Less Creepy, More Crawly
October 8, 2015 § 2 Comments
At a time of year when people (ahem, my husband) seem to think it’s funny to leave plastic rats lying casually around the house, I thought there might be some value in remembering that even the creepiest and crawliest of creatures have some pretty awe-inspiring merits. Or, at least, maybe we don’t need to run screaming all the time.
Recently, I’ve been noticing that there seems to be a new kind of science picture book afoot—a refreshing companion to the National Geographic-types, which pair a myriad of facts with in-your-face photography. Don’t get me wrong: my son loves himself a fat, meaty information-packed book. My daughter, on the other hand, won’t touch one with a ten foot pole. Maybe it’s that she’s only five; maybe it’s a gender thing; or maybe it’s just that she’s wired differently. But I tend to think she craves the same kind of information—just in a different format.
Allow me to introduce two books in this new genre, which for lack of a more official term I am calling Conversational Non-Fiction. These are picture books with disarming first-person narrators, whimsical illustrations, a hefty dose of humor, and loads of true and fascinating facts slipped casually between the pages. These books—at least the two I’m about to discuss—are also the first informational picture books that my daughter has ever requested to hear again and again.
It’s no surprise that the first of these new books, I Don’t Like Snakes (Ages 5-10), is written by Nicola Davies, who has always had a gentle, narrative touch when it comes to non-fiction. (Heck, she made MICROBES both interesting and comprehensible to me (I mean, my children) with last year’s exceptional Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes.)
I Don’t Like Snakes stars a hair-bow-toting, fashionably-dressed little girl, whose Nightmare Come True is that she lives with a family that has snakes—lots of snakes—as pets. (I, for one, totally feel her horror: I’m still recovering from the time I was nine and slept over at my friend Joanna’s house, and she had a boa constrictor that slithered right up to MY SLEEPING BAG. Nope. No thank you. No can do snakes as pets.)
As our heroine stares disbelieving at her family, casually adorned with snakes curled around their neck, she informs them for the 100th time, “I really, really, REALLY don’t like snakes.” Her father, mother, and brother ask her the only possible question: WHY?
For every one of the girl’s responses (They slither! They’re slimy! They have flicky tongues and creepy eyes!), her family offers a simple but intriguing explanation. “Snakes HAVE to slither,” said my mom. “They don’t have legs, so they bend like an S and use their ribs and scales to grip. It’s the only way they can move.” Illustrator Luciano Lozano then gives us the first of many full-page factual asides, this one about the three different types of slithering.
A snake’s skin is surprisingly dry; it only looks slimy because of its “shiny, see-through outer skin,” which it sheds, “like your old clothes that get too scruffy or too small.” It turns out this is exactly the kind of language that connects with both my daughter and the girl in the book. Her dad even sits down and draws mosaics with her, to illustrate the different warning and camouflage patterns of a snake’s scales.
“OK,” I said. “Maybe now that I know something about them, I do like snakes—just a little bit.” And that’s when Brother sees his opening. “Well, in that case, I’ll tell you something that’ll really scare you—how they kill things.” And here ensues an appropriately gruesome exposition on poison and strangulation.
In the book’s final pages, our heroine reveals a surprise of her own for her family. She shares her research on a subject of personal interest: the different ways that snakes have babies. It turns out that everyone brings something to the table in the name of science, and through understanding comes greater appreciation all around.
The (unseen) narrator of Bethany Barton’s equally charming—albeit more boisterous—I’m Trying to Love Spiders (Ages 4-8), doesn’t prove quite as easy to convince as our snake girl, but she (or he) does make many valiant attempts. In this case, the narrator already knows quite a bit about arachnids—for instance, they’ve been around for millions of years, and their web-swinging skills make them “like bug ninjas.” She reminds herself of these and many other talents, as she stares down each one that scurries across the page.
Before inadvertently squishing it to death.
Not surprisingly, the most fun for the reader comes from helping the narrator smoosh these eight-legged, eight-eyed monstrosities; there’s even the outline of a human hand to show where the reader is intended to put hers. (I can’t help but have flashbacks to my children’s shrieks of laughter each time I read them Ethan Long’s inane Tickle the Duck when they were toddlers—blessedly out of print now—where the narrator keeps taunting the reader, whatever you do, don’t tickle the duck…).
Still, our narrator is determined to suppress her squashing instinct, at least occasionally. After each unsuccessful attempt, we are treated to more surprisingly interesting facts about spiders, like their different web construction techniques, or their absence of teeth (“spiders rely on their venom to dissolve their dinners, making bugs soft and slurpable!”).
The most amount of time is spent on the question of just how poisonous spiders really are to humans, and this got the attention of my kids BIG TIME. As it turns out, only a few spiders—the female black widow and the brown recluse—“are poisonous enough to ruin your day.” My weather-obsessed son’s favorite takeaway from the book: “fatal spider bites are so rare, you have a better chance of being struck by lightning!”
Come on, now, let’s try to pet the spider.
As luck would have it, just when the narrator finally comes around on the topic of spiders—after watching one make quick work of the swarms of mosquitoes and gnats buzzing in circles around the page—she is confronted by a new “frenemy” in town: the American cockroach. Whether there are any redeeming characteristics of the cockroach, though, is left for another day (in the meantime, get your shoe ready).
So, this Halloween, when you’re out trick or treating with your kids and some hairy animatronic spider jumps out at you, or you hear a rattling sound from behind a bush, or those freakin’ plastic rats keep showing up under your pillow, do your kids a favor and try not to scream. Too loud.
Because there’s a new PSA in town. I’m calling it Conversational Non-Fiction. And it just might get your kids to give ophiology or entomology or arachnology or creepology a chance.
Other Favorites About Taking the Creepy Out of the Crawly:
Disgusting Critters Early-Reader Series: The Spider, The Worm, The Slug, The Fly, Head Lice & The Rat, by Elise Gravel (super fantastic, and you’ll notice there isn’t one about the roach)
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Review copy provided by Candlewick and Penguin, respectively. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!