Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University







Children's Literature Crawling with Insects

The very first book for children that was written just for fun was about insects. "The Butterfly's Ball and the Grasshopper's Feast" was published in England in 1807. Written by William Roscoe for his children, the book did not have a teaching objective.

The book also established another first. It was the first children's book with color pictures. The pictures were hand-colored, appropriately, by children.

The poem begins: "Come, take up your hats, and away let us haste to the Butterfly's Ball and the Grasshopper's Feast: The trumpeter, Gadfly, has summon'd the crew, and the revels are now only waiting for you."

The meter of these lines might sound familiar. That's because it is the same meter as a poem that begins, "Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house not a creature was stirring not even a mouse." That well-known poem was the model for Roscoe's historic work.

Many of the children's books with an insect theme are just for fun. Remember the often reproduced "There was an old lady who swallowed a fly"? Recently, David Greenberg wrote "Bugs!" In this book, gross insects and the gross things that they do-or you can do with them-are included. For example:
            "Bugs with pincers, claws, and hair,
            Bugs much fiercer than a bear,
            Buggies in your underwear---
            Tearing at you, BUGS!"

Many times, though, insect books for children are designed to teach a lesson. In the tremendously popular book by Eric Carle, "The Hungry Caterpillar," the age-old concept of the ugly duckling is presented. In this 1969 book, the ugly caterpillar turns into a beautiful butterfly. In Carle's book, colors are also a key aspect as the caterpillar chews its way through all kinds of food.

The same idea is key in "Squiggly Wiggly's Surprise" by Arnold Shapiro. The surprise is when Squiggly becomes the butterfly. This book also involves recognition of colors.

A 1968 book by Rae Oetting, "The Orderly Cricket" is about a cricket that decides to straighten out the world. However, the cricket meets resistance from all of those "slobs" that it tries to help. In the process, the unsuccessful cricket learns that others sometimes live the way they do out of necessity. He finally concludes, "Everyone lives in his own special way!"

In a recent book by Janell Cannon, a tropical cockroach gets an injured wing in a close encounter with a hungry toad. Called "Crickwing," the artistic cockroach eventually uses his artistic talents to help leaf cutter ants foil an attack by army ants.

"The Jazz Fly" by Matthew Gollub is about a fly that speaks "jazz." Published last year, the book showcases the benefits of learning to speak other languages.

Even classical literature creeps into modern insect books for children. Kafka's "Metamorphosis" is about a German fabric salesman who becomes a cockroach and is disowned by his family. The unfortunate salesman finally dies disgraced. In the children's version, a young child turns into an insect. Of course, his friends are concerned but, unlike the classic model, in "Beetle Boy" the insect kid is befriended. He finally turns back into a boy, but his experience teaches young readers to be tolerant of those who are different-even if they are insects! Now here is a lesson that some adult insect-haters might heed.  


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox