Essential Literature: Ten Little Caterpillars
Ten Little Caterpillars is a collaboration of two great authors – Bill Martin, Jr. and Lois Ehlert – published 7 years after Martin’s death in 2004. Their first collaboration (with John Archambault) was the beloved Chicka Chicka Boom Boom that is one of the most popular alphabet books ever written.
With Ten Little Caterpillars, Martin and Ehlert have created another essential book that offers the reader a visually exciting counting book that is also an intriguing science book, as well as a soft, musical rhyming book. This is a rare find, folks.
Bill Martin, Jr. pointed out that “children are drawn to a parent’s or caregiver’s lap by the call of rich, predictable, melodic story books. Reading begins through the ears and through the eyes as children hear the melody of language and see the beauty of the picture book art.”
True to his words, Martin draws us in with his rhythmic text that almost sings itself like a lullaby.
The first little caterpillar crawled into a bower
The second little caterpillar wiggled up a flower
The third little caterpillar climbed a cabbage head
The forth little caterpillar found a melon bed.
Martins word choice is simple, but rich. The story offers a child words that gently move, soothing and easy. The caterpillars “crawl into a bower,” “scale an apple tree” or “sail a garden pool.” I can imagine a sweet parent/child “hand dance” that might happen while you read this book, as the lilt of language glides the caterpillars through to the predictable flight of a butterfly at the end.
Martin places his lines across the two pages, breaking the sentence at the fold into phrases that help us know how to speak the words. If you notice how he positions the print as you read, it will help you find the music inherent in the words. For Martin’s thoughts about how sentences build language through repetition and phrase structure, see his advice here.
A child will also appreciate the beauty of Lois Ehlert’s artwork. Each caterpillar from the front jacket gets its own gorgeously painted spread on a stark white background that allows our eye to be drawn to the color-saturated shapes that float before us. I love the leaf shapes that are covered with small punch holes, much as real leaves in my own garden are. After enjoying this book together, take a garden walk with your preschooler, examining flowers and leaves closely. Notice the rich textures and colors, then, turn your child loose with textured paper, paint, a hole punch and watercolor markers.
Ehlert’s illustrations have the same simple, yet specific, qualities as Martin’s words and phrases. All plants, animals and bugs are rendered in crisp geometric design splashed with color that gives each plant shape texture and movement. Each caterpillar and plant is labeled next to Ehlert’s lovely illustrations. As they examine the pictures, children can discover what caterpillars eat, who their predators are, where they attach their chrysalis’ and what kind of butterfly or moth they become. This might lead you to the library to check out nature guides for children, or to a garden for curious explorations. The garden is filled with small creatures to identify.
However, for children, the most important message of Ten Little Caterpillars is that small, fragile creatures (as our children sometimes are) can accomplish great things and transform themselves into something extraordinary and beautiful. This is the true heart of the book. For a counting book, that’s a fine treat indeed.
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