Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar turns 40 this spring, and Philomel is commemorating its birthday with the first-ever pop-up edition of this international bestseller. Penguin Young Readers Group is gearing up for an anniversary celebration touting this title—and its earnest little protagonist. But before taking a look at what’s ahead, here’s a glance back at how Carle, whose 80th birthday is June 25, got his book publishing start and came to create this tale of hope and metamorphosis.

One day Ann Beneduce, who became editor-in-chief of children’s books at World Publishing in 1964, received a brochure featuring the work of an advertising artist named Eric Carle, who was interested in breaking into children’s book illustration. “I loved the art and knew we wanted him to do something for us,” recalls Beneduce, now a consultant, who assigned Carle to create the art for Lila Perl’s Red-Flannel Hash and Shoo-Fly Pie. What the illustrator turned in, she says, “was so much better than anything we could have imagined.”

Carle then told Beneduce he was interested in doing a book of his own and that he had a shoebox filled with ideas. “I said, ‘Bring in that shoebox,’ and he did,” she says. And out of one of the ideas in that box came Carle’s first solo venture, 123 at the Zoo, which Beneduce notes “already had Eric’s trademark beautiful art with primary colors. It was so different than the art in most children’s books in the ’60s, which wasn’t as imaginative as I thought it should be. I’d been watching for someone like Eric to come along.”

Next Carle showed Beneduce a proposal for a book about a worm who ate his way through the pages of a book—a story idea that came to him while he absentmindedly punched holes into a stack of papers—which metamorphosed into The Very Hungry Caterpillar. “From the start, I could see something wonderful there, and we sat down and figured out exactly what the character and plot should be,” says Beneduce. “And then we had to find a company that could manufacture the book, with all its holes having to be positioned just so.”

At that time, this was no easy task. Beneduce and her colleagues at World had no luck finding a manufacturer willing to take on such a complex project. On a whim, she took the book along with her during a trip to Japan with her husband, where she showed it to several publishers. “Three or four of them said they liked the book, and one said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll find a way to do this.’ And he did.”

After leaving World and working at T.Y. Crowell and then Collins (which had bought World’s children’s backlist), Beneduce landed at Putnam in 1980, when that house purchased the World list. There Beneduce founded Philomel, giving The Very Hungry Caterpillar its current U.S. home. Actually, Philomel is but one of the book’s many homes: since its appearance four decades ago, it has been published in 45 languages and has sold over 29 million copies worldwide.

Beneduce attributes the book’s success and longevity to its interactive format—very innovative for its era—as well as its strong appeal to both children and adults. “The art has a direct appeal to children, who become involved in the story right away, putting their fingers in the holes,” she says. “And parents love that there is so much learning in the book—the days of the week, what is good to eat, the life cycle of a butterfly. And of course, there’s the story’s message of hope, which children easily understand as well.”

Let the anniversary celebration begin! Here are the plans:

  • The Very Hungry Caterpillar Pop-Up Book will be published by Philomel in March with a 100,000-copy first printing.

  • The publisher has designated March 20, the first day of spring, as “The Very Hungry Caterpillar Day,” on which booksellers, teachers and librarians are encouraged to read the book with children. To help stage events, an activity kit is available to accounts, as are a limited number of signed book plates.

  • With a designated minimum purchase, booksellers will receive a “deluxe” story-time kit that includes a caterpillar hand puppet, a CD of Carle reading the book, a mobile and reproducible activity sheets.

  • A Caterpillar character costume is available through Costume Specialists.

  • An 11-copy podium-style floor display with riser for the pop-up book includes one free copy.

  • A 29-copy mixed floor display with riser contains a selection of Carle’s “Very” backlist titles, including The Very Hungry Caterpillar Mini Book, My Own Very Lonely Firefly Coloring Book and My Very First Book of Colors.

  • A Very Hungry Caterpillar mini-Web site features a video of Carle discussing the history of the book, as well as downloadable wallpapers and activities.​

  • The publisher is sponsoring a Very Hungry Caterpillar ABA gift card, which booksellers can now order via the ABA gift card order site. The card features an image of the caterpillar and poses the question, “Are you very hungry for books”?

  • On February 10, the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Mass., will launch “80/40: Celebrating the Birthdays of Eric Carle and The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” an exhibition chronicling the author’s life and career.

  • Carle will be a featured guest at the 2009 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books in April and has created original artwork for the show’s posters and signage.

  • The publisher will distribute 20,000 Caterpillar posters at the National Education Association’s Regional Leadership Conferences in January and February and the anniversary will be touted on NEA’s Read Across America Web site, along with a downloadable activity kit and poster.

  • And very hungry youngsters will soon see the image of the Caterpillar, along with other Carle animal characters, on the packaging of Stonyfield YoBaby yogurt