A NUMBER OF YEARS AGO, I met a musician who had lost his heart to city birds. He took me under his proverbial wing and, for a year, I played newborn bird(er) to his Konrad Lorenz, following him through seasonal shifts and migrations on an unlikely urban bird odyssey. Approximately four hundred bird species have been recorded in the city of Toronto. When we set off on our first walk, I knew of only a handful.
We “see” merely a tiny fraction of what is actually going on around us. Over time the significance of this fact deepened and became graspable to me.
One day, as we were seated in the dirt and grass, surrounded by insects and a few chipping sparrows, the musician said he wished humans were smaller, “maybe the size of gnats.” He fantasized about being tiny, ensconced in the luxurious fibers of a carpet or hidden among leafy vegetables in the grocery store, soaking up the mist. This desire to shrink, it turned out, was not pure whimsy on his part but a battle he experienced with the complicated and oversize impact of our species. Generally speaking, he was looking for a kinder, less obtrusive game plan for humanity. “It’s not like we’re formidable like a rhinoceros or a whale,” he said. “We’re not majestic. We’re just a bad size creating a nuisance in the world!”
Read more from this issue here.
I THOUGHT OF MY CONVERSATIONS with the musician and his identification with the miniature when the editor of this magazine asked if I would write about the insects of children’s literature. Once you start looking, you discover there are countless books about the diminutive creatures that fly overhead and run around underfoot. What draws us to the small? Why are insects compelling as characters? What is it about a cicada or a spider that invites us to see the world and ourselves more intimately, even when we might be entomophobic in real life? Why is a firefly or beetle a good avatar for our deepest anxieties and ethical questions?
In the end, I chose not to focus on stories about the ecological service of insects, although their keystone role in supporting entire biomes is indisputable. Nor have I focused on predictions about their decline. There are much better writers who are drawing vital attention to this catastrophic situation. Instead, I have compiled a list of fully illustrated picture books, most of them fabular and fictional and woefully unscientific, many of them intended for the very young.
Read more about bugs in Orion’s latest anthology, The Book of Bugs.
Young children (no surprise!) are apt to identify with the tender struggles of those of piddling size. Young children are also very comfortable with a level of masquerade, costuming their fears and ventriloquizing hopes and worries through the experiences of the overlooked and disparaged. For the kinder-set, tiny is MIGHTY but also DEEPLY RELATABLE. Sometimes these stories act as an interspecies bridge. By relating to other creatures who are outsized by the world, kids who are instinctively repulsed by insects—who may have even squashed, swatted, or dismembered them in real life—may be moved to see “pests” differently.
I hope you enjoy these books. They are true beauties of form and content. They hold a place for the idea of the tiny, the invisible, all that we cannot see as something worthy of curiosity and notice. Thank goodness for birding musicians and stories dilating our care and attention. When I think of the enduring impression left by books such as Charlotte’s Web or James and the Giant Peach on grown-ups I know, I see some of them have carried a talent for bug sympathy into adulthood. They don’t let it go.
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The Very Lonely Firefly
by Eric Carle
Carle wrote several amazing bug stories, including his sunnily vibrant 1969 classic, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, about a ravenous insect. (Upon Carle’s death in 2021, a fellow illustrator tweeted, “Heaven just got more colorful.”) But this blue-toned nocturnal story of a firefly flitting through the night, “flashing its light, looking and searching” for companionship, forever wins my heart. In a noisy world full of false signals and electric lights, the firefly is a sort of folk hero for the lonely but tenacious. This could be a somewhat troubling book, seen through the anthropomorphic lens of alienation and decline. In one scene, for instance, the firefly veers toward car headlights, the sole presence in the bright beam, conjuring to my mind the weirdly elegiac term windshield effect and the clouds of insects that appeared on dusk drives not too long ago. But this is not a story of lessening or eternal species loneliness. The tale ends in community and profusion. Turning the penultimate page brings me the same thrill I feel when I encounter birds or bugs in volume. Great knots of dunlins. Joyful bursts of monarchs. The final spread is a pulsing insect disco with fireflies shining the deep magic of the nonhuman lives around us.
Stephen and the Beetle
by Jorge Luján and Chiara Carrer
When Stephen notices a beetle in the garden, his reflex is to take off his shoe and raise his arm to kill it. If he crushes the beetle with his shoe, “the day will go on just the same, except for one small thing.” Stephen raises the shoe higher and time elongates. One can almost feel the camera rolling back, waiting to see what happens. In that pause, the beetle continues ambling about, oblivious to any peril, and Stephen begins to wonder what the beetle is doing. Where is it going? Cruelty gives way to curiosity as Stephen sets down his shoe and places his head to the ground. The beetle comes closer, rearing back on its hind legs, and seems about to attack, but then reconsiders and continues on its way. (I told myself I wasn’t going to write about insect decline, but every time I read this “life-or-death” book, I think about Stephen laying his head on the ground, rescuing himself as much as the beetle.) The dual perspective, where the beetle overtakes the page and miniaturizes our human protagonist, makes this story all the more beguiling. There is no triumphant friendship or tidy resolution—just two separate lives continuing on two separate paths. A small story of big decisions and turning points, beautifully accompanied by Carrer’s mixed-media art.
Grasshopper on the Road
by Arnold Lobel
Grasshopper is the Bashō of bugs. Every day, he walks a “long and dusty” road that takes him “on and on” to wherever he wants to go. En route he meets various insects, most of whom are struggling with some degree of difficulty, delusion, or self-importance. No matter what meshugas they lay on him, Grasshopper retains his equanimity through a “live and let live” attitude and a daily practice of “finding the road.” In true Lobelian fashion, there is no explicit mission and very little external drama. Yet road stories can be tales of continuance and sometimes that’s drama (and dharma) enough. For me, easygoing Grasshopper provides a vision of life un-interrupted, and after all we’ve done to our planet and the species we share it with, there is sweetness and relief in encountering a bug committed to its own earthly cycle and persistent path.
Bug in a Vacuum
by Mélanie Watt
A fly “on top of the world” (perched on a globe) suffers a shocking reversal of fate with the switch of a vacuum cleaner button. Sucked into a sudden void, Bug experiences the Kübler-Ross five stages of grief. Where the retro-toned house with its Formica kitchen table and shag carpet was a tidy and modern idyll, the vacuum bag is a Dieter Roth-esque place of detritus and debris. Poor Bug queasily confronts his mortality as he works his way through denial, bargaining, anger, despair, acceptance, before finally emerging through a proverbial tunnel of light. Shelve this book along with many of the others listed here in a category we’ll call: “Tales of Colossal Smallness.” Scaling down grief to the dimensions of a fly caught in the purgatory of a vacuum, a drama so tiny it could go undetected, invites readers to tackle the vast through the diminutive. What is grief, after all, but a sack of messy emotions and unwanted realities?
Du Iz Tak?
by Carson Ellis
E. O. Wilson famously discovered his love of ants after a fishing hook accident launched him into a life of nearsightedness. “The attention of my surviving eye turned to the ground,” he wrote. As a trailblazing biologist and activist, he spent the rest of his life minding insects, or what he dubbed “the little things that run the world.” Carson Ellis takes us eye level to this world of “little things” in one of the most delectably inventive and lysergic stories I’ve encountered. It begins when a seedling sprouts in a garden. Two suavely dressed insects discuss it in the imagined dialect of bugs: “Du iz tak?—What is that?” “Ma nazoot.—I don’t know.” What unfolds is a communal tragicomedy. As the primary partners of flower and plant growth, the insects feel “all the feels”—revelry, fear, despondency, pride, joy—as they climb a ladder to the top and build a fort and as the plant moves through its life cycle. What a cool book. And what a great reminder: you don’t need a fishing hook (à la E. O. Wilson) to have your perception, your worldview, upended. All it takes is imagination, a humble backyard, and a sense of multi-creature companionship.
by Shaun Tan
A green cicada toils behind a computer as a data entry clerk for a generic corporation. He wears a rumpled, four-armed suit and sits inside a gray maze of cubicles, never missing a day or making an error in his seventeen years of loyal service. Despite this exceptional work ethic, he’s denied a promotion, barred from using the office bathroom, and abused by his human co-workers. Tan based the character of the cicada partially on his own father, Bing, who moved to Australia from Malaysia. (“He was hardworking but had poor English . . . and worked in a few different offices throughout his life.”) But this simple 150-word story of mistreated, alienated labor also resonates as a wider tale of human society interacting with insects. Why so much contempt? When I posed this question to entomologist Lauren Des Marteaux, she replied: “To most people, insects are ‘alien.’ They have such radically different morphology from our own and because they are so small and often fast, there is little opportunity to become familiar with how they look and move.” She pointed out how negative word associations—Stop bugging me. This is lousy. Buzz off!— compound the alienation. Which is partly why Tan’s loving and intimate portrayal of Cicada is so incidentally, entomologically stirring. When Cicada sheds his suit and exoskeleton for a winged orange-red body, taking flight along with his fellow cicadas, one can practically hear the air fill with the siren of insect revolution—a raucous chorus of unheeded, oppressed workers serenading the dusk: trabajadoras del mundo, unidas . . .
It Fell from the Sky
by The Fan Brothers
The Fan brothers are masters of defamiliarization, casting common objects and scenes in strange new ways so we see the world more clearly. In this gorgeously illustrated story, a colorful glass marble falls to Earth from the sky and a puzzled gang of insects gather as if around a crop circle to speculate on its meaning. Stinkbug thinks it may have sprouted from the ground. Grasshopper wonders if it’s a fallen star or “perhaps even a small planet.” Luna Moth, convinced the marble is a chrysalis, tries to hatch it. Dapper and cunning Spider in a top hat declares ownership of the object and builds an amusement park to showcase the “Wonder from the Sky.” Personifying avarice and the down-and-dirty face of modern capitalism, Spider amasses unimaginable wealth, raising ticket prices to WonderVille until visitors and friends—now former friends—simply stop coming. When a further “unexpected disaster” signals the possible end of Wonder, we are left to ponder all sorts of things, including the lessons we can all learn from well-attired, anthropomorphized insects. Picture books are a great way to grab at the hyperobject we call “life.” The Fan brothers render the world smaller not to miniaturize but to refocalize and offer a fresh take on vastness, the way a hive is a whole cosmos if you step inside its particular world.