The question of what is beautiful has preoccupied philosophers and poets alike. In How Beautiful, however, a caterpillar is the one pondering the subject. Yes, a caterpillar! In this elegant and whimsical picture book from Italy, a young caterpillar sets out to find exactly what beautiful means.
As the book opens, the caterpillar lives “a good, simple life” happily eating, sleeping, and crawling from leaf to leaf. One day, he is lifted into the air on a twig and is confronted by “an Unknown Thing.” “You’re so beautiful” the Unknown Thing says. After setting down the twig the caterpillar is on, the Unknown Thing (the illustrations reveal it is a child in silhouette) leaves as suddenly as it came.
The declaration puzzles the caterpillar. He has never been called beautiful before. And so he asks fellow residents of the forest what the word means.
All of the animals have different answers: a bear thinks a honeycomb is beautiful, a trio of squirrels describe a pile of dry leaves as such, and a mole asserts that it is very beautiful in their underground lair. Throughout the caterpillar’s investigation, a blackbird plays the role of contrarian: honey is merely tasty, the dry leaves are only fun, and underground it may be warm and cozy, but certainly not beautiful.
None of this helps. What is the young caterpillar to do? Night is falling, and he is no closer to knowing what beautiful means. Ah! But resolution is at hand. The illustrations reveal that there is a full moon rising, and the animals all lay on the ground to get a better look. They all declare it to be “beautiful,” and the caterpillar agrees.
Written by Antonella Capetti, How Beautiful is a meditation on the old adage that beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder. What is beautiful is not solely ornamental, but also that which is good to eat, fun to do, or home to us. Translator Lisa Topi renders Capetti’s text into a read-aloud filled with dialogue and touched with both humor and depth.
Illustrator Melissa Castrillón‘s artwork features motifs of leaves, vines, flowers, and other natural elements in a palette of purples, golds, and reds. While revisiting the illustrations for this review, I found myself saying “how beautiful” out loud. The caterpillar protagonist is particularly charming; his rosy cheeks, ear-like antennae, and tiny arms give him an anthropomorphic quality that is hard to resist. He is indeed beautiful.
This charming picture book would be a great addition to an animal or caterpillar themed (pair it with the perennial favorite The Very Hungry Caterpillar, itself translated into over 60 languages) library storytime. It could also be used as a writing prompt in the classroom, encouraging students to reflect upon that which is beautiful in their lives, whether it is unexpected, overlooked, or special just to them.
Title: How Beautiful
Written by Antonella Capetti
Illustrated by Melissa Castrillón
Translated from Italian by Lisa Topi
Greystone Books, 2021
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Klem-Marí Cajigas has been with Nashville Public Library since 2012, after more than a decade of academic training in Religious Studies and Ministry. As the Family Literacy Coordinator for Bringing Books to Life!, Nashville Public Library’s award-winning early literacy outreach program, she delivers family literacy workshops to a diverse range of local communities. In recognition of her work, she was named a 2021 Library Journal “Mover and Shaker.” Born in Puerto Rico, Klem-Marí is bilingual, bicultural, and proudly Boricua.