Review of the Day: 13 Ways to Eat a Fly by Sue Heavenrich, ill. David Clark
See, now I’m starting to get mad. As someone who reads a lot of children’s books, I’m used to saying that we currently live in a golden age of informational children’s books. Nonfiction topics tackled in books for children today are presented in packaging so inventive, beautiful, and downright good that there is simply no comparison to books written for kids in the past. Now usually when I say this I’m talking about picture book biographies. When I was a kid the best you could hope for was the occasional Jean Fritz, and those suckers were long. But I’d made my peace with the fact that I could live vicariously through current books, introducing them to my own children. That was okay. But the next thing I know, the science books are giving the biographies a run for their money. What is going on?!? Used to be a science book for children was simple, factual, to the point, and if you were lucky you wouldn’t fall asleep halfway through. Name me a great science book of 1985 that even compares to what we have going on now. Just try. And the books of today have such a range and depth. On the one hand you have something like Candace Fleming and Eric Rohmann’s luscious (and award-winning) Honeybee, and that is great. But on the other hand you get some truly creative wackery when you read a book like 13 Ways to Eat a Fly. Funny and gross, the book is an honestly inventive way of spelling out how the simultaneously disgusting and delicious (eh?) fly is an integral part in not only the food chain but also the world as we currently know it.
Flies. They are not cute. They regurgitate on our food and buzz around our heads and generally make a nuisance of themselves. But while we might think they’re annoying, other creatures in this world think they’re nummy. Counting down from 13, readers are treated to a number of ways one might devour a fly. They are “Zapped” (by frogs), “Wrapped” (by spiders). They are “Waterbound” (eaten by water striders) and “Underground” (paralyzed and fed to wasp larvae in short tunnels). And what is the last creature to eat flies? Us! By accident (or do we?). Helpful back matter clarifies the tastiest fly parts, as well as additional Books, Websites, and an impressive Selected Bibliography on flies flies flies.
I can actually take my finger and pinpoint the precise moment that this book first impressed me AND the moment when it officially blew me away. The very first example of a fly getting devoured is on a page where a blue bottle is “Zapped” by a wood frog. Seems pretty standard. That is, until you read that, “The frog closes its eyes and swallows, using its eyeballs to push the fly down its throat.” I’m just gonna repeat that one for you. The frog. Uses its eyeballs. To push. The fly. Down. Its. Throat. I mean, right there Sue Heavenrich could have just dropped the mic and walked out of the room. She has, in that very first example, provided teachers and librarians and parents nationwide with the greatest possible way of maintaining interest in a science text. She has grossed us out in a new and creative way. Eyeballs, by and large, tend to have only one job and that job has shockingly little to do with throats. So that was the moment I was impressed.
The moment I fell is love with the book was at the very end of 13 Ways to Eat a Fly. Skip on over to the back and you will encounter “The Non-Human Insectivore’s Guide to Fine Dining.” Giving this little section everything she had, Sue explains where to find flies for dining, and what to expect. She includes a very realistic “Nutrition Facts” insert (7% Riboflavin!) and then proceeds to write the following: “If you eat out, make sure you’re getting what you pay for. Unscrupulous chefs might be tempted to use substitute ingredients, so remember to count the wings. A fly will have only two wings; other insects have four.” I mean, right there. That is a wonderful example of using the funny to slip in factual information. The opposite page shows the “Edible parts of a fly” in all its grotesque detail (“Jointed legs (three pairs) – not much meat”). Beautifully illustrated and gross as all heck.
And on that note, let us raise a glass in praise of artist David Clark. I made the easy mistake of looking up the syndicated cartoon strip he illustrates (“Barney & Clyde”) thus wasting a goodly chunk of my evening. Happily. Clark’s style is unapologetically cartoonish. This is not a statement of judgment, just fact. Now cartoonish illustration doesn’t automatically lend itself to children’s books (case in point, Berkeley Breathed). To properly adapt, the artist needs to really put their back into it. Clark could have gone the usual route too. He could have written some goofball story, probably involving a monster or cupcakes or Vikings (ideally, all three), gotten paid, and gotten out while the getting was good. Instead, he seems to have zeroed in on specializing in children’s books that involve science in some way. His CV so far includes What’s for Dinner? Quirky, Squirmy Poems from the Animal World and Never Insult a Killer Zucchini (which is both science-y and goofy). Those were fine, but with this book he really gives it his all. There is such life and vitality to the insects and their assortment of predators. Is he accurate, though? I think insofar as a cartoon can be accurate, he’s great. I looked up the bee fly (Bombyliidae), for example, and it’s just as weird, yellow, and fuzzy as the one in this book. It also took me a couple reads to realize that for each number in the book you can see a line of flies that are disappearing one-by-one. It’s the little things, y’know?
In the great pantheon of funny, strange science-related picture books, 13 Ways to Eat a Fly joins many of my favorites in the top echelons of informational publications. Along with Do Not Lick This Book, A Garden in Your Belly, and Flower Talk, it manages to present factual information with an easy hand. Creativity is the keyword with these books, and Heavenrich and Clark’s work is no exception. Feed this (not literally) to the kid that likes their gross with their cool. To the insect obsessed, as well as the kids that need a little humor with their factual. Will flies still annoy you? Oh, absolutely. But now, at least, you’ll be able to imagine all the different ways those buggies can meet their makers.
On shelves February 16th.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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