The Very Hungry Caterpillar


This post is a part of my “Board Book Beauty – Savoring the small as I read to my toddler” series. To see all of the posts in the series, go here.

I cannot get enough to eat these days.

No, seriously. I am hungry. All. The. Time. I’m constantly snacking, nibbling on some little something or other to hold me over until the next time I could reasonably have a “real” meal. I joke that I’ve never been a teenage boy, nor have I ever been responsible for feeding one, but I can relate to how they must feel. Between being the sole source of nourishment for a tiny human who spits up half of what she eats and still managed to go from 5 lbs 15 ounces at birth to 11 pounds even at 2 months, and chasing her big sister around the house, my caloric needs have sky-rocketed of late.

I can relate, then, to The Very Hungry Caterpillar, who eats his way through everything in sight. I, too, could see myself enjoying chocolate cake and ice cream and pickles and swiss cheese and salami and a lollipop and cherry pie and a sausage and a cupcake and a slice of watermelon in one day. Except that at the end of it, I wouldn’t have a stomachache. I’d want something more to eat.

I’m taking the University of Iowa’s free online fiction course – How Writers Write Fiction: Storied Women – again. I haven’t been able to devote the same kind of time to it as I did last year, but I do listen to the lectures, absorbing as much of the writers’ wisdom as possible as I wash dishes or fold laundry or run on the treadmill.

This week’s lesson was all about desire – or core yearning, as one presenter put it. Fictional characters, much like real ones, are driven by their wants, be they big or small, be it for a ham and cheese sandwich or for love and acceptance. So much centers on desire: plot twists and turns, character development, point of view.

As writers, we’re told, it’s our job to identify the core desires of our characters. We need to know what drives them, even if they themselves do not. Only then can we determine the best way to tell the story, the best way to bring the plot to life.

We’re making our way through the Gospel of John in BSF this year. The past two weeks have been focused on the Samaritan woman of chapter 4, the one Jesus encounters at the well. Their conversation centers around water and thirst of both physical and spiritual natures. Ever-so-gently, he probes the place of her pain, the place of her desire. He promises to slake her thirst, to satisfy her need for love, for acceptance, for security, to fulfill the yearnings that have led her down such a disastrous path. She, eager to take what He offers, responds. She believes.

I wonder what it was like for her, afterward. Jesus promised her springs of living water to replace the stagnant pools within her heart and soul, and she held out her hands in anticipation. Did she continue to draw from His source, even after that initial encounter, even after He was no longer as tangible, as visible in front of her? Or did she wander, returning to her own broken cisterns, as I am so prone to do? Was she able to hold fast, to take her desires, her appetites, to the one place they might be filled, or did she falter?

The very hungry caterpillar, after his stomachache-inducing feast on Saturday, eats one nice green leaf – something much better suited to sate his appetite than the junk of the day before – on Sunday. Now, no longer hungry and no longer little, he builds a cocoon (with all due respect to Mr. Carle) forms a chrysalis. And, of course, on the very last page of the book, we are treated to the result: a beautiful butterfly.

As I experience the voracious appetite required to feed my baby girl, as I consider how to write believable characters and interesting plots, as I ponder the woman of Samaria and the ways in which her story intersects my own, I think of this insect from a children’s book and I am grateful: for the reminder that desires are good things when rightly tended, that ignoring them in the name of service is not necessarily healthy, that pursuing them to fulfillment is what enables beautiful growth and transformation.

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