The process of seeking knowledge may not always be comfortable, but it is necessary and brings unexpected benefits, as our tiny hero discovers in this decorative and richly coloured picturebook.
Deep in the forest, a caterpillar lives a simple life. Every day is exactly the same: he eats, sleeps and crawls around, and is perfectly content until a chance encounter awakens his curiosity. One day, a little girl picks him up, calls him ‘beautiful’ and places him gently on the forest floor.
But what is beautiful? What does this word mean?
Unable to make up his mind, the caterpillar embarks on a mission to find out. But all the forest creatures have very different answers, and there always are other words that could be used. Bear says that honeycomb is beautiful, but maybe it’s just tasty, and the mouse’s mushroom might better be described as useful.
One little question becomes a bothersome puzzle that won’t give Caterpillar any peace, until a persistent blackbird demonstrates that beauty is definitely in the eye of the beholder – it will always be personal and therefore subjective, but there may be things we all agree are beautiful. As night falls, the creatures stare at the sky, and everyone concurs. “How beautiful”, they exclaim, and the caterpillar finds that his curiosity has been satisfied.
With gentle humour and insight, this story touches on some complex ideas. We all experience the world in different ways, and must consider other points of view if we are to gain a better understanding of it – and ourselves. And sometimes we must be content without an answer.
Melissa Castrillon’s intricate, layered illustrations resemble screenprints and evoke memories of mid-century children’s picturebooks, but are created digitally and have a contemporary eye for detail and design. Organic forms twine luxuriantly across the pages, creating hiding places for creatures of all kinds and framing the text in unusual and visually appealing ways. There’s a lot going on in these spreads, but the use of blank space is always carefully considered and the layout works hard to keep young readers focused and informed.
Antonella Capetti is a primary school teacher as well as a writer, and her text takes a friendly, whimsical approach to a subject that could have become too challenging in less experienced hands. There’s room here for children to share Caterpillar’s bafflement without being overwhelmed, and the consensus at the end will reassure as well as please.
Visually this book is a winner, and the concept and story will satisfy readers and prompt plenty of thinking and discussion. The text has been translated from the original Italian and reads well enough, but there are moments that feel less fluent. Given the importance and impact of a picturebook text, it’s a shame that this one doesn’t ‘sing’.