“I think it is a book of hope,” Eric Carle said about his book The Very Hungry Caterpillar. “You, an insignificant, ugly little caterpillar can grow up and eventually unfold your talent, and fly into the world.”

The children’s book author and illustrator Eric Carle died last week at the age of 91. Almost everyone knows his masterpiece and most famous book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. It’s been translated into 70 languages and has sold something like 55 million copies worldwide. That’s a lot of apples, pears, plums, strawberries, pickles, pieces of salami, lollipops, and cupcakes for one small caterpillar to eat its way through, no matter how hungry.

But did you know the caterpillar was originally a worm, and that the book’s title started off as A Week with Willie Worm? It’s a good thing that Carle’s editor thought a ravenous worm might not be the best hero for a kids’ book—what are worms most famous for eating?—and suggested he switch to a caterpillar, because that gave him the idea for his twist ending. “Butterfly!” he shouted.

Your science teacher might point out a mistake Carle made: he has his butterfly emerging from a “cocoon,” but caterpillars actually disappear into chrysalises before they turn into butterflies. Cocoons are strictly for moths.

Here’s something else you probably didn’t know: Carle was born in the United States, but spent most of his childhood in Nazi Germany. His parents had immigrated to America from Germany but then decided to return in 1935, when young Eric turned six, because his mother had grown homesick.

Carle had been especially close to his father, who taught him to love nature during long walks. But in 1938, with war looming, his father was drafted and would end up spending eight years in a Russian prisoner of war camp. He returned to his family after the war an emaciated, traumatized shell of his former self.

Carle with his dad, Erich.

Meanwhile, Carle and his mother, who were living in Stuttgart, survived Allied bombing campaigns that flattened most of their neighborhood. As he once told an interviewer, “Our house was the only one standing”—though barely, he explained, since the roof had been blown off, along with all the windows and doors.

Near the end of the war, when Germany was desperate, Carle, only 15, was conscripted and forced to the Western front to dig anti-tank trenches alongside prisoners of war and slave laborers. “The first day three people were killed a few feet away,” he later said. “Not children—Russian prisoners or something.”

As grim and horrific as Carle’s wartime experiences were, some good came out of them. He once said that that if he had had a happier childhood he might have ended up “pumping gas” instead of creating joyful children’s books. He also claimed that growing up amid the dull “grays, browns, and dirty greens used by the Nazis to camouflage the buildings” had sparked his love of the bright, rich, exuberant colors he used in his work.

The very act of surviving hunger and deprivation may have led indirectly to his masterpiece. He once said that he never really understood why The Very Hungry Caterpillar was so popular, but had concluded that it was “a book of hope” with a moral that told children: “You, an insignificant, ugly little caterpillar can grow up and eventually unfold your talent, and fly into the world.”

Was he also talking to his younger, scared, lonely self?

To read more about Eric Carle, check out Bruce Handy’s book Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult

Three-month-old polar-bear cubs spend some quality time with their mom in Canada’s Wapusk National Park.
National treasure: San Cristóbal Island’s Cerro Brujo beach, in the Galápagos.

A study carried out by the University of Exeter’s Institute of Global Systems has found that ocean currents have been dumping plastic on the beaches of the Galápagos Islands.

The Galápagos are a remote group of islands in the Pacific Ocean, located about 600 miles west of the South American country of Ecuador. The islands are famous for their large populations of endemic animals—species that are indigenous only to that specific location. It was from the species located on the Galápagos that Charles Darwin largely developed his theory of evolution.

The presence of plastic pollution is threatening the islands’ numerous one-of-a-kind animals. One such species is the rare Godzilla marine iguana—named for its spiked head—that populates the beaches of the Galápagos Island of San Cristóbal. Researchers found that those beaches were strewn with more than 400 plastic particles per about 10 square feet.

A marine iguana surveys the scene in the Galápagos.

“The pristine image of Galápagos might give the impression that the islands are somehow protected from plastic pollution, but our study clearly shows that’s not the case,” Dr. Ceri Lewis, of Exeter’s Global Systems Institute, said.

The Exeter study found that only two percent of the plastic and plastic fragments found across the beaches of the islands could be traced to the islands themselves.

“Our study highlights how far plastic pollution travels, and how it contaminates every part of marine ecosystems,” said Dr. Jen Jones, the leader of the study. “Given the level of pollution we have found in this remote location, it’s clear that plastic pollution needs to stop at source.”