His mailbox bursts with fan letters. One child writes: ''I would like to visit you but I'm not allowed to cross the street.'' A 6-year-old girl asks if he has a wife and gives him her phone number. The object of this adoration? Eric Carle, 65, the author of the immensely popular The Very Hungry Caterpillar, now celebrating its 25th anniversary.
For the father of two from Northampton, Mass., name recognition with the sandbox set began with a simple hole puncher. Then a graphic artist, Carle was idling away the time when he picked up the fateful office tool. Soon, a stack of papers metamorphosed into a pile of punched holes, and a gluttonous caterpillar nibbled its way into Carle's inventive mind.
Since then he has produced more than 30 books, among them The Very Busy Spider and Dragons Dragons. (My Apron is due out this fall.) But Caterpillar has inched past them all, selling 10 million copies around the world.
''I didn't think it was going to be an extraordinary book,'' says Carle. ''But children love it. Caterpillar reassures young kids that 'you scrawny, ugly little thing will grow up and fly and display your talent and beauty.''' In the process of creating Caterpillar, it's clear that Carle found wings of his own.