Cicada Frenzy (A Father’s Day Post)
June 10, 2021 § 1 Comment
The list of things my kids will someday recount to their wide-eyed grandchildren has gotten a lot longer in the past year. First, there was the pandemic. Then, the election (including an insurrection). And now, here in Virginia, we can add the seventeen-year cicada, a rare breed of cicada that hibernates deep underground for seventeen years and then emerges by the billions, filling the air with an incessant, high-pitched siren that could be (if you’re me) initially mistaken for an air raid. These cicadas, living and dead, now line our front steps and cover our shrubs and trees. When they’re not pelting our car windshields or dive-bombing into our hair, their orange-veined wings, protruding red eyes, and undeniable resiliency do inspire something resembling awe.
At least, if you’re my daughter. My teenage son isn’t having any of it. I still shriek every time one lands on me. But my ten-year-old daughter fancies herself something of a Cicada Whisperer. She rescues them from puddles (and my hair). She invites them to crawl on her finger, holds up their two-inch body to her eyes, and examines them closely, reassuring them that she won’t do them harm. As far as I can tell, she spent the last two weeks of the school year setting up hospital wings for cicadas on school grounds and presiding over funerals for the unfortunate ones who didn’t make it.
Not only do I have the perfect new picture book for the budding entomologist in your life, but with Father’s Day around the corner, Ben Brashares and Elizabeth Bergeland’s The Great Whipplethorp Bug Collection (Ages 5-9) does double duty, celebrating a boy, his stay-at-home father, and the globe-trotting grandfathers who came before. It’s a story about summer boredom, the transports of imagination, and the inspiration of backyard bugs. But it’s also a story about a boy questioning his place in a long line of achievers, a boy weighing his own idea of masculinity against that set by traditional gender roles. The writing is pitch perfect, and the art is awesome: quirky and unexpected, a visually enticing combination of tiny pen lines and washes of color that sits somewhere between real life and imagination. Children will love pouring over these pages, and they’ll grow in their understanding of the story’s broader messages with every reading.
Chuck Whipplethorp has just moved into a new house on Normal Street, where when he isn’t draped over the back of the couch avoiding unpacking, he wanders around his new neighborhood, expecting something exciting to happen. (“He was often wrong.”) We know from an illustration on the book’s title page that Chuck’s nuclear family consists of him, his dad, and his mom, though we only see the mom in the mornings, presumably before she heads out to work. The boy spends his days in the company of his dad.
On one particular summer day, Chuck is so bored—and his dad so preoccupied with his computer—that he decides to unpack a few boxes. As he opens a long, flat box, he finds “a glass case filled with brightly colored insects perfectly pinned to a board.” This, his dad informs him, is his grandfather’s first bug collection, assembled when he was nine. The man went on to become a famed entomologist, discovering “a whole new species” when he was older.
“Nine?” Chuck gasped. His last science project had resulted in a pile of broken toothpicks and a marshmallow up his nose.
Later, while the two are reading a bedtime story, Chuck interrupts his dad to raise the subject of his grandfather again. Did Grandpa have help with that bug collection when he was nine? Nope, Chuck’s dad informs him, because his own dad was a deep-sea diver, busy dodging octopus attacks around the world. Oh, and Chuck’s great-great-grandfather “once lost three toes to frostbite on Mount Everest.”
This gets Chuck thinking, first about his data analyst-dad and then about himself, with no fancy science fair projects or trophies to boast. Is it possible the “great Whipplethorp men[…]were getting…a lot less great?”
The next morning, over orange juice, Chuck announces his big, high-stakes plans for the day, as well as a desire to be referred to as Charles from here on out. When Normal Street doesn’t present much in the way of high peaks and deep seas, Chuck sets his sights on bottling a wood-boring beetle in the hopes that it’s the first of its kind. (Spoiler: it’s not.)
Then comes the task of killing the beetle in order to mount it…but Chuck finds he can’t bring himself to do it. He turns to catching flies, already dead around the house, but they don’t look particularly impressive mounted on loose-leaf paper.
Then, Chuck get gets an idea all his own, inspired by the beetle still crawling around in the jar. A perfect Chuck-y idea.
I won’t spoil the next several pages for you, but they involve lots of cardboard, tape, paint, candy, a milk cap, a set of keys—and an amazingly detailed finished product that you have to turn the book on its side to view. And the best part, of course, is that it’s something that feels true to who Chuck is, something born of his own unique talents.
Chuck also has an epiphany about his own dad. “I’m kinda glad you’re boring,” he tells him, as they cuddle under Chuck’s tented bed. “It means you’re around a lot.” And that, Chuck’s dad confirms, is the adventure he always wanted. If he’s being honest, it’s not entirely unlike wrestling an octopus, either.
For a generation that is increasingly pushed to go, go, go, achieve, achieve, achieve, The Great Whipplethorp Bug Collection is a welcome reminder that sometimes life’s greatest discoveries lie right at your fingertips. Sometimes, the greatest achievement is knowing who you are and what you want—and loving yourself for it.
Cheers to the dads who show up for their kids in whatever way feels right to them, and cheers to the kids who are better for it. Cheers to the cicadas, too, and those who don’t run screaming from them. It’s certainly shaping up to be another summer for the record books.
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Review copy from Little, Brown and Company. All opinions are my own. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases through the links above, although I prefer we also shop local and support our communities when we can.