“Terry and the Caterpillars” by Millicent Selsam and illustrated by Arnold Lobel is a charming story of an inquisitive little girl who learns first-hand about the life cycle of caterpillars. Originally published in 1962, this “Science I Can Read Book” is adorned with vintage illustrations from the author of the “Frog and Toad” books, and is a particularly engaging way to introduce young readers (and listeners) to one of the most magical transformations in the natural world.
One day Terry brings home a big, fat, green caterpillar with orange, yellow, and blue bumps. “What are you going to do with it?” her mother asks. “Keep it!” declares Terry…”this is the biggest, fattest, nicest caterpillar I ever saw.” Terry sets up her new pet in a jar complete with a stick and some leaves. However, Terry is not content with just one caterpillar, and eventually she has three tenants in three individual jars in her menagerie – each jar numbered for careful observation. Terry watches with fascination as her first caterpillar stops eating and begins spinning a cocoon. Eventually, she moves three cocoons to a specially prepared terrarium, and one day a beautiful brown and white moth appears. Terry asks ,”Where did this come from?” After further investigation Terry discovers that the moth came from one of the cocoons. She and her parents work together in shifts to make sure that Terry is able to observe one of her remaining two caterpillars emerging from its cocoon – and she does. Finally, after baby caterpillars hatch from eggs laid in the terrarium, Terry sets her friends loose on the apple tree in the yard. Now she understands the full life cycle of the caterpillar, and the book closes with an illustration of our inquisitive protagonist dancing among a cloud of butterflies and moths.
There is a lot to appreciate about this book. A story that is centered on a little girl who is fascinated enough with the natural world to bring home a big, fat, green bug for observation, to conduct her own research, and to ask intelligent questions about is refreshing. It defies an unfortunate stereotype to which we are particularly sensitive as parents of two girls. The story also provides a nice introduction to the scientific method. Terry asks questions and discovers answers (“What will I feed it?”… “Where did you find it?”…”On the apple tree”…”Then put some apple leaves in the jar”). She and her mother do background research at the library about how best to care for the caterpillars while in their cocoons. Terry constructs a hypothesis about where the brown moth came from. She tests her hypothesis by watching the remaining cocoons. She analyzes the data from her observations, and ultimately she pulls all of her observations together and communicates her findings on the final page when she summarizes the entire life cycle.
“Terry and the Caterpillars” is more than a mere picture book; in a way it is an introduction to chapter books, without chapters. It’s a cute story, too. Terry’s progress should keep your younger listeners engaged, and there is some humor. I thought it was amusing that when the family worked together to make sure Terry could see a moth emerge, it was daddy who got the 4 am shift. If you have a little bit more time one evening, it is well worth a read – and may help inspire some young scientists in your own house.