Few would dispute the greatness of beloved children’s author, Eric Carle. There’s even a museum named in his honor located in Amherst, Massachusetts, not too far from my neck of the woods. With his engaging story telling style and unique illustrations, he inspires curiosity, exploration of nature and a life-long love of reading. Perhaps his most famous contribution to children’s literature is The Very Hungry Caterpillar, a book that has sold more than 46 million copies and is translated in 62 languages...
It’s certainly no surprise that a book like this – read and loved by a staggering number of children worldwide for almost half a century now – would be such a perfect tool for foreign language learning. For years, it has served as one of my go-to books – if not the go-to book, and I don’t see myself ever getting tired of it. Why do I love it so much? That’s easy! Here are my top four reasons.
1. It’s so fun to read!
Let’s face it! Even the shape of the book is engaging, with its telltale hole that bores through every page, as if the Hungry Little Caterpillar has come to life and eaten right through the book. And who doesn’t love how, when it gets to the part where the caterpillar begins his eating frenzy, the pages grow bigger and bigger as you turn them, starting off itty bitty with just the one apple shown, then growing wider as you go to give that perfect visual for all the food our insatiable friend is devouring.
For those that want to change things up, this story can easily be portrayed using a felt board, as I often do with my students, using some colorful story pieces I found on Etsy. I pass out the pieces ahead of time and invite the kids to help me by placing their piece on the board once we’ve reached that part in the story. This easily holds their attention as they wait anxiously for their turn to participate. Something about starting off with that blank canvas, and then slowly watching it fill up with all the colorful foods our little bruco has gobbled up is truly mesmerizing for these kids. You can easily make your own felt board by buying a large piece of felt and attaching it to a white board. Or even a large cookie sheet will work. Use some office clips to hold it in place. For the story pieces, you can try your hand at making your own, if you’re feeling artistically inspired, or you can purchase a set, like I did.
Another way to make this book interactive is to raid your child’s kitchen set and look for props. Or use real food and tell it at your kitchen table! It’s ok if you don’t have all the pieces mentioned in the story. Make do with whatever you have. The idea is to make the story interactive so your child will stay engaged and attentive.
2. It’s versatile … So many directions to go with this book!
When it comes to enforcing age appropriate preschool themes and skills, The Hungry Little Caterpillar is like hitting the jackpot. We have numbers, days of the week, eggs hatching, caterpillars morphing into butterflies, and even shapes. If you’re working on numbers in Italian, focus on that as you read this story. First, read through a page, then go back and have your child point and count each food item shown. Or if you’re using the felt story idea, have them count as they place each item on the board.
If you’re working on days of the week, pay special attention to that as you read the story. Have a calendar nearby and start by introducing the days of the week to your child. Then, challenge her to keep an ear out for those words as you read the story. Anything to keep them listening! When you get to a day of the week, be sure to read it with plenty of exaggeration and overemphasis. But don’t be surprised if after a couple of read-throughs, your child starts identifying the days of the week all on his own.
3. Easy to extend the learning
Another reason The Hungry Little Caterpillar is such a favorite of mine is the multitude of crafts and activities that can be done afterwards to reinforce the themes. You can use those kitchen set props to prepare a snack for your make believe caterpillar, being sure to emphasize their Italian names. Or you can make it a snack of real foods for your hungry little preschooler, encouraging her to pretend she’s the main character in the story munching greedily on apple and orange slices.
Pinterest is full of craft ideas based on the story, and although they’re meant for English readers, they can easily be adapted to Italian. Just keep calling him il bruco and use Italian only when referring to the food items.
An idea I’ve used with my students in the past is to make a caterpillar using a paper plate as the face and construction paper for the bottom. I help them cut holes for the mouth, then they “feed” their caterpillar with food items I’ve printed out and laminated. I encourage parents to put it in the toy rotation so the kids can continue to familiarize themselves with the food names at home.
If it’s spring time, why not do a little hunt in the backyard for a bruco of your own, and weave a little science into your preschooler’s day. Place it in a plastic container with holes for a day or two and give it leaves sprayed with water. Then let your child observe the caterpillar. Try and focus on a few key words in Italian, like eat, leaf, fat, hungry. Then you can set it free so it can build its cocoon and turn into a beautiful farfalla! With this story, the options are truly endless. You can read it several times, changing your focus each time, and your child will never grow tired of it.
4. So relatable!
Yummy foods, overeating, stomach aches – what preschooler doesn’t have firsthand experience with this unfortunate turn of events? And the whole idea of metamorphosis, with our caterpillar making his exciting transformation at the end of the story, is such a universal concept that is appreciated at any age. Preschoolers are innately curious about the world around them, and they’re natural explorers when it comes to the wonders of nature, which is exactly why Eric Carle’s books are so loved.
Also, for most kids, this book is already familiar, making it easier for them to sit and listen even if they don’t understand all the words. While it’s always a good idea to expose them to Italian literature and nursery rhymes, there’s a definite place for familiar stories that your child already knows and loves. This is particularly true for children who aren’t in a fully immersive language environment. If their Italian exposure is more sporadic, or happens in weekly enrichment classes, like it does for my students, then familiar books are an important part of the curriculum. When they already know the story, they can sit back and enjoy what’s happening in front of them, whereas unfamiliar texts in an unfamiliar language can quickly lead to tuning out.
For beginner level parents who are excited to share this book in Italian with their child, try this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=77xLpEfoBc8 This is a lovely read aloud in Italian with some simple animation. You can start by reading the book in English first, then play the video and enjoy! Comment below with any craft or activity ideas you try afterwards! Happy reading!