Written and Illustrated by Trina Paulus
Paulist Press, 1972
Once upon a time a tiny striped caterpillar burst from the egg which had been home for so long.
Recommended by: Kelley (Utah)
Who is Kelley? I’m an English teacher who loves to read, write, paint, draw, and sing.
How did you discover this book? My parents read it to me when I was a kid.
What do you like about it? I liked it because it left me so much to talk about afterwards. I loved the pictures of caterpillars and butterflies–it’s illustrated in only three colors, yellow, white, and black, but it works. The meaning is deep, both religious and non-religious since we are all becoming and we all need to let go of our old selves in order to become.
The plot in a nutshell: A caterpillar struggles to succeed
After Stripe is born, he eats lots of leaves and gets bigger, but leaves his tree with the certainty that there’s more to life than eating. He follows some caterpillars to a tall column of caterpillars climbing higher than anyone can see. He joins the pile and struggles to reach the top, although no one knows what’s there. He meets a yellow caterpillar and they wonder if it’s worth it to keep up the difficult climb for no known reason. Together, they decide to leave the pile. They make a home together and are happy for a while, but Stripe wonders if they should attempt the climb again, now that they are rested. Yellow is content with their new life, but Stripe is obsessed with the secret of the unseen top of the pile. He leaves to try it again and she stays behind, sure that the pile wasn’t the real path the success and happiness.
Yellow is miserable without Stripe. One day, she sees a caterpillar hanging from a branch. When she asks, he tells her he is going to become a butterfly, but she doesn’t know what that word means, so he explains it to her and shows her how to do it, telling her that you must want to fly so much that you’re willing to give up being a caterpillar. Yellow is afraid, since it seems almost like dying and she doesn’t know if she’d be giving up Stripe as well, but she decides to risk it. Stripe, meanwhile, has reached the top of the pile and found nothing there. He sees a beautiful yellow butterfly, trying to rescue him from the pile. But he chooses to climb back down the pile, telling all the other caterpillars the truth about the top. The further down he goes, the harder it is to believe the butterfly was real. But when he reaches the bottom, she shows up again, directing him to make a cocoon of his own. When he emerges as a beautiful striped butterfly, the two fly off happily together.
Author/illustrator Trina Paulus wrote this book during the turbulent sixties, when a generation was crying out for political and social change. Using the idea of metamorphosis, she wrote this parable in which there are multiple layers of meaning, so that it works as a story that’s appropriate for both children and adults. I remember this book from the library of the Baptist church I attended as a child. I remember overhearing adults discussing whether it was a religious book or a ‘hippie’ book. And yes, it has the definite feel of its time period, but the story and its lessons are not confined to any one generation, just as they are not confined to any one genre.
The line drawing illustrations are all done in shades of black and yellow, with some yellowish green shades interspersed, mimicking the two colors of the main character caterpillars. While some of the pictures, such as the caterpillar pile, are drawn very minimally, Stripe and Yellow are very detailed, so that they stand out. In addition to its over-arching lesson about being willing to let go in order to change, the book has strong messages about the thoughtless pursuit of success, prioritizing your life, the dangers of obsession and the way we treat others in our lives. As you may imagine from the story summary, this book takes a little longer to read than the usual picture book, but it’s a good story that still packs a powerful and timeless message of peace and hope.
And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that if you’re never willing to change, you will never go any further than where you already are.