Not many children’s books achieve worldwide sales that would humble a U2 album, but Eric Carle’s classic picture book about a caterpillar munching his way to becoming a beautiful butterfly has sold 22 million copies.
Carle had only just started out as a children’s author when he wrote The Very Hungry Caterpillar in 1969. Before that, he was a graphic designer. He had been experimenting with a hole-punch in his efforts to find a different kind of children’s book and had suggested a story to his publisher about a worm eating through the pages. In the story, the newly hatched caterpillar starts to look for food. On day one he eats one piece of fruit, the next two, the next three and so on, until he reaches the end of the week, when he eats a fabulous feast of muffins, pizza and pickle. The following day he has a stomach ache! By now he is too fat to move and we wonder what is next for our hero. There’s a moment of triumph as we turn the final page and discover he has been transformed into a beautiful butterfly.
Peepo! by Janet and Allan Ahlberg Puffin, £5.99 (first published 1981)
This wonderful boardbook appeals rather like The Very Hungry Caterpillar – you simply can’t beat a hole in the page for toddler enjoyment. In Peepo!, a baby glimpses his small domestic world through a little circular cut-out on the page, before the full scene – a cosy kitchen, a visit to the park, the soft light of bedtime – is revealed overleaf. Set in the early Forties, it’s an unpretentious vision of a baby’s contented life based on Allan Ahlberg’s own working-class childhood.
Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell Campbell, £4.99 (first published 1982)
When he came up with the idea of “lift-the-flaps” to reveal surprises in Dear Zoo, the pace and humour introduced a whole new way to enjoy books with preschoolers. “Children enjoy the idea and the logic, and join in easily, owing to the repetitive text and the physical act of lifting the flaps,” says Campbell.
In the story, a narrator asks the zoo to send him a pet. However, the zoo keep sending animals which are completely inappropriate – a monkey who is too naughty, a camel who is too grumpy – and each one has to be sent back. As the story progresses, children love the different shaped flaps which represent animal crates or a snake’s basket, until finally the zoo get it right and send our narrator the perfect pet – a loveable puppy!
The Baby’s Catalogue by Janet and Allan Ahlberg Puffin, £4.99 (first published 1982)
Inspired by their own baby daughter’s love of shopping catalogues with nursery goods in them, the Ahlbergs created a lovely picture book of objects and scenes from a baby’s world to share with a child as a first book. Beautiful, pastel-shaded illustrations have made this a classic.
Where’s Spot? by Eric Hill Frederick Warne, £7.99 (first published 1980)
One of the great pioneers of the lift-the-flap novelty books for babies, Spot remains a timeless classic. Here, the honey-and-black puppy has gone missing at dinner time and mummy dog, Sally, must find him. Hill’s deceptively simple narrative and bright, bold illustrations make this a great choice with very young children. Hill has sold millions of books in the Spot series.
Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr and Eric Carle Puffin, £5.99 (first published 1967)
It is the glorious collage illustrations of Eric Carle that has made this book such a hit, along with the lilting repetitive text. Brown Bear has the now trademark textured colourful pictures better known in The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The question-and-answer format allows children to participate in and predict the narrative and spot things with Bear, as well as learning their colours.
Peek-A-Boo by Jan Ormerod Bodley Head, £3.99 (first published 1997)
This is a classic first boardbook for babies, combining their love for playing peek-a-boo with the fun of flaps to lift. On each page a baby hides behind a bib, bath towels or snugly bedclothes. Very young children respond to seeing other babies in the illustrations. In truth, you’ll be hard-pushed to find any family copy that hasn’t been very well-thumbed indeed.
Miffy by Dick Bruna Egmont, £3.99 (first published 1955)
Bruna says Miffy’s very basic rabbit form is down to his own limitations as an illustrator, yet her simplicity has made her an icon. Some of the books have no words, others have small verses to follow. Hello Kitty might have tried to steal her thunder, but Miffy is still the original – and is looking good for her years.
Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins Red Fox, £5.99 (first published 1968)
A picture book in the truest sense of the word, this delightful tale is told without a single piece of text.
Rosie, the chirpy red hen walks around the farmyard – and manages to avoid being eaten by the cunning fox who is following in her wake with plenty of slapstick calamaties befalling him. A vibrant, comic tale, beautifully brought to animated life with charming images with a chic, retro resonance and lots of funny moments your baby with appreciate more with each ‘reading’.
That’s Not My… by Fiona Watt and Rachel Wells Usborne, £5.99 (first published 2002)
A simple idea that has stretched to all kinds of themes from snowmen to fairies, puppies to dinosaurs. Chunky boardbooks with textured pages take a child through a simple narrative: “That’s not my dinosaur/teddy/dolly/tractor”. And on each page there’s a reason why not – like bumpy skin, shiny hair ties, squashy wheels, until eventually we arrive at the right item. As well as the touchy-feely experience, the basic vocabulary repetition is a valuable – and enjoyable – early learning too.