What the Caterpillar is Not
A roughly 300 word critique of this (“The Very Grouchy Daddy”) critique of The Hungry Caterpillar:
On the whole, I think I’m grateful. I know I’m amused. But mostly, I’m pleased to encounter a piece that bitingly manages to balance the gently controversial with the insightful and fun.
Daniel B. Smith’s “The Very Grouchy Daddy”’s indignant thesis, that Eric Carle’s works, most famously, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, are somnolent, formulaic and cloyingly torturous books that only wear thinner with repeated exposure, is as refreshing as it is—in the children’s book-reading-world—heretic.
While it may at first be difficult to discern what is funnier, Smith’s snark-laced asides, or the fact that Carle so offends him, the piece makes keen observations in a form clever and ultimately persuasive.
Smith’s success lies in his ability to argue a provocative point in a way dryly (and hilariously) malicious (“Each [book] 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”) without succumbing to one of a rant.
Moreover, he wisely acknowledges the artistic merits behind Carle’s vivid illustrations while admitting the creation of a children’s book is no mean feat.
What I appreciated most, then, was how carefully he addressed the “why” behind his vehement reactions to what would seem at least harmless, if not adorable. He explains how in order to be successful, a children’s book need contain the dual-pronged ability to both engage the child and the adult, a nuance he says Carle’s works do not possess.
I must admit that as a child, I found Carle’s books, with their colorful images of insects, delightful, while long finding the collective obsession with Maurice Sendak’s works capricious and overblown. But a post-Smith glance at both authors’ works for the first time in 20 years has sold me on the idea that the first may be charming, but, indeed, bloodless and linear, the second, innovative and intriguing.
So I’m grateful to Smith for showing me a point of view with which I now generally agree in a riotous form that elegantly, if perhaps subconsciously, mimics Sendak’s: that of the leave-taking and the return.