Spark a Child’s Interest in Insects with a Dazzling Picture Book

The best part of beautiful fall weather is the time children have to be outdoors in nature, picking apples and pumpkins, watching the leaves change, observing fireflies at dusk, or letting a ladybug from the garden crawl over their fingers. One way to keep that enthusiasm for the outdoors burning is to share books about the natural world with them.

The Beetle Book, written and illustrated by Steve Jenkins, has the striking design of a coffee-table book. Inside are colorful oversize illustrations of beetles made in paper collage, accompanied by lively descriptions and black silhouettes that show the insect’s actual size. (A few strapping bugs, like the six-inch titan beetle, are so hefty they are shown life-size.) It’s amazing that Jenkins is able to capture their anatomical details—intricate mandibles, feathery antennae, translucent wings, brilliant iridescent shells—using only cut, torn and shredded papers. The Beetle Book won New York Times Best Illustrated Book in 2012, among other awards.

Beetles evolved about 230 million years ago, alongside the Triassic dinosaurs; survived two mass extinction events; and now flourish in every terrestrial habitat except the arctic. These arthropods are so ancient and successful that, as the book begins: “Line up every kind of plant and animal on Earth … and one of every four will be a beetle.”

From a talent pool of 350,000 named species, Jenkins has picked 75 standouts, varieties that have evolved unique body parts and behaviors to survive. For instance, ironclad beetles look like bird droppings to repulse predators. Male rhinoceros beetles grow glossy black horns, like futuristic samurai helmets, that they use to battle each other for mates. Fire beetles fascinate researchers because of the infrared sensors on their legs, which can detect a heat source more than 30 miles away, and the “smoke detectors” on their antennae; they will dive into active forest fires to lay their eggs in charred trees. And bombardier beetles shoot boiling-hot liquid into the faces of their predators (using a chemical formula and propulsion system studied by the U.S. Department of Defense).

Although Steve Jenkins has authored more than 30 picture books about natural history and won a Caldecott Honor, among many other awards, he is well aware that nonfiction books for children play second fiddle to fiction. “The pleasures of nonfiction are more subtle. Few readers laugh out loud or cry as they learn about the extraordinary abilities of the jumping spider or how the continents have drifted about,” he says. Yet learning about nature and the tangible world strikes a deep chord in many children, prompting more questions and sharpening their eyes and ears when they are playing in the backyard or out on a hike. As Jenkins notes: “Children don’t need anyone to give them a sense of wonder; they already have that. But they do need a way to incorporate the various bits and pieces of knowledge they acquire into some logical picture of the world. For me, science provides the most elegant and satisfying way to construct this picture.”

The Beetle Book showcases not only Jenkins’ artistry with paper collage, but also his instinct for choosing facts that will surprise and “stick” with a child. The spectacular creatures he depicts—with their polished green armor, jeweled wing covers, carefully molded dung balls, and jaws that can snap a pencil in half—may well turn your child into an amateur coleopterist, eager to punch holes in mason jars and scrutinize every tree stump. Indeed, beetles are famously the “gateway bug” to a deeper pursuit of science. They were Charles Darwin’s first obsession, and he spent more time in the fields looking for beetles than attending his classes at Cambridge. Darwin even wrote in his autobiography at the end of his life: “I feel like an old war-horse at the sound of a trumpet when I read about the capture of rare beetles … It really almost makes me long to begin collecting again.”

So put the ladybugs and fireflies in your neighborhood on notice: after reading this wonderful book, some small-size naturalists will be coming to observe them.

Maureen