I was working at the cash register on a busy Saturday a few weeks ago. I asked my customer, “Do you have a membership to the museum?”
“Yes I do,” answered the friendly man with glasses and graying hair, “but I’ve never been to the museum before. I live in Minneapolis.” He was buying a hundred dollars worth of books and toys.
I gave him the 15% membership discount and said, “You’re a member but you’ve never been to the museum?”
“I’m visiting my cousin, who lives nearby.” He put his arm around the woman beside him and continued. “I’d been planning to visit the museum ever since I saw your exhibit in Washington last year.”
“Oh, you joined…online, after you saw the Stanford in D.C. show?”
“Yes. I bought that print online.” He pointed to the shop’s rear wall, where Eric Carle’s signed and numbered prints are displayed: the image of the Very Hungry Caterpillar creeping along the ground as a huge warm sun fills the background.
“You know, we sold quite a few prints because of that show in D.C.”
He became animated. “I bought that print just at the time my grandson was born. It hangs in the hallway. Whenever I pass it, I think that he is like the caterpillar, and I, his grandfather, am like the sun. So you can imagine, I was looking forward to finally visiting the museum.”
We continued to chat. Later as I thought back to this conversation—and to the way this reader identified with a secondary character (the sun) in a story I always considered to have only one character (caterpillar/butterfly)—I recalled a different conversation about the interpretation of Eric Carle’s most famous book.
It was 2003; a slow day in the store. Eric Carle had stopped in to sign some copies of his books. I asked him, “Did you have some moral in mind, when you began to write The Very Hungry Caterpillar?”
He said, “I was trying to make a book that would also be a toy. I wanted holes in the pages: I needed a character to move through the holes.”
I hadn’t heard this story, and I was surprised. I said, “I think of the story as redemptive, because the caterpillar eats all that junkfood and suffers a stomachache, but he still gets to turn into a butterfly.”
Eric smiled and said, “That’s what you see.”
I asked him, “You must have encountered so many interpretations. What was the strangest?”
He raised his eyebrows. “I was in East Berlin in 1989, at a library conference. I was seated at a round table with many East German librarians. They told me that good socialist children should never read The Very Hungry Caterpillar, because it is a tale of the Western consumer society; it teaches over-consumption. A capitalist parable.”
I suspect Eric Carle would get more pleasure from the interpretation of our museum member from Minneapolis.