Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Ferocious, Forceful, Fantastic Bugs

In nine days, the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, will be marked on calendars in the northern hemisphere.  We've had more than six inches of snow blanket the ground in the last 48 hours with more currently falling.  Below normal temperatures for several days this week and high winds formed sizable drifts.  At night animals are on the move as evidenced by their tracks and trails left in the snow, but there is a huge population of critters not visible this time of year.

Some of them are downright pesky and not missed at all, even though we know they are essential in the chain of life.  Others as evidenced by Insect Superpowers: 18 real bugs that smash, zap, hypnotize, sting, and devour! (Chronicle Books, November 5, 2019) written by Kate Messner with illustrations by Jillian Nickell are not only vital but display capabilities similar to champions of comics.  Their skills are astounding.

All living organisms are identified using a system called biological classification, where they're organized based on common characteristics.  This organization starts big---by asking questions like, "Is it a plant, animal, or something else?"---and it gets more specific as it goes along.

Each category,

domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus and species

are explained in their most basic form and one insect, the Monarch Butterfly is used as an example, citing all eight classifications.  After these four pages, the superpower descriptors are divided into chapter headings,

Fast & Fierce
Great Imposters
Big & Tough
Masters of Chemical Weaponry
Engineers & Architects and
Amazing Ants.

Within these chapters each featured insect is given a superpower name based upon their performances.

You would think with a name like robber fly this insect is some kind of super sleuth but it's a speed demon when in flight.  If you are its unfortunate prey, you are doomed to become a liquid form of food.  Did you know the six-spotted tiger beetle can move faster than five miles per hour?  There is a bug clever enough to mimic an orchid and lure in unsuspecting food.  Its powerful jaws allow it to feast on other insects three times its size.  If you think the only reason fireflies, especially the females, flash their light is to find a mate, you'll be shocked by the behavior of one species.  If you are a male Photinus ignitus, take flight and avoid the light.

There is a grasshopper, Little Barrier Island giant weta, residing in New Zealand.  As the

heaviest insect in the world 

it tips the scale at 35 grams or .077 pounds.  That's one big bug!  It scares rats away by lifting its wicked-looking hind legs.  The black and white shell of the Texas Ironclad beetle is so hard a drill is sometimes necessary to pierce its shell when scientists are studying a deceased bug.  And you won't believe what someone did to the shell of one of these living beetles.  Can you imagine a bug that can shoot a toxic mixture out its rear at five hundred to one thousand bursts per second?  Beware the African bombardier beetle.  If you were a specific termite living in Australia your face is your best weapon, shooting out a gooey glue to immobilize attacking ants.

There is a bug that builds holes in sand to trap food, one that farms fungus and another that confuses its predator by emitting its own sonar sound.  Many of us are aware ant bites can be itchy and achy but one ant, the Bullet ant, has an extremely painful sting.  The final noted insect, Siafu ant, has terrifying jaws.  They travel in troops of millions . . . yes, millions.  Nothing is safe in their path.  The talents of these insects are terrifying, especially to other insects and wild and domestic creatures, but you can't, nonetheless, resist being astonished and give them their due respect.

Through her careful research, author Kate Messner presents facts in multiple ways to appeal to a variety of readers.  For each insect we learn their:

common name,
super-scientific name,
trademark features,
size (metric),
secret hideout, 
favorite food,
allies and

By selecting these words, she is keeping to the superhero theme.  In other text boxes each insect's characteristics and defining actions are portrayed.  Sometimes a probable scenario is showcased with step-by-step action.  Captivating anecdotes provide unforgettable information.  Here are some passages.

A raiding gang
of Asian giant
hornets have been
known to wipe out
a nest of tens
of thousands of 
honeybees in a 
couple of hours. 

The hornets use their powerful mandibles to tear
the bees apart, often ripping off heads, legs, and 
wings.  Then the hornets carry the bees' larvae
back to the nest, chew them into balls, and feed
them to the hornet larvae.

The front and back of the open book case has huge reader appeal.  The layout and design are an introduction to the comic book, graphic novel, use of panels.  The image on the front is a display of six of the eighteen insects.  To the left, on the back, the Asian giant hornet is showcased within several text boxes along with striking images.  Information about Kate Messner and Jillian Nickell, which would normally appear on the back dust jacket flap, is shown here.

On the left front and back right of the end papers are superpower rays shooting out from the gutter in yellow and green hues.  The pages opposite these are first, the title page and second, at the end, the publication information.  These, in the front, are followed by two pages dedicated to the Contents.  

Rendered in ink and copic marker the full-color illustrations by Jillian Nickell are vibrant and bold.  Panels for text are placed within, above and below illustrative panels.  Geometrically shaped panels house insects which look as though they are going to burst off the pages.

We are brought close to the action.  Sound effect words are large and highly expressive.  Small ribbons further emphasize superpowers with appropriate visuals as well as the insect's archenemy.  So well-portrayed are these insects, it's hard to believe they are not real superheroes, but readers will find themselves grateful they are not the size of humans.

One of my many favorite illustrations is the first page for the Hercules beetle.  Its superhero name is THE WEIGHT LIFTER.  Two text boxes in yellow present seven short facts.  Between these the beetle rises looking like a giant.  Blue and white rays spread out from the center in the background.  The enlarged beetle, which can be seven inches long (180mm), is standing tall and holding a large barbell in its mandibles.

Whether a reader is a fan of bugs or not, this book, Insect Superpowers: 18 real bugs that smash, zap, hypnotize, sting, and devour! written by Kate Messner with illustrations by Jillian Nickell, will keep them reading, probably in a single sitting.  At the close of the book, a question,

Could super insects take over the world someday?

leads to a discussion by the author.  This is followed by a list of books and websites.  These bugs are a part of our world.  The more we know about them, the easier it is to understand their purpose.  This book is a wonderful resource for your personal and professional collections.  It's easy to see this book as a read aloud in a classroom setting or a book group or as a part of an insect unit.

To learn more about Kate Messner and Jillian Nickell and their other work, please follow the links attached to their names to access their websites.  Kate Messner has accounts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.  Jillian Nickell has accounts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Please take a few moments to view the titles selected this week by other participants in the 2019 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge by visiting Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher.

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