eric Carle as a fan first and a parent second. In the days after we brought the boys home, "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" became Luke and Harry's first book, nabbing a permanent spot in the bedtime rotation.
Carle's books all feature animals, a solid choice for most children. But what distinguishes his approach is a disinterest in anthropomorphizing. They might be "Very Lonely" or "Very Hungry" to drive the plot along, but his protagonists don't have people-names, people-goals, or people-conflicts. In many books, they don't speak. Instead, his stories approach the category of narrative nonfiction, bringing children into the drama of the natural world.
Eric Carle is renowned for his art. His signature technique, cutting hand-painted paper and layering it, is completely captivating and unusual, and yet not too abstract for toddlers with ASD who may need extra practice learning to identify animals. His books also include sensory elements such as lights, sound, unusually shaped pages, or integration of other materials and textures. This makes them ideal for the libraries of sensory-seeking children.
In "The Very Hungry Caterpillar," for instance, there is a section in which the caterpillar eats through 1 apple (on Monday), 2 pears (on Tuesday), 3 plums (on Wednesday), 4 strawberries (on Thursday), and 5 oranges (on Friday). Most of the time, I would worry that this is too many ideas for one short passage: days of the week and counting and labeling different fruits? Yikes! But because the design includes smaller pages that increase in size, as well as "eaten" holes to poke a finger through, a toddler can follow the gluttonous caterpillar on a tactile journey, and it actually works.
Wonderfully, Carle's books often include urban animals, particularly insects, and this, I've learned, is unexpectedly critical. I have developed something of a bee in my bonnet about how children's literature tends to focus on farm and wild animals. It drove me crazy that, living in New York City, Harry could confidently label a flamingo but not a pigeon, or that Luke could proudly tact a tiger but not a squirrel.
I appreciate that kids with ASD need to learn the words for farm and wild animals too; these are appropriate and necessary educational goals. Even if a child never actually sees a real tiger, knowing about tigers gives a kid access to the common language of English-speaking culture and early childhood education. However, this is often done to the exclusion of common urban animals (aside from pets), which doesn't consider that our kids are likely to need a lot of extra help acquiring language to describe their natural environments. Some of the most popular Eric Carle titles are perfect tools for addressing this gap, featuring spiders, fireflies, ladybugs, crickets, caterpillars, bees, and more.
A final recommendation if you happen to live in New York City, London (UK), or Sydney (Australia) is to use familiarity with "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" book to help your child get practice attending a theater performance! When I discovered the existence of the The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show, a live children's theater performance featuring 75 puppets, I was more than a little excited at the opportunity to use a beloved, familiar book to promote such an important social skill.
We took Luke and Harry to an autism-friendly showing during which the production team kept the house lights half-dim and the volume down. It was great to be in a non-judgmental audience with other ASD families, and because the boys knew the story, they were much better able to sit in their seats and be part of an audience. Harry, in particular, was enthralled and anticipated everything, shouting out lines along with many other kids in the audience while clutching his (free!) caterpillar doll.
Luke mostly sat on my lap and required edible reinforcers, but had tear-inducing (for the moms), moments of engagement for what was happening on stage, particularly during the sections involving the caterpillar. The show features three other Carle books to study up on in advance: "The Very Lonely Firefly," "The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse," and "Mister Seahorse." As I'm posting this, New York City and London have a waitlist for their shows.
"The Very Lonely Firefly," The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse," and "Mister Seahorse" deserve their own posts, but much of what I said above applies to all Carle books, and I cover their individual strengths and weaknesses briefly below.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar
The Very Lonely Firefly
The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse
by Eric Carle
List prices (USD): "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" board book $10.99, "The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse" hardcover $7.99, "The Very Lonely Firefly" board book $11.99, "Mister Seahorse" hardcover $8.99
What we love:
- Animals as main characters, particularly urban animals.
- The art is special and interesting, but not confusing.
- Carle's collage technique can be used to inspire collage-making (cutting and pasting).
- Lots of smart, deliberate repetition of key words, phrases, and story patterns in all four of these books help children track what's happening, motivating them to attend. I believe kids feel secure (safe even) and proud of themselves when they can anticipate the next line.
- Carle signals to children when the book is about to transition to an ending by slightly deviating from the story's format to help them anticipate what's coming. Transitions can be hard in books, just like in real life, and this is a welcome technique for kids who need it. I've learned to change the inflection in my voice, slow down or speed up my reading pace, etc., when I hit these pages to take full advantage of the effect. 1
- Academic opportunities (preschool level):
- The Very Hungry Caterpillar: counting, labeling foods, days of the week, and healthy eating message;
- The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse: labeling animals, colors;
- Mister Seahorse: Not explicitly in the text, but lots of counting opportunities with the fish and eggs; and
- The Very Lonely Firefly: Opportunities to tact the objects mentioned that the firefly mistakes for other fireflies: lantern, flashlight, headlights, candle, fireworks, etc.
- For children ready for more, 3 of the books are great introductions to fascinating life science topics:
- The Very Hungry Caterpillar: Butterfly lifecycle2;
- The Very Lonely Firefly: Firefly behavior; and
- Mister Seahorse: The significant role of the male in the reproductive lives of various fish species.
- Sensory features enhance interest for sensory-seeking kids, promoting an overall interest in books.
- The Very Hungry Caterpillar: Differently shaped pages and "eaten" holes;
- The Very Lonely Firefly: Electric, flickering lights, and
- Mister Seahorse: Acetate transparency overlays.
- In The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse, each two-page spread has the word "and" as a bridge to the next two-page spread. The word is isolated on its own and this is a perfect opportunity for sight word recognition. We are using this book often with Harry right now. It's his job to point to "and" and I pause and let him say the word before we turn the page.
- The Very Hungry Caterpillar
- I can't help but eye-roll at the Christian allusion. The caterpillar is born on a Sunday and on the following Sunday eats the nice green leaf before destroying its caterpillar form and becoming a butterfly. Ignorable, but annoying.
- The two-page spread in which the caterpillar is in a cocoon is text-heavy and graphically boring (looks like a turd!). I edit the text down to get to the butterfly finale faster.
- The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse
- Pairs familiar animals with an unexpected color. This is great for learning colors (ie. green elephant) because you have to pay careful attention and can't assume the color. However, if you don't already know the rule this is a bad idea. Case in point, Harry went from an emerging understanding of what polar bears, brown bears, and black bears are to believing, because of the "black polar bear" that all bears are actually "polar bears" of varying colors. He now calls brown bears, "brown polar bears."
- Mister Seahorse
- Other than the seahorse, the fish species are pretty obscure, which makes the book non-useful for learning new animals (not enough opportunities to generalize beyond the book). I'm guessing they were chosen because of how the male participates in the reproductive cycle of the species rather than how commonly known or distinct-looking they are. It's too bad because Harry really loves this book, but hasn't come across another kurtus fish, for instance, so I don't think he'll really learn the word/animal in the long-run.
- The acetate pages create a lot of visual sensory interest, but may be difficult for kids with fine motor issues to manipulate. They are even smoother than glossy pages and clear/invisible wherever the artist doesn't print an image (often on the edges and corners where you turn pages).
- There is a lot of heteronormative nonsense in this book (Mrs. instead of Ms. as a title, for the mother fish, to begin with), which is really too bad when the social theme of the book is intended to be that fathers are nurturing and important in the lives of their children. One example of this is so beyond-the-pale that I attacked it with a sharpie.
1. From Eric Carle's FAQ section, in answer to the question: "Why does Mister Seahorse look different from some of your other books and why isn't there an acetate sheet after Mr. Pipe?", Eric Carle writes: "In most of my books I tend to disrupt the pace and rhythm of the story toward the end so as to signal to the reader that the book is coming to a close." (retrieved 4/13/26) ↩
2. I am so bothered that Carle won't fix the glaring error he made when he put the caterpillar into a cocoon (what a moth emerges from) instead of a chrysalis. Every year millions of children incorrectly learn that butterflies come from cocoons and I doubt most of them ever unlearn this. It's a completely fixable problem for new editions, and I'm really disappointed that Carle continues to double-down.