Tag Archives: The Very Hungry Caterpillar

The good, the bad and the plain just wrong – a brief tour of insects in children’s literature

GB&PJW 1

From The Tribulations of Tommy Tiptop (1887)

I have written briefly about this before  but having fairly recently (November 2017) been asked to give a talk at a conference in Cambridge called A Bug’s Life – Creeping and Crawling through Children’s Literature, I felt inspired to revisit the topic. This was a new adventure for me, first because almost everyone there was not a scientist, let alone an entomologist and second it was the first time I had been to a conference on a Saturday😊  I was given a half hour slot* to expound on The Good, the Bad and the Plain Just Wrong which I had decided to make my topic.

I should point out at the onset in case anyone is expecting a comprehensive survey of the genre, that this is a very idiosyncratic and personal account.  Consider it a potted history of my encounters with insects in children’s books over the past 57 years or so. Insects have appeared in books for children for at least 200 years, more if you count Aesop’s Fables.  Just to warn you, I’m going to jump directly from Aesop to the middle of the Nineteenth Century and then meander my way to the present day.  Generally speaking, adult fiction, like adult films tends to cast arthropods as the villains, although there are some notable exceptions, Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, being a fantastic positive example.

 

GB&PJW 2

Insects as baddies in adult fiction.

In my talk, I used Aesop to segue from adult to children’s fiction, in his day, Aesop was using his fables to talk to adults; it is only in relatively modern times that his tales have been used to instil morals into children (Locke, 1693).  It may come as a surprise to know that Aesop told, not wrote, although they are now written down, about 350 fables, of which only sixteen mention insects, less than 5%, so even then institutional verterbratism was alive and kicking 🙂

GB&JPW 3

Aesop and his fables – somewhat depauperate in arthropod examples

Children’s literature continued to be highly moralistic in tone and this was certainly the case in the nineteenth century as the German classic Struwwelpeter where children who are less than good meet horrible ends, such as Frederick who enjoyed pulling the legs and wings off flies as well as other reprehensible acts.

 

GB&JPW 4

Frederick gets his comeuppance in Struwwelpeter (Heinrich Hoffman, 1844)

If not moralistic, then books for children tended to be instructive.  Two excellent and contrasting examples, firmly based in entomology, come from Ernest van Bruyssel (1870) and Charles Holder (1882).  In Van Bruyssel’s (1827-1914) book, the main character falls asleep underneath a pear tree and dreams that he has shrunk to insect size and comes face to face with the invertebrates associated with the tree and their activities.  He describes these in anthropomorphic terms as here in this description of mole crickets mating “As the spouses drew nearer, the silver bell rang less loudly and more airily. The motions of the wings of the male, violent of late, which produced this curious sound, grew feebler by degrees. He was hid under the grass, and my mole-cricket too disappeared there. I heard two or three more indistinct and plaintive notes, and then the meadow was ‘quite quiet”.

GB&JPW 5

Ernest van Bruyssel 1827-1914 – with fantastic and very clever illustrations

GB&JPW 6

A reminder to his young audience that our actions may have more consequences than we think

“Really I did deserve a chastisement for my intrusion into the meadow, the disastrous consequences of which I now had power to perceive to the full extent. I had bruised the tender stalks of springing grass, broken quantities of buds, and destroyed myriads of living creatures. In my stupid simplicity I had never had any suspicion of the pain I caused while perpetrating these evil deeds, and had been in a state of delight at the profound peace pervading the country, and the charms of solitude.”

Holder on the other hand, adopts a much more factual approach, albeit in somewhat fanciful language as in this description of the pupation process of a butterfly “Yes, the future imago is forming now; days of monotonous toil, of diligent accretion, of patient preparation, and of tedious torpor in the antechamber of mortality, shall result in that lovely winged thing, that shall float on the zephyr, and glitter in the noonday light”

holder

Any book with an aphid frontispiece gets my approval – Half Hours in the Tiny World by Charles Frederick Holder (1882).

Both authors convey the wonder of entomology to their audience in a memorable way but I suspect that van Bruyssel had a greater impact although the biology is, of course, more accurate and detailed in Holder.

GB&JPW 7

Two versions of ants getting honeydew from aphids, Holder at the top and van Bruyssel at the bottom. Note the clever way in which the siphunculi of the aphids are made to give the appearance of cow horns in the van Bruyssel illustration.

One of the other things I really like about van Bruyssel’s book is that despite being very anthropomorphized, it is possible to identify the insects with some certainty.

GB&JPW 8

Instantly recognisable to an entomologist

1883 saw the publication of an enduring classic, The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, yet again a book with a moral message, but with an insect playing a leading role, The Cricket, not Jiminy Cricket as in the Disney version, just The Cricket.  Until Disney got hold of it the cricket tended to look like a cricket.  My favourite version is the 1959 edition illustrated by the great Libico Maraja, which I am lucky enough to own, both the one I had as a child and also the French edition which I found in the attic of our French house in 2016.

Realistic and not so realistic versions of The Cricket

Similar to Struwwelpeter but written some forty years later, is The Tribulations of Tommy Tiptop (1887), the story of a boy who delights in torturing animals, especially insects and is punished by a series of nightmares in which his victims get their revenge.

Tommy Tiptop meeting an appropriately grisly end at the tarsi of easily identifiable insects (1887)

Jumping forward to the early 20th Century we have Gene Stratton Porter’s A Girl of the Limberlost, the story of a girl who to earn money to continue her education, catches butterflies to sell to collectors and museums. The notable aspect of this book is that the negative effects of deforestation and agricultural intensification on the abundance of butterflies is highlighted; something that is much in the news now. A shame people didn’t take more notice of this a hundred years ago.

A book with an ecological message and lots of insects

Moving on and becoming poetical, Alexander Beetle in A A Milne’s poem Forgiven is a great commentary, at least to me, that most children start off by loving insects and that it is adults who turn them against them.  Something I have noticed on many outreach occasions.

Alexander Beetle, definitely a Carabid, and probably Pterostichus sp. (Milne, 1927)

An example of a missed opportunity by a great nature writer, is Brendon Chase (1944) in which three brothers run away from home and spend several months living wild in the woods.  The only insect that gets a mention is a dragonfly and then only very briefly. What a missed opportunity 😦

A missed opportunity – birds, mammals and fish do very well, insects might as well not exist

Generally speaking, books for children that feature insects do tend to cast them in a favourable light, what is at fault tends to be the representation of insect anatomy and biology, although this is more often than not, down to the illustrator, not the author.

Next up chronologically, are the very cute Ant & Bee books by Angela Banner.  I didn’t actually own any of these as a child, they belonged to my younger siblings, but I did enjoy reading them J  The gross anatomy is not too bad, although bee is male and eats cake at times, nevertheless they present a very favourable view of two insects that adults perceive as nuisances and likely to bite and/or sting.  Needless to say, my children all had copies bought for them when they were learning to read and write.

Angel Banner’s delightful Ant & Bee books (1950-1972)

The next book, although written before the Ant & Bee books didn’t come my way until the mid-1960s when I discovered the Jungle Doctor series in the YMCA Library in Hong-Kong.  The author of the series, Paul White, was a medical missionary in Africa from 1939-1941; as a result, the insects he mentions, tend to be of medical importance although as in my example here, the problem was more general, but just as dangerous, a home invasion by Driver Ants.

From Jungle Doctor and The Whirlwind (1952)

.

Although not strictly about insects, and in my opinion not really a children’s book, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was a staple of the UK secondary school English curriculum for many years and the cover illustrations of a large proportion of the various editions since it was published in 1954, feature flies, more often or not fanciful rather than actual.

A very non Dipteran fly!

Inaccurate representations of insects are easy to find as anyone who has read Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach (1961) will know.  I sometimes feel that the more illustrious the illustrator the less realistic the insect subjects.

 

 

Three different takes on the inhabitants of the giant peach

Entomologists often wonder if Eric Carle had ever seen a lepidopteran caterpillar, but to be fair the story gives a positive view of insects, albeit it being fairly difficult to portray butterflies negatively.

Very unlike a lepidopteran larvae, Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969)

I may be a bit of entomological anatomy pedant, but I am prepared to forgive Christine Goppel her extremely inaccurate portrayal of aphid taxonomy and biology.  Any book that shines a positive light on aphids gets my vote 🙂

Anna Aphid, by Christine Goppel (2005).  So wrong in so many ways, but so right in a weird sort of way 🙂

Equally guilty of gross insect anatomical misrepresentation are Julia Donaldson and Lydia Monks, but again they put a positive spin on their insect star, but then they have a head start because ladybirds already enjoy good press.

 

What can I say? Grossly inaccurate but a positive spin.

 

More worthy of praise are the delightful books by Antoon Krings, who manages to imbue insects that most adults and some children view with fear and loathing, fleas and wasps for example, with cuteness joy.

Two of Antoon Kring’s anatomically incorrect, but lovable insects from his series Drôles de petites Bêtes (Funny little beasts).

There is, in my opinion as I have written before, no excuse to simplify illustrations to mere caricatures.  Compare the two examples, below, both written for children of the same age; in the 1906 book you can recognise not only the insect species but you can also identify the plants, including the grasses, the 2009 book is a very much dumbed down affair.

Two contrasting levels of realism, top frame; Sibylle von Ohlers’ Etwas von de Wurzelkindern (1906), bottom frame Birgitta Nicolas’ Der kleine Marienkäfer und seine Freunde (2009).

And finally, for the older reader, I recently discovered Bug Muldoon, the eponymous hero of Paul Shipton’s insect detective series. Leaving aside the anthropomorphism of the invertebrate characters, the biology is quite accurate, unlike the cover illustrations which are considerably less so, but the story lines inside are very entertaining.

A great story let down by the illustrator (1995).  Those are definitely not compound eyes!

And finally, I will reiterate yet again, my praise for Maya Leonard and her Beetle Boy series, in which the reader is carried along on a tumultuous, emotional roller-coaster of adventure and exposed to a lot of real entomology.  The best insect-based fiction to date and will, I think, not be surpassed for some time.

 

A joy to read and very soundly based entomologically

Reference

Locke, J. (1693) Some Thoughts Concerning Education

 

*

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Bugbears, Uncategorized

Creeping and crawling through children’s literature – A meeting of “two cultures”

Last weekend I was lucky enough to attend an unusual conference in Cambridge, “A Bug’s Life; Creeping and Crawling through Children’s Literature”.  It was unusual for me, as first it was at a weekend, second it was about insects in children’s books and third, all the other presenters and most of the delegates, were academics and PhD students from English departments.  I owed my presence at the conference as a result of my social media activities, in this case my Blog, as Zoe Jaques the organiser, had come across one of my diatribes about the lack of entomological accuracy in some insect themed books for children.  Zoe contacted me earlier this year and explained about her plans and wondered if I would be willing to contribute in my role as a professional entomologist with all expenses paid.  I didn’t take much persuading as I found the whole concept intriguing to say the least, and as an added bonus the guest author was the hugely successful Maya Leonard, author of Beetle Boy, Beetle Queen and the soon to be released, Battle of the Beetles.

I arrived at Cambridge Railway Station on the Friday night direct from France, having left Vinca at 8.45 am, to catch the train to Perpignan, then on to Paris on the TGV, then to London on the EuroStar, arriving in Cambridge courtesy of the local train, just after 9 pm.  A short taxi ride took me to Homerton College where Zoe had kindly arranged for me to stay in one of their excellent guest rooms.   After an excellent breakfast I made my way to the conference venue, following the very appropriate guide beetles 🙂

Our beetle guides

Once there I met the equally appropriately garbed Zoe and started to mingle with the delegates and other speakers, who among others, included Imogen Burt from BugLife

Zoe Jaques – the brains behind the conference, resplendent in beetle regalia.

 who opened the conference with a talk about the importance of insect conservation and the horrific and very inaccurate headlines perpetrated by the media to sell copy.  The conference programme was fantastic with a range of speakers from the Emeritus Professor, Peter Hunt, who invented the discipline of children’s literature in the UK to current PhD students such as Catherine Olver and Maggie Meimaridi with their delightfully punning talk titles, “Beeing oneself: individualism in twenty-first century fiction for teens” and “A ThousAnt plateaus”, respectively. There were a lot of puns buzzing and flying around at this conference, including a laugh-out loud presentation from Melanie Keene, “Bees and Parodies”.  We also had talks on insect scaling and cognition, fear of insects, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, racism and prejudice, and not strictly literature, a very entertaining talk by Zoe and her colleague David Whitley on the insects of Pixar animation.  My talk, not very imaginatively, was titled “The good, the bad and the plain just wrong”.  I focused mainly on the anatomy and taxonomic accuracy or not, displayed in children’s book, from the 1850s through to the modern-day.  This was a very personal selection, based on books that I had read as a child or read to my children, with a few examples from books I have come across in the last few years.  I mainly blamed the illustrators, although to be fair, some have done excellent jobs of portraying insects accurately and sympathetically.  I will be writing about this in a future post.

Maya Leonard completed the line-up with a totally Powerpoint-free extempore talk about her journey from entophobe to bestselling entophile; a ten-year journey.  A fantastic experience, if you ever get the chance to hear Maya speak, make sure you take the opportunity.

An experience not to be missed – Maya in full flow.

The “Two Cultures” in the title of this post refers to the idea of the novelist C P Snow, who at the time (1959) felt that science and humanities were two different antagonistic cultures, with science and scientists being looked down upon and scorned by those who inhabited the world of the humanities.  Put simply, Snow’s criticism was aimed at the fact that while those in the humanities felt that scientists were ignorant if they had not read Shakespeare, they did not perceive it as a failing if they were unable to state the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  This attitude may still persist in certain parts of the educated elite, in that it is seen as something to be proud of to say for example, that one is rubbish at maths, but that someone saying they have never read Jane Austen is seen as reprehensible.  This may no longer be the problem it was in 1959, although looking at the politicians wielding power in Westminster at the moment, the number of those with science degrees or an understanding of science, is lamentably low. There are indeed, as Maya pointed out in her talk, a lot of well-educated people, who know little or nothing about the natural world, entomology in particular.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not about how much better educated scientists are than those with degrees in the humanities, or those in the humanities giving short shrift to the ideas of scientists.  After all this conference was all about exploring the portrayal of an important part of the natural world; Insects and their allies, and seeking the viewpoint of a professional entomologist. Hardly the actions of Luddites unwilling to engage with new viewpoints.  I too was there to learn, as well as to inform.  In fact I was very apprehensive about my presentation.  As I pointed out in the introduction to my talk, although I have given talks to a diverse set of audiences, ranging from The Brownies to the Inner Wheel I had, until then, never given a talk to a room full of professional critics 🙂 I needn’t have worried, my talk was very well-received and generated lots of very perceptive and interesting questions.

I learnt a lot in the course of the day, not least the difference in how much can be read into the attitudes of the author and the subliminal messages that go unnoticed by the child reader, or as in my case, the adult reader, but are picked up and debated by those trained to absorb more from what they are reading than is actually on the printed page.  Although a great fan of Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching series I had never taken on board the symbolism inherent in, for example,  A Hat Full of Sky’ until I heard Catherine Olver’s excellent talk on the symbolism of bees and hive minds in what I now know as YA (Young adult) fiction.  Similarly, until pointed out to me by Sarah Annes Brown during her talk on “Insects – a liberal litmus test?” the possibly racist and stereotypical portrayals of the characters in George Selden’s A Cricket in Times Square had completely escaped me.  I obviously spend too much time stressing out over the biological and anatomical aspects of the insect characters 🙂

The other thing that struck me very strongly was the difference in way in which language and PowerPoint was used by the speakers.  Biologists (and I think most scientists) are taught that the ideal slide should have no more than six bullet points and that under no circumstances should a slide be filled with a single block of text.  It this came as a surprise that we were asked on a number of occasions to spend a couple of minutes reading and digesting the contents of a slide filled from top to bottom with a quote from a book or paper.  I was also struck by the difference in the language used, “contextualise” and “narrative” being the two most common examples of words that are rarely uttered at an entomology conference.  That said, I confess that I used the word narrative several times in my own talk, but only one of my slides contained a quotation 🙂

The conference was an entertaining, educational, enjoyable and exhilarating experience and I am very grateful to Zoe for allowing me to take part in it.  I think the “Two Cultures” have a lot to learn from each other and Zoe is to be congratulated on having the idea and the perseverance to bring the project to fruition.  I very much look forward to future collaborations with her and others from the world of humanities.

And there were appropriate cakes 🙂

If you want to see the Tweets associated with the conference check out #bugznkidzlit

5 Comments

Filed under EntoNotes