If you want to take your children to an exotic planet and show them alien monsters worthy of Jurassic Park, you don't need to go back in time or book a family jaunt to Alpha Centauri. You don't even have to visit a movie theater. All you need to do is aim a magnifying glass at any insect on its home turf. Grains of sand become boulders; mosses tower like Cretaceous ferns; and wonderful, terrible creatures prowl for prey.
Four recent books for young children—three nonfiction and one story—capture this Lilliputian world in all its glory. The largest, bearing a frightening close-up of a grasshopper's big-eyed face, is Theresa Greenaway's Big Book of Bugs. In this oversized hardback, children will learn some fascinating tidbits queen bumblebees frequently nest in the abandoned burrows of voles (common mouse-like rodents); even the tiny shield bug has enough maternal instinct to guard its own children; the water boatman clings upside down to the surface film of ponds. The photo and text about the flower mantis alone are enough to impress the reader. This camouflaged killing machine is a praying mantis whose body is mottled pink and green to blend with flowers, while its front legs resemble an unopened bud. All of the photos, as usual with DK's books, are excellent, lushly textured against crisp white backgrounds.
Another hardback stuffed with color photographs zooms in even more closely and stares bugs right in the eye. Darlyne A. Murawski's Bug Faces. It begins, "Chances are you've seen a bug today." Yes, the odds are good. But you've probably never been this close to them before. All those compound eyes and viselike mandibles can be pretty scary and, for that reason, fascinating. Many children will find this book irresistible.
Slightly older readers will enjoy a paperback that is illustrated with handsome line drawings, Sally Kneidel's StinkBugs, Stick Insects, and Stag Beetles. By examining 21 insects or kinds of insects from burying beetles to army ants, from tsetse flies to the Madagascan giant hissing cockroach Kneidel provides a comprehensive introduction to the insect world. She uses recurring sidebars in categories such as "That's Strange!" and "Why Do They Do That?" to compare various kinds of insects. Perhaps the most fun is each insect's treatment in the category "What You Can See and Do." This is a perfect hands-on way for children to learn how to listen to musical insects such as cicadas and katydids or how to watch for "a parade of ants carrying green parasols."And now for the fiction among the facts. Janell Cannon, author and illustrator of such beloved picture books as Stellaluna and Verdi, is back with a suspenseful and amusing new tail, the story of a cockroach named Crickwing. Barely escaping from a hungry toad, a young cockroach is left with a twisted wing and the nickname Crickwing. (We never learn what his name was before his disfiguring accident. Bob? Irving?) Despising his nickname, he becomes reclusive, avoiding his acquaintances and spending his time creating sculpture out of parts of plants. A root here, a leaf there and voila another Crickwing masterpiece. As always with Janell Cannon, the illustrations made with acrylics and colored pencils on illustration board are splendid, bursting with color, life and energy. No wonder both children and adults love her books.
At first Crickwing is not a pleasant fellow and seeks revenge on creatures smaller than himself. In time, of course, like a certain glowing-nosed reindeer and other misunderstood outcasts, Crickwing redeems himself and turns his talent to the good of his comrades. The most realistic aspect of this book might be Crickwing's constant near-death experiences with monkeys, ocelots and other creatures determined to either eat him or torment him. The lesson of all of these insect books is clear: It's a jungle out there.
And these books also pose a question: Are entomologists just children at heart, people who never lost their fascination with insects? Or are children natural-born entomologists who eventually lose their sense of wonder and become accountants?