The Very Hungry Caterpillar: 50 years of magical reading for children

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E ric Carle ’s decision to turn over a new leaf and exchange working as an art director on Madison Avenue for a career creating picture books was a transformation worthy of any caterpillar turned butterfly.
Carle was about to reach 40 when he switched his life up and within a short time he had published The Very Hungry Caterpillar . Although it’s only 224 words long, this enchanting story went on to sell more than 50 million copies, be translated into 62 languages and was once voted the best children’s bedtime story ever, in a World Book Day survey. A copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar , which was released by The World Publishing Company on 3 June 1969, is bought by someone in the world nearly every 50 seconds. “The storyline is surprisingly universal,” says Carle, who turns 90 this month.
Carle had the rare ability to see the world through the eyes of a child when he had grown into an adult and it is the source of much of the power of The Very Hungry Caterpillar . We’ll tell you what’s true. You can form your own view.
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It is a simple, beautiful and heart-warming tale of change and growth: a caterpillar eating through so many different foods, through the week, before turning into a gorgeous butterfly. Even in a digital age, the pictures and lyrical story continue to readily engage children’s attention.
Carle’s own love of nature was instilled as a child, albeit during a traumatic time following his family’s move from Syracuse, in New York state, back to Stuttgart, in his parents’ native Germany. He was six when he left America in 1939 and his time in Germany left indelible mental scars. He hated his strict German grammar school, where students were disciplined with bamboo sticks and ordered to worship the Nazi leadership. Even in his eighties, Carle recalls the burning welts left on his hands after beatings.
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Created with Sketch. 1/40 Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
It is a fact universally acknowledged that every list of great books must include Pride and Prejudice. Don’t be fooled by the bonnets and balls: beneath the sugary surface is a tart exposé of the marriage market in Georgian England. For every lucky Elizabeth, who tames the haughty, handsome Mr. Darcy and learns to know herself in the process, there’s a Charlotte, resigned to life with a driveling buffoon for want of a pretty face. 2/40 The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾, Sue Townsend
Read this one when you’re decrepit enough, and chances are you’ll die laughing. No-one has lampooned the self-absorption, delusions of grandeur and sexual frustration of adolescence as brilliantly as Susan Townsend, and no one ever will. Beyond the majestically majestic poetry and the pimples, there’s also a sharp satire of Thatcherist Britain. 3/40 Catch 22, Joseph Heller
It’s not often an idiom coined in a novel becomes a catch-phrase, but Joseph Heller managed it with his madcap, savage and hilarious tour de force. War is the ultimate dead-end for logic, and this novel explores all its absurdities as we follow US bombardier pilot Captain John Yossarian. While Heller drew on his own experience as a WWII pilot, it was the McCarthyism of the fifties that fueled the book’s glorious rage. 4/40 Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
A good 125 years before #metoo, Thomas Hardy skewered the sexual hypocrisy of the Victorian age in this melodramatic but immensely moving novel. Tess is a naïve girl from a poor family who is raped by a wealthy land-owner. After the death of her baby, she tries to build a new life, but the “shame” of her past casts a long shadow. Read this if you want to understand the rotten culture at the root of victim-blaming. 5/40 Things fall apart, Chinua Achebe
A classic exposé of colonialism, Achebe’s novel explores what happens to a Nigerian village when European missionaries arrive. The main character, warrior-like Okonkwo, embodies the traditional values that are ultimately doomed. By the time Achebe was born in 1930, missionaries had been settled in his village for decades. He wrote in English and took the title of his novel from a Yeats poem, but wove Igbo proverbs throughout this lyrical work. 6/40 1984, George Orwell
The ultimate piece of dystopian fiction, 1984 was so prescient that it’s become a cliché. But forget TV’s Big Brother or the trite travesty of Room 101: the original has lost none of its furious force. Orwell was interested in the mechanics of totalitarianism, imagining a society that took the paranoid surveillance of the Soviets to chilling conclusions. Our hero, Winston, tries to resist a grey world where a screen watches your every move, but bravery is ultimately futile when the state worms its way inside your mind. 7/40 To kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
A timeless plea for justice in the setting of America’s racist South during the depression years, Lee’s novel caused a sensation. Her device was simple but incendiary: look at the world through the eyes of a six-year-old, in this case, Jean Louise Finch, whose father is a lawyer defending a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. Lee hoped for nothing but “a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers”: she won the Pulitzer and a place on the curriculum. 8/40 Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
Dickens was the social conscience of the Victorian age, but don’t let that put you off. Great Expectations is the roiling tale of the orphaned Pip, the lovely Estella, and the thwarted Miss Havisham. First written in serial form, you barely have time to recover from one cliffhanger before the next one beckons, all told in Dickens’ luxuriant, humorous, heartfelt prose. 9/40 The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
Roy won the 1997 Booker Prize with her debut novel, a powerful intergenerational tale of love that crosses caste lines in southern India, and the appalling consequences for those who break the taboos dictating “who should be loved, and how. And how much”. Sex, death, religion, the ambivalent pull of motherhood: it’s all there in this beautiful and haunting book. 10/40 Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
In an astonishing act of literary ventriloquism, Mantel inhabits a fictionalised version of Thomas Cromwell, a working-class boy who rose through his own fierce intelligence to be a key player in the treacherous world of Tudor politics. Historical fiction so immersive you can smell the fear and ambition. 11/40 The Code of the Woosters, PG Wodehouse
If you haven’t read PG Wodehouse in a hot bath with a snifter of whisky and ideally a rubber duck for company, you haven’t lived. Wallow in this sublimely silly tale of the ultimate comic double act: bumbling aristocrat Bertie Wooster and his omniscient butler, Jeeves. A sheer joy to read that also manages to satirise British fascist leader Oswald Mosley as a querulous grump in black shorts. 12/40 Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
Shelley was just 18 when she wrote Frankenstein as part of a challenge with her future husband, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron, to concoct the best horror story. Put down the green face paint: Frankenstein’s monster is a complex creation who yearns for sympathy and companionship. Some 200 years after it was first published, the gothic tale feels more relevant than ever as genetic science pushes the boundaries of what it means to create life. 13/40 Lord of the Flies, William Golding
Anyone who has ever suspected that children are primitive little beasties will nod sagely as they read Golding’s classic. His theory is this: maroon a bunch of schoolboys on an island, and watch how quickly the trappings of decent behaviour fall away. Never has a broken pair of spectacles seemed so sinister, or civilisation so fragile. 14/40 Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie
The protagonist of Rushdie’s most celebrated novel is born at the exact moment India gains independence. He’s also born with superpowers, and he’s not the only one. In an audacious and poetic piece of magical realism, Rushdie tells the story of India’s blood-soaked resurgence via a swathe of children born at midnight with uncanny abilities. 15/40 Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
You will need a cold, dead heart not to be moved by one of literature’s steeliest heroines. From the institutional cruelty of her boarding school, the “small, plain” Jane Eyre becomes a governess who demands a right to think and feel. Not many love stories take in a mad woman in the attic and a spot of therapeutic disfigurement, but this one somehow carries it off with mythic aplomb 16/40 Middlemarch, George Eliot
This is a richly satisfying slow burn of a novel that follows the lives and loves of the inhabitants of a small town in England through the years 1829–32. The acerbic wit and timeless truth of its observations mark this out as a work of genius; but at the time the author, Mary Anne Evans, had to turn to a male pen name to be taken seriously. 17/40 Secret History, Donna Tartt
Stick another log on the fire and curl up with this dark, peculiar and quite brilliant literary murder tale. A group of classics students become entranced by Greek mythology – and then take it up a level. Remember, kids: never try your own delirious Dionysian ritual at home. 18/40 Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
A subtle and engrossing look at racial identity, through the story of a charismatic young Nigerian woman who leaves her comfortable Lagos home for a world of struggles in the United States. Capturing both the hard-scrabble life of US immigrants and the brash divisions of a rising Nigeria, Adichie crosses continents with all her usual depth of feeling and lightness of touch. 19/40 Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons
An absolute unadulterated comic joy of a novel. Stella Gibbons neatly pokes fun at sentimental navel-gazing with her zesty heroine Flora, who is more interested in basic hygiene than histrionics. In other words, if you’ve “seen something nasty in the woodshed,” just shut the door. 20/40 Beloved, Toni Morrison
Dedicated to the “Sixty Million and more” Africans and their descendants who died as a result of the slave trade, this is a cultural milestone and a Pulitzer-winning tour de force. Morrison was inspired by the real-life story of an enslaved woman who killed her own daughter rather than see her return to slavery. In her plot, the murdered child returns to haunt a black community, suggesting the inescapable taint of America’s history. 21/40 Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
Evelyn Waugh bottles the intoxicating vapour of a vanished era in this novel about middle-class Charles Ryder, who meets upper-class Sebastian Flyte at Oxford University in the 1920s. Scrap the wartime prologue, and Charles’s entire relationship with Sebastian’s sister Julia (Dear Evelyn, thank you for your latest manuscript, a few suggested cuts…) and you’re looking at one of the most affecting love affairs in the English language. 22/40 Dune, Frank Herbert
You can almost feel your mouth dry with thirst as you enter the world of Frank Herbert’s Dune and encounter the desert planet of Arrakis, with its giant sandworms and mind-altering spice. It’s the setting for an epic saga of warring feudal houses, but it’s as much eco-parable as thrilling adventure story. Rarely has a fictional world been so completely realised. 23/40 Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
Will there ever be a novel that burns with more passionate intensity than Wuthering Heights? The forces that bring together its fierce heroine Catherine Earnshaw and cruel hero Heathcliff are violent and untameable, yet rooted in a childhood devotion to one another, when Heathcliff obeyed Cathy’s every command. It’s impossible to imagine this novel ever provoking quiet slumbers; Emily Bronte’s vision of nature blazes with poetry. 24/40 The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald
The savage reviews that greeted F Scott Fitzgerald’s third novel – “no more than a glorified anecdote”; “for the season only” – failed to recognise something truly great; a near-perfect distillation of the hope, ambition, cynicism and desire at the heart of the American Dream. Other novels capture the allure of the invented self, from Stendhal’s The Red and the Black to Thomas Mann’s Confessions of Felix Krull, but Fitzgerald’s enigmatic Jay Gatsby casts a shadow that reaches to Mad Men’s Don Draper and beyond. 25/40 A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
From the moment we meet Alex and his three droogs in the Korova milkbar, drinking moloko with vellocet or synthemesc and wondering whether to chat up the devotchkas at the counter or tolchock some old veck in an alley, it’s clear that normal novelistic conventions do not apply. Anthony Burgess’s slim volume about a violent near-future where aversion therapy is used on feral youth who speak Nadsat and commit rape and murder, is a dystopian masterpiece. 26/40 Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
Banned from entering the UK in its year of publication, 1955, Vladimir Nabokov’s astonishingly skilful and enduringly controversial work of fiction introduces us to literary professor and self-confessed hebephile Humbert Humbert, the perhaps unreliable narrator of the novel. He marries widow Charlotte Haze only to get access to her daughter, 12-year-old Dolores, nicknamed Lo by her mother, or as Humbert calls her “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.” Cloaking his abuse in the allusive language of idealised love does not lessen Humbert’s crimes, but allows Nabokov to skewer him where he hides. 27/40 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Philip K Dick
Here be Roy Baty, Rick Deckard and Rachael Rosen – the novel that inspired Blade Runner is stranger even than the film it became. Back in an age before artificial intelligence could teach itself to play chess in a few hours better than any grandmaster that ever lived, Philip K Dick was using the concept of android life to explore what it meant to be human, and what it is to be left behind on a compromised planet. That he could do it in 250 pages that set the mind spinning and engage the emotions with every page-turn make this a rare science-fiction indeed. 28/40 Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
Inspired by Conrad’s own experiences of captaining a trading steamer up the Congo River, Heart of Darkness is part adventure, part psychological voyage into the unknown, as the narrator Marlow relays the story of his journey into the jungle to meet the mysterious ivory trader Mr Kurtz. Although debate continues to rage about whether the novel and its attitude to Africa and colonialism is racist, it’s deeply involving and demands to be read. 29/40 Dracula, Bram Stoker
Whatever passed between Irish theatre manager Bram Stoker and the Hungarian traveller and writer Ármin Vámbéry when they met in London and talked of the Carpathian Mountains, it incubated in the Gothic imagination of Stoker into a work that has had an incalculable influence on Western culture. It’s not hard to read the Count as a shadowy sexual figure surprising straitlaced Victorian England in their beds, but in Stoker’s hands he’s also bloody creepy. 30/40 The Catcher in the Rye, J D Salinger
It only takes one sentence, written in the first person, for Salinger’s Holden Caulfield to announce himself in all his teenage nihilism, sneering at you for wanting to know his biographical details “and all that David Copperfield kind of crap”. The Catcher in the Rye is the quintessential novel of the adolescent experience, captured in deathless prose. 31/40 The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler
Dashiel Hammett may have been harder boiled, his plots more intricate but, wow, does Raymond Chandler have style. The push and pull at the start of The Big Sleep between private detective Philip Marlowe, in his powder-blue suit and dark blue shirt, and Miss Carmen Sternwood, with her “little sharp predatory teeth” and lashes that she lowers and raises like a theatre curtain, sets the tone for a story of bad girls and bad men. 32/40 Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray
All the teeming life of 19th century London is here in Thackeray’s masterpiece, right down to the curry houses frequented by Jos Sedley, who has gained a taste for the hot stuff as an officer in the East India Trading Company. But it is Becky Sharp, one of literature’s great characters, who gives this novel its enduring fascination. As a woman on the make, Becky is the perfect blend of wit, cunning and cold-hearted ruthlessness. Try as film and TV might to humanise and make excuses for her, Becky needs victims to thrive! And she’s all the more compelling for that. 33/40 The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
The only novel written by the poet Sylvia Plath is a semi-autobiographical account of a descent into depression that the book’s narrator Esther Greenwood describes as like being trapped under a bell jar – used to create a vacuum in scientific experiments – struggling to breathe. Almost every word is arresting, and the way that Plath captures the vivid life happening around Esther, news events, magazine parties, accentuates the deadening illness that drives her towards suicidal feelings. Plath herself would commit suicide one month after the novel’s publication in 1963. 34/40 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl
Harry Potter may be more popular, but Willy Wonka is altogether weirder. From the overwhelming poverty experienced by Charlie Bucket and his family, to the spoilt, greedy, brattish children who join Charlie on his trip to Willy Wonka’s phantasmagorical sweet factory there is nothing artificially sweetened in Roald Dahl’s startling work of fantasy. 35/40 Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
Andrew Davies’s recent TV adaptation of War and Peace reminded those of us who can’t quite face returning to the novel’s monstrous demands just how brilliantly Tolstoy delineates affairs of the heart, even if the war passages will always be a struggle. In Anna Karenina – enormous, too! –the great Russian novelist captures the erotic charge between the married Anna and the bachelor Vronsky, then drags his heroine through society’s scorn as their affair takes shape, without ever suggesting we move from her side. 36/40 Dangerous Liaisons, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
The most deliciously wicked experience in literature, this epistolary novel introduces us to the Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont, who play cruel games of sexual conquest on their unwitting victims. The Marquise’s justification for her behaviour – “I, who was born to revenge my sex and master yours” – will strike a chord in the #metoo era, but emotions, even love, intrude, to the point where Laclos’s amorality becomes untenable. Sexy but very, very bad. 37/40 100 Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The energy and enchantment of Garcia Marquez’s story of seven generations of the Buendia family in a small town in Colombia continue to enthrall half a century on. Hauntings and premonitions allied to a journalistic eye for detail and a poetic sensibility make Marquez’s magical realism unique. 38/40 The Trial, Frank Kafka
“Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K…” So begins Kafka’s nightmarish tale of a man trapped in an unfathomable bureaucratic process after being arrested by two agents from an unidentified office for a crime they’re not allowed to tell him about. Foreshadowing the antisemitism of Nazi-occupied Europe, as well as the methods of the Stasi, KGB, and StB, it’s an unsettling, at times bewildering, tale with chilling resonance. 39/40 Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
The second Mrs de Winter is the narrator of Du Maurier’s marvellously gothic tale about a young woman who replaces the deceased Rebecca as wife to the wealthy Maxim de Winter and mistress of the Manderley estate. There she meets the housekeeper Mrs Danvers, formerly devoted to Rebecca, who proceeds to torment her. As atmospheric, psychological horror it just gets darker and darker. 40/40 The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
Published posthumously in 1958, Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel is set in 19th century Sicily, where revolution is in the air. The imposing Prince Don Fabrizio presides over a town close to Palermo during the last days of an old world in which class stratifications are stable and understood. Garibaldi’s forces have taken the island and a new world will follow. It’s a deep and poetic meditation on political change and the characters that it produces. 1/40 Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
It is a fact universally acknowledged that every list of great books must include Pride and Prejudice. Don’t be fooled by the bonnets and balls: beneath the sugary surface is a tart exposé of the marriage market in Georgian England. For every lucky Elizabeth, who tames the haughty, handsome Mr. Darcy and learns to know herself in the process, there’s a Charlotte, resigned to life with a driveling buffoon for want of a pretty face. 2/40 The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾, Sue Townsend
Read this one when you’re decrepit enough, and chances are you’ll die laughing. No-one has lampooned the self-absorption, delusions of grandeur and sexual frustration of adolescence as brilliantly as Susan Townsend, and no one ever will. Beyond the majestically majestic poetry and the pimples, there’s also a sharp satire of Thatcherist Britain. 3/40 Catch 22, Joseph Heller
It’s not often an idiom coined in a novel becomes a catch-phrase, but Joseph Heller managed it with his madcap, savage and hilarious tour de force. War is the ultimate dead-end for logic, and this novel explores all its absurdities as we follow US bombardier pilot Captain John Yossarian. While Heller drew on his own experience as a WWII pilot, it was the McCarthyism of the fifties that fueled the book’s glorious rage. 4/40 Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
A good 125 years before #metoo, Thomas Hardy skewered the sexual hypocrisy of the Victorian age in this melodramatic but immensely moving novel. Tess is a naïve girl from a poor family who is raped by a wealthy land-owner. After the death of her baby, she tries to build a new life, but the “shame” of her past casts a long shadow. Read this if you want to understand the rotten culture at the root of victim-blaming. 5/40 Things fall apart, Chinua Achebe
A classic exposé of colonialism, Achebe’s novel explores what happens to a Nigerian village when European missionaries arrive. The main character, warrior-like Okonkwo, embodies the traditional values that are ultimately doomed. By the time Achebe was born in 1930, missionaries had been settled in his village for decades. He wrote in English and took the title of his novel from a Yeats poem, but wove Igbo proverbs throughout this lyrical work. 6/40 1984, George Orwell
The ultimate piece of dystopian fiction, 1984 was so prescient that it’s become a cliché. But forget TV’s Big Brother or the trite travesty of Room 101: the original has lost none of its furious force. Orwell was interested in the mechanics of totalitarianism, imagining a society that took the paranoid surveillance of the Soviets to chilling conclusions. Our hero, Winston, tries to resist a grey world where a screen watches your every move, but bravery is ultimately futile when the state worms its way inside your mind. 7/40 To kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
A timeless plea for justice in the setting of America’s racist South during the depression years, Lee’s novel caused a sensation. Her device was simple but incendiary: look at the world through the eyes of a six-year-old, in this case, Jean Louise Finch, whose father is a lawyer defending a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. Lee hoped for nothing but “a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers”: she won the Pulitzer and a place on the curriculum. 8/40 Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
Dickens was the social conscience of the Victorian age, but don’t let that put you off. Great Expectations is the roiling tale of the orphaned Pip, the lovely Estella, and the thwarted Miss Havisham. First written in serial form, you barely have time to recover from one cliffhanger before the next one beckons, all told in Dickens’ luxuriant, humorous, heartfelt prose. 9/40 The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
Roy won the 1997 Booker Prize with her debut novel, a powerful intergenerational tale of love that crosses caste lines in southern India, and the appalling consequences for those who break the taboos dictating “who should be loved, and how. And how much”. Sex, death, religion, the ambivalent pull of motherhood: it’s all there in this beautiful and haunting book. 10/40 Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
In an astonishing act of literary ventriloquism, Mantel inhabits a fictionalised version of Thomas Cromwell, a working-class boy who rose through his own fierce intelligence to be a key player in the treacherous world of Tudor politics. Historical fiction so immersive you can smell the fear and ambition. 11/40 The Code of the Woosters, PG Wodehouse
If you haven’t read PG Wodehouse in a hot bath with a snifter of whisky and ideally a rubber duck for company, you haven’t lived. Wallow in this sublimely silly tale of the ultimate comic double act: bumbling aristocrat Bertie Wooster and his omniscient butler, Jeeves. A sheer joy to read that also manages to satirise British fascist leader Oswald Mosley as a querulous grump in black shorts. 12/40 Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
Shelley was just 18 when she wrote Frankenstein as part of a challenge with her future husband, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron, to concoct the best horror story. Put down the green face paint: Frankenstein’s monster is a complex creation who yearns for sympathy and companionship. Some 200 years after it was first published, the gothic tale feels more relevant than ever as genetic science pushes the boundaries of what it means to create life. 13/40 Lord of the Flies, William Golding
Anyone who has ever suspected that children are primitive little beasties will nod sagely as they read Golding’s classic. His theory is this: maroon a bunch of schoolboys on an island, and watch how quickly the trappings of decent behaviour fall away. Never has a broken pair of spectacles seemed so sinister, or civilisation so fragile. 14/40 Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie
The protagonist of Rushdie’s most celebrated novel is born at the exact moment India gains independence. He’s also born with superpowers, and he’s not the only one. In an audacious and poetic piece of magical realism, Rushdie tells the story of India’s blood-soaked resurgence via a swathe of children born at midnight with uncanny abilities. 15/40 Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
You will need a cold, dead heart not to be moved by one of literature’s steeliest heroines. From the institutional cruelty of her boarding school, the “small, plain” Jane Eyre becomes a governess who demands a right to think and feel. Not many love stories take in a mad woman in the attic and a spot of therapeutic disfigurement, but this one somehow carries it off with mythic aplomb 16/40 Middlemarch, George Eliot
This is a richly satisfying slow burn of a novel that follows the lives and loves of the inhabitants of a small town in England through the years 1829–32. The acerbic wit and timeless truth of its observations mark this out as a work of genius; but at the time the author, Mary Anne Evans, had to turn to a male pen name to be taken seriously. 17/40 Secret History, Donna Tartt
Stick another log on the fire and curl up with this dark, peculiar and quite brilliant literary murder tale. A group of classics students become entranced by Greek mythology – and then take it up a level. Remember, kids: never try your own delirious Dionysian ritual at home. 18/40 Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
A subtle and engrossing look at racial identity, through the story of a charismatic young Nigerian woman who leaves her comfortable Lagos home for a world of struggles in the United States. Capturing both the hard-scrabble life of US immigrants and the brash divisions of a rising Nigeria, Adichie crosses continents with all her usual depth of feeling and lightness of touch. 19/40 Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons
An absolute unadulterated comic joy of a novel. Stella Gibbons neatly pokes fun at sentimental navel-gazing with her zesty heroine Flora, who is more interested in basic hygiene than histrionics. In other words, if you’ve “seen something nasty in the woodshed,” just shut the door. 20/40 Beloved, Toni Morrison
Dedicated to the “Sixty Million and more” Africans and their descendants who died as a result of the slave trade, this is a cultural milestone and a Pulitzer-winning tour de force. Morrison was inspired by the real-life story of an enslaved woman who killed her own daughter rather than see her return to slavery. In her plot, the murdered child returns to haunt a black community, suggesting the inescapable taint of America’s history. 21/40 Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
Evelyn Waugh bottles the intoxicating vapour of a vanished era in this novel about middle-class Charles Ryder, who meets upper-class Sebastian Flyte at Oxford University in the 1920s. Scrap the wartime prologue, and Charles’s entire relationship with Sebastian’s sister Julia (Dear Evelyn, thank you for your latest manuscript, a few suggested cuts…) and you’re looking at one of the most affecting love affairs in the English language. 22/40 Dune, Frank Herbert
You can almost feel your mouth dry with thirst as you enter the world of Frank Herbert’s Dune and encounter the desert planet of Arrakis, with its giant sandworms and mind-altering spice. It’s the setting for an epic saga of warring feudal houses, but it’s as much eco-parable as thrilling adventure story. Rarely has a fictional world been so completely realised. 23/40 Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
Will there ever be a novel that burns with more passionate intensity than Wuthering Heights? The forces that bring together its fierce heroine Catherine Earnshaw and cruel hero Heathcliff are violent and untameable, yet rooted in a childhood devotion to one another, when Heathcliff obeyed Cathy’s every command. It’s impossible to imagine this novel ever provoking quiet slumbers; Emily Bronte’s vision of nature blazes with poetry. 24/40 The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald
The savage reviews that greeted F Scott Fitzgerald’s third novel – “no more than a glorified anecdote”; “for the season only” – failed to recognise something truly great; a near-perfect distillation of the hope, ambition, cynicism and desire at the heart of the American Dream. Other novels capture the allure of the invented self, from Stendhal’s The Red and the Black to Thomas Mann’s Confessions of Felix Krull, but Fitzgerald’s enigmatic Jay Gatsby casts a shadow that reaches to Mad Men’s Don Draper and beyond. 25/40 A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
From the moment we meet Alex and his three droogs in the Korova milkbar, drinking moloko with vellocet or synthemesc and wondering whether to chat up the devotchkas at the counter or tolchock some old veck in an alley, it’s clear that normal novelistic conventions do not apply. Anthony Burgess’s slim volume about a violent near-future where aversion therapy is used on feral youth who speak Nadsat and commit rape and murder, is a dystopian masterpiece. 26/40 Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
Banned from entering the UK in its year of publication, 1955, Vladimir Nabokov’s astonishingly skilful and enduringly controversial work of fiction introduces us to literary professor and self-confessed hebephile Humbert Humbert, the perhaps unreliable narrator of the novel. He marries widow Charlotte Haze only to get access to her daughter, 12-year-old Dolores, nicknamed Lo by her mother, or as Humbert calls her “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.” Cloaking his abuse in the allusive language of idealised love does not lessen Humbert’s crimes, but allows Nabokov to skewer him where he hides. 27/40 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Philip K Dick
Here be Roy Baty, Rick Deckard and Rachael Rosen – the novel that inspired Blade Runner is stranger even than the film it became. Back in an age before artificial intelligence could teach itself to play chess in a few hours better than any grandmaster that ever lived, Philip K Dick was using the concept of android life to explore what it meant to be human, and what it is to be left behind on a compromised planet. That he could do it in 250 pages that set the mind spinning and engage the emotions with every page-turn make this a rare science-fiction indeed. 28/40 Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
Inspired by Conrad’s own experiences of captaining a trading steamer up the Congo River, Heart of Darkness is part adventure, part psychological voyage into the unknown, as the narrator Marlow relays the story of his journey into the jungle to meet the mysterious ivory trader Mr Kurtz. Although debate continues to rage about whether the novel and its attitude to Africa and colonialism is racist, it’s deeply involving and demands to be read. 29/40 Dracula, Bram Stoker
Whatever passed between Irish theatre manager Bram Stoker and the Hungarian traveller and writer Ármin Vámbéry when they met in London and talked of the Carpathian Mountains, it incubated in the Gothic imagination of Stoker into a work that has had an incalculable influence on Western culture. It’s not hard to read the Count as a shadowy sexual figure surprising straitlaced Victorian England in their beds, but in Stoker’s hands he’s also bloody creepy. 30/40 The Catcher in the Rye, J D Salinger
It only takes one sentence, written in the first person, for Salinger’s Holden Caulfield to announce himself in all his teenage nihilism, sneering at you for wanting to know his biographical details “and all that David Copperfield kind of crap”. The Catcher in the Rye is the quintessential novel of the adolescent experience, captured in deathless prose. 31/40 The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler
Dashiel Hammett may have been harder boiled, his plots more intricate but, wow, does Raymond Chandler have style. The push and pull at the start of The Big Sleep between private detective Philip Marlowe, in his powder-blue suit and dark blue shirt, and Miss Carmen Sternwood, with her “little sharp predatory teeth” and lashes that she lowers and raises like a theatre curtain, sets the tone for a story of bad girls and bad men. 32/40 Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray
All the teeming life of 19th century London is here in Thackeray’s masterpiece, right down to the curry houses frequented by Jos Sedley, who has gained a taste for the hot stuff as an officer in the East India Trading Company. But it is Becky Sharp, one of literature’s great characters, who gives this novel its enduring fascination. As a woman on the make, Becky is the perfect blend of wit, cunning and cold-hearted ruthlessness. Try as film and TV might to humanise and make excuses for her, Becky needs victims to thrive! And she’s all the more compelling for that. 33/40 The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
The only novel written by the poet Sylvia Plath is a semi-autobiographical account of a descent into depression that the book’s narrator Esther Greenwood describes as like being trapped under a bell jar – used to create a vacuum in scientific experiments – struggling to breathe. Almost every word is arresting, and the way that Plath captures the vivid life happening around Esther, news events, magazine parties, accentuates the deadening illness that drives her towards suicidal feelings. Plath herself would commit suicide one month after the novel’s publication in 1963. 34/40 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl
Harry Potter may be more popular, but Willy Wonka is altogether weirder. From the overwhelming poverty experienced by Charlie Bucket and his family, to the spoilt, greedy, brattish children who join Charlie on his trip to Willy Wonka’s phantasmagorical sweet factory there is nothing artificially sweetened in Roald Dahl’s startling work of fantasy. 35/40 Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
Andrew Davies’s recent TV adaptation of War and Peace reminded those of us who can’t quite face returning to the novel’s monstrous demands just how brilliantly Tolstoy delineates affairs of the heart, even if the war passages will always be a struggle. In Anna Karenina – enormous, too! –the great Russian novelist captures the erotic charge between the married Anna and the bachelor Vronsky, then drags his heroine through society’s scorn as their affair takes shape, without ever suggesting we move from her side. 36/40 Dangerous Liaisons, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
The most deliciously wicked experience in literature, this epistolary novel introduces us to the Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont, who play cruel games of sexual conquest on their unwitting victims. The Marquise’s justification for her behaviour – “I, who was born to revenge my sex and master yours” – will strike a chord in the #metoo era, but emotions, even love, intrude, to the point where Laclos’s amorality becomes untenable. Sexy but very, very bad. 37/40 100 Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The energy and enchantment of Garcia Marquez’s story of seven generations of the Buendia family in a small town in Colombia continue to enthrall half a century on. Hauntings and premonitions allied to a journalistic eye for detail and a poetic sensibility make Marquez’s magical realism unique. 38/40 The Trial, Frank Kafka
“Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K…” So begins Kafka’s nightmarish tale of a man trapped in an unfathomable bureaucratic process after being arrested by two agents from an unidentified office for a crime they’re not allowed to tell him about. Foreshadowing the antisemitism of Nazi-occupied Europe, as well as the methods of the Stasi, KGB, and StB, it’s an unsettling, at times bewildering, tale with chilling resonance. 39/40 Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
The second Mrs de Winter is the narrator of Du Maurier’s marvellously gothic tale about a young woman who replaces the deceased Rebecca as wife to the wealthy Maxim de Winter and mistress of the Manderley estate. There she meets the housekeeper Mrs Danvers, formerly devoted to Rebecca, who proceeds to torment her. As atmospheric, psychological horror it just gets darker and darker. 40/40 The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
Published posthumously in 1958, Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel is set in 19th century Sicily, where revolution is in the air. The imposing Prince Don Fabrizio presides over a town close to Palermo during the last days of an old world in which class stratifications are stable and understood. Garibaldi’s forces have taken the island and a new world will follow. It’s a deep and poetic meditation on political change and the characters that it produces.
One brave teacher stood out. Herr Krauss, Carle’s art teacher, took a great personal risk to show the eager student reproductions of forbidden work by artists the Nazis dubbed “degenerate”, such as Picasso, Klee, Matisse and some German Expressionists. Carle later said it had been “a shock” to be shown real art. “I was used to art being flag-waving, gun-toting Aryans – super-realistic Aryan farmers, the women with their brute arms,” he said in 2009.
His temporary escape from the savage reality of life as a child in Nazi Germany came from his uplifting experiences with nature. The walks in meadows and woods with his father Erich were times he remembered as among the happiest of his life. “When I was a small child, as far back as I can remember, my father would take me by the hand and we would go out in nature, and he would show me worms and bugs and bees and ants and explain their lives to me,” Carle told The New York Times in 1994. “It was a very loving relationship.”
As Germany began to fall apart towards the end of the Second World War, his drafted father was taken prisoner in a camp in the Soviet Union. When they met again on a station platform in 1947, the first time Carle had seen his father for eight years, the 18-year-old was shocked by the “bundle of misery” he saw in front of him. Carle, who had been evacuated during the war, says his father was “a broken man”, physically and psychology destroyed. Read more
He weighed just six stone and wore rags and shoes held together by string. He spent the next few years in and out of sanatoriums before dying prematurely. “To this day,” Carle told The Independent in 2005, “I can barely enjoy a good meal because of thinking about my father. I am left with a sadness. It might be psychobabble, but I rehash that period of my life through my books. The child I am helping might just be me.”
In 1952, Carle arrived back in New York with $40 in his pocket. He landed a job as a graphic designer for The New York Times before being drafted into the US army during the Korean War. He was stationed in Germany as a mail clerk, a posting that brought back grisly memories of the time, as a 15-year-old, he’d had to dig trenches for the Nazis on the Siegfried line.
After his time in the army ended, he returned to his old job at The New York Times , before switching to a job on Madison Avenue as the art director at an advertising agency specialising in pharmaceutical campaigns. He worked in that field for several years before a twist of fate took him into the world of children’s literature
Eric Carle’s book has won many awards since it was first published in 1969
In 1967, author Bill Martin Jr spotted a distinctive red lobster Carle had painted for an advert for antihistamine tablets. Martin got in touch with Carle and asked him to illustrate a children’s book called Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? It was the turning point of Carle’s life. The idea “set me on fire”, he admitted. “I bought my two children a book once in a while, but I had no deep interest in children’s books whatsoever,” Carle said in that 1994 interview. “Everyone always assumes I love children. I do, but I don’t want to be surrounded by them. I’m about average when it comes to children: I like some, and some I don’t like.”
After working with Martin, Carle began thinking about creating his own book. One day he was idly playing with a hole puncher, making holes in a stack of papers. He thought of a fat bookworm and began sketching out a story called A Week with Willi the Worm . His editor Ann Beneduce did not warm to the idea of a worm and suggested that he turned the character into a caterpillar.
The idea for a distinctive hole running through the pages caused problems but Beneduce located a Japanese printer able to produce copies for an economical cost and the book was published by The World Publishing Company with little fanfare on a Tuesday in June 1969, a day overshadowed by news of a naval disaster that cost 74 American lives. The Very Hungry Caterpillar was far from an instant success and sales were slow. “It took five or six years for me to make enough money to live a very modest life,” Carle says. Read more
Over the course of the next five decades, Carle became one of the most celebrated author-illustrator’s of children’s fiction in the world, his distinctive collages delighting readers in more than 70 books. Among his famous fans are Barack and Michelle Obama. Former president George Bush Jr even nominated The Very Hungry Caterpillar as his favourite story when he was a child – which is surprising given that he was 23 when it first came out.
Musician Dolly Parton, who has been a fervent campaigner for children’s literacy through her Imagination Library (“she’s an amazing literacy philanthropist,” says Carle), has even written an “Afterword” for a special 50th commemorative edition of the book published by Philomel, the children’s imprint of Penguin in America.
So why is this book such a classic?
The original edition was small enough for a young child to hold and the interactive element of little fingers prodding through the holes in the pages, which mimic the caterpillar’s chomping, had an obvious immediate appeal. This design feature was incorporated so well it felt like a natural part of the book. The Very Hungry Caterpillar is a simply told story, one that every child can identify with – the excitement of eating all those delights, concern for the poorly caterpillar who didn’t know any better and relief that he has not only survived, but has actually transformed. It is a magical, happy ending. The language, like the artwork, is simple and charming.
Actor Mary-Louise Parker and Eric Carle read The Very Hungry Caterpillar in The New York Public Library (Getty)
Furthermore, The Very Hungry Caterpillar is a model “learning story”, which draws in both adults and children time and time again. From the familiarity of counting fruit – one apple, two pears, three plums – to sequencing the days of the week and arriving at Saturday, when seasoned readers can evaluate the nutritional value of foods consumed, or older readers can enjoy the challenge of memorising them, from one piece of chocolate cake, to the final slice of watermelon.
Above all is the science behind the life cycle of this particular caterpillar that is gently woven into the story, from the egg and caterpillar, through cocoon and the much-anticipated final stage. However many times they have heard the story before, children are stunned anew by the change, the colour and beauty of Carle’s butterfly, when they turn the final page. A perfect story ending.
“Most children can identify with the helpless, small, insignificant caterpillar, and they rejoice with it when it turns into a beautiful butterfly,” Carle told People in March 2019. “It is an affirmation to all children. It says: ‘I too can grow up. I too can unfold my wings and fly into the world’. I think it’s this message of hope that resonates.” Read more
There have been numerous spin-offs from the book over 50 years, including toys, puzzles, cutlery, clothes, video games, bed linen, cards and even shower gel. A special commemorative song, written and produced by Matt Rever, has earned more than a million hits on YouTube. One spin-off deemed a flop was the 1993 television adaptation made by the production company that filmed The Snowman . “It was awful. God-awful. I’m ashamed of it,” says Carle.
Carle’s second wife Barbara, a former special educational needs teacher, was instrumental in helping set up The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts, which opened in 2002. Around that time, she moved with him to Florida, where he continued to work in a studio he had designed, one full of light from the large picture windows. Carle, who always wears a lab coat to work, continued working after Barbara’s death in 2015. His unique style, using colourful acrylic paints and thin tissue-paper collage, continues to beguile readers. He has another book coming out in July called What’s Your Favorite Food?
His wonderful legacy includes Papa, Please Get the Moon for Me ; Does a Kangaroo Have a Mother, Too? ; Slowly, Slowly, Slowly, Said the Sloth ; Mister Seahorse ; The Very Busy Spider ; and the wonderful The Very Quiet Cricket, which is about a lonely cricket who starts to sing again after meeting his true love. Carle says the tale was evoked by memories of the time he spent outdoors with his father. Carle’s own favourites, incidentally, were Why Noah Chose the Dove , a book he illustrated for Isaac Bashevis Singer, and his own Do You Want to Be My Friend?
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Carle sometimes told children he met at book signings that “growing up can be very difficult”. He was convinced that young readers love The Very Hungry Caterpillar because it arouses simple emotions and a sense of hope. His book conjures those feelings in adult readers, too, not least for the dream that after a week of gorging – through apples, strawberries, plums, pears, an ice cream cone, chocolate cake, a pickle, a slice of Swiss cheese, a piece of salami, a lollipop, a piece of cherry pie, a sausage, a cupcake and one slice of watermelon – it’s possible to re-emerge as a beautiful butterfly.
Experts have pointed out that some of the details in Carle’s illustrations are wrong – the butterfly wings are on upside down – a detail that has never bothered the amiable author. “It’s true,” he says. “They are on upside down, but it’s a fantasy. I am the artist and can do whatever I want.”

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