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MOWMT Day #25: Sue Heavenrich Writes About Bugs

How Can I Write About Bugs? Let Me Count the Ways…

By Sue Heavenrich

I love insects. Pollinators, mostly – bumble bees and well-mannered wasps and even a few flies. But here’s the thing: the fly pollinators that hang out around the gardens and fields in my area tend to be stripy yellow and black, and more than once I’ve seen folks flee from these flies. And once, when I pointed out that mosquitoes are flies, folks asked, “really?”

When it dawned on me that a lot of people have little understanding of one of the largest orders of insects, Diptera, I thought that maybe I could do a “meet the flies” kind of book. But when I sent it out, the rejections I got back showed my idea just wasn’t gonna … fly.

“It’s a list, not a book,” one agent said. I needed structure. I needed …

… Mentor Texts!

If there is any lesson I’ve learned from MOWMT (and before that, ReFoReMo) it’s to cast a wide net. So, armed with my biggest bug net and an even bigger tote, I headed to the library. Actually, living in a rural area, I grabbed a mug of coffee and logged onto my library system database. But heading to the library with a bug net sounded So Much Cooler!

Turns out there’s more than one way to write about bugs. As I read the more-than-30 bug books I lugged home from the library, I discovered they fell into about thirteen categories, like Wallace Stevens’s blackbirds. []

I jotted first lines, outlined structures, took notes on back matter. Nothing clicked until one day, during a cluster fly outbreak, I grabbed a fly swatter. I gave myself a goal of ten before heading back to my desk. At “two down, eight to go…” I knew I’d found my structure. 13 Ways to Eat a Fly had an organic structure; it was a counting-backwards book. I wove in a connection to ecology (food-web) and gave a nod to the zombies clinging to the window screen.

If you’re writing about arthropods, here’s a handful of recent titles to help you work the bugs out of your structure.

Concept books. Think alphabet books, counting books, shapes, colors. There are at least a dozen alphabet books focused on butterflies, bees, and beetles, and just as many (if not more) counting books. One that grabs me is Jerry Pallotta’s Not a Butterfly Alphabet Book. Starting with the Atlas moth, Pallotta writes, “Don’t even think about calling this creature a butterfly!” He flutters through all 26 letters, focusing on fun moth and lepidoptera science along the way: mimicry, life cycle, how they eat.

Poetry collections. With SO many fun poetry books about bugs that it was hard to choosejust one. I like Carol Murray’s Cricket in the Thicket for the playful poems – and the delicious illustrations by Melissa Sweet. (I’m sure the fact that it features three different kinds of flies did not influence me in the least!) I like the page layout, with text boxes and the fact there is back matter.

Compare & Contrast. There are tons of ways to compare bugs to other animals, to humans, and even to plants. In Bugs Don't Hug, Heather Montgomery uses parenting behavior to compare a diversity of insects with human parents. “Bugs aren’t like us,” she begins, but then she shows all of the ways that they are. What a flash of brilliance to focus on one aspect of behavior that is important to kids of all species: a parent’s love. This book shines for its page turns. One page declares that “bugs don’t tuck their babies in.” Flip the page and you discover that some bugs do!

Active Engagement. I’m a big advocate of “learn by doing” so I was excited to see Roberta Gibson’s How to Build an Insect hit bookshelves. Inside the covers you’ll find a workshop filled with everything you need to build your own bug: a head, thorax, legs…. Plus some great comparisons of bug bodies with human kid bodies. Back matter contains a tech manual for insect body parts and, of course, a hands-on activity.

Narrative. Like fiction, narrative nonfiction tells a story. Candace Fleming’s Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera is the biography of a very short life. Each spread focuses on a scene in the month or so of a worker bee’s life: feeding larvae, tending the queen, guarding the hive, foraging for food.

BIO: Sue Heavenrich once spent a month trading barley seeds with harvester ants on the Sonoran desert. She taught high school science, collected data on Cocos Island finches, and wrote about agriculture and environmental issues for local newspapers. She also wrote the town gossip column. Now she creates children’s books and grows a garden for pollinators. Her most recent book is Funky Fungi: 30 Activities for Exploring Molds, Mushrooms, Lichens, and More, with Alisha Gabriel (Chicago Review Press, 2022). Her picture books include 13 Ways to Eat a Fly (illustrated by David Clark; Charlesbridge 2021) and The Pie that Molly Grew (illustrated by Chamisa Kellogg) releasing this fall with Sleeping Bear Press.

The Prize:

One lucky March On with Mentor Texts participant will win a signed copy of Sue’s picture book, 13 Ways to Eat a Fly and a 20-minute video or phone chat with Sue where they can talk about a project they’re working on (must happen by the end of September 2023.)

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