The Very Well-Traveled Caterpillar

We all remember great children’s books from when we were kids or parents of kids. I recently thought of one — The Very Hungry Caterpillar — when my family had a real-life experience with a fennel-consuming cousin of Eric Carle’s fictional character.

I’m going to recount that experience (straying from this literature blog’s usual approach) before ending with a list of several of my favorite children’s books and a request to name some of yours. It’s a true-life children’s story I’ll call…The Very Well-Traveled Caterpillar.

One afternoon last month, my younger daughter stepped off her school bus with a paper cup full of fresh fennel. On one of the stalks was a tiny black caterpillar Maria had named Spike — though she didn’t know if it was male or female. The bus ride was Spike’s first trip.

My wife Laurel ordered one of those soft caterpillar/butterfly cages online, but Spike’s “house” took more than a week to get delivered. Fortunately, Spike stayed on fennel stalks in that paper cup for several days, eating so much that Maria had to bring home new fennel from her school garden several times. Spike, who turned mostly green, grew so much that he (?) was soon perhaps 10 times his (?) original size.

But one day, Spike crawled off the fennel and paper cup and was nowhere to be found. We walked VERY carefully in the living room as we searched for about a half hour — finally spotting Spike on the floor atop one of Maria’s sandals. That was his (?) second trip, and a potentially dangerous one.

So as we continued to wait for delivery of the cloth-and-net cage, we found a large box to put the fennel and cup in. The next day, a certain mailing finally arrived, and we transported Spike from box to cage.

Spike — fortified by his (?) prodigious eating binge — attached himself to a stick we put in the cage and was encased in a chrysalis by June 22. But we were leaving June 24 for a trip to Indiana, with a return planned for June 29. The chrysalis stage was supposed to be 7-10 days, but what if Spike emerged earlier? Obviously, he (?) had to travel with us in the car.

Passenger Spike spent the first day cruising west from New Jersey through Pennsylvania — carried into rest stops, the inside of a fast-food restaurant, and then a hotel room in eastern Ohio. The next day, it was more of the same until we arrived in Indianapolis — where the National Society of Newspaper Columnists was meeting.

But there was more travel to come. As I attended the great NSNC conference, Spike joined Laurel and Maria in visiting a former Indiana State University work colleague of my wife’s in Terre Haute. So the car-cruising/cage-and-chrysalis-covered caterpillar almost made it to Illinois.

Then came a return to Indianapolis, where Spike accompanied us and friends from Bloomington to a restaurant lunch before we headed back east. More rest stops, more fast-food eateries, and another hotel stay before Spike found himself (?) in New Jersey again on June 29. Still in the chrysalis.

Several days later, Spike finally emerged as a large butterfly — mostly black, with some brilliant coloring. According to Maria, his (?) coloring indicated he (?) was…female.

Spike couldn’t immediately fly — her wings needed to dry. But when she began flapping frantically around the cage an hour later, we knew it was time. We walked to the patio area of our garden-apartment complex, slowly unzipped the cage, and Spike soared high into the air. Not west or east, but south, before disappearing above the treetops.

Believe it or not, Spike’s freedom came on July 4 — Independence Day.

So that’s the story of The Very Well-Traveled Caterpillar. My favorite children’s books? Several by Dr. Seuss, of course; Susan Meddaugh’s Martha Speaks series (talking dog!); Eric Litwin’s Pete the Cat books; Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach; Bernard Waber’s Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile; Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline; Robert Munsch’s Love You Forever; Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon; and various others. (I’m talking fictional “picture books” aimed at younger kids. πŸ™‚ )

What are your favorite children’s books? And what are some books — kid or adult, with or without caterpillars — that you connect with real-life experiences you’ve had?

One more question: Why didn’t I discuss Go Set a Watchman in this column? Well, Harper Lee’s eagerly awaited novel won’t be released until July 14, and I’m not sure when I’ll read it. It was dismaying to see, in an advance New York Times review, that the beloved Atticus Finch is depicted as a racist in the book — and there are of course questions about whether Ms. Lee truly consented to the financially lucrative publication of this To Kill a Mockingbird “sequel” (set in the 1950s) written before TKAM (set in the 1930s). But feel free to discuss Go Set a Watchman here!

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Note: My next column will post Monday, July 20, rather than the evening of Sunday, July 19 — when I’ll be seeing a U2 concert at Madison Square Garden with my adult daughter. I’m sure the band will do better in MSG than pro basketball’s Knicks! πŸ™‚

For three years of my Huffington Post literature blog, click here.

I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.