Photo: Motoko Inoue

By most objective standards I’m only a young adult, and “figuring stuff out” is “normal” in anyone’s twenties. But there’s a new normal now, right? Or actually, anything and everything counts as “normal” these days, right? Or maybe there’s no such thing as normal at all? I’m confused. When the ground under my feet feels like it’s shaken by earthquakes every few hours — not an uncommon feeling for many of us over the past year — something that helps put me on solid ground again is, ironically, nostalgia. I found myself watching Alice and Wonderland unironically last night for the first time since I was very, very small. Not some ramped-up, revisited, or live-action version, either, just the good old Disney one. 

On that same note, nothing gets to me these days like a children’s book that I’ve loved but lost touch with over the years. A seemingly simple story that packs a gut-punch of subliminal meaning with vividly evocative illustration both comforts and jolts awake my hibernating heart. And nothing hits that perfectly centering, Middle-C-on-the-piano note like a single glance at The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle

Carle passed away this week at his summer studio in Northampton, MA, at the age of 91. When I woke up this morning and read the news I heard someone slam their finger down on Middle-C and it sounded especially loud, clear and poignant. Suddenly my mind and heart were full of images and hearing words that were deeply familiar. 

This is one of those books that I can’t remember living without. I grew up in a family that loved nature, so DK guidebooks, Peter Rabbit, and yes, The Very Hungry Caterpillar all taught me to read. Whenever I finally, after hours and hours of reading, got a little restless, I went outside and found the animals that populated my imagination. It’s hard to know where it started; was I initially inspired by seeing a Monarch butterfly floating through my backyard, or was my interest sparked by the colors of an Eric Carle illustration? 

One informed the other, and they merged in my young mind, each making the other more beautiful and more a part of who I was. When art and the words used to describe it become almost inseparable from the real thing, a transcendence is reached, an accomplishment that defies words and defines artistic greatness. That’s the power of Eric Carle. He didn’t just illustrate a book, he illustrated a child’s universe. 

I was also good friends with Brown Bear and Polar Bear, even though I couldn’t exactly step outside and see either of them in person the way I could unearth a caterpillar. I was able to sit next to my mother in a sort of terrified awe, imagining the former chomping away at berries in the woods (or on myself if I was a bad kid that day.) I ventured a little further north for the latter, to a mystic land of tundra and the midnight sun. One day, I thought, I’d see and hear them all, every animal that Carle described. I’d be an adventuress. 

In the meantime, I’ll reread the book.