Wednesday, April 07, 2021

For the Love of Spiders and Spi-ku

I've been a fan of spiders for ages, long before I became a faculty member at the only college in the country with a spider mascot. As a classroom teacher I had a tarantula in my classroom and often shared spider-related humor with my students. A particular favorite was this Calvin and Hobbes strip. 
If you can't quite make out the text, here's what Calvin opines.
Like delicate lace,
so the threads intertwine,
Oh, gossamer web
of wondrous design!
Such beauty and grace
wild nature produces … 
UGHH, look at the spider
suck out that bug’s juices! 

While many folks focus on the "yuck factor," spiders are truly fascinating creatures. Leslie Bulion has fully captured how amazing they are in both verse and prose in Spi-ku: A Clutter of Short Verse on Eight Legs. Add in the incredible illustrations by Robert Meganck and you have a masterpiece that even arachnophobes will love.

Bulion is a master of informational texts that marry engaging, kid-friendly poetry with science. I wish her books had been around 33 years ago when I settled into my first classroom, eager to put science books in kids hands that would neither put them to sleep with their didactic approach to content, nor turn them away with the complexity of the writing. Not only were truly exceptional nonfiction science books hard to find back then, but poetry was almost nonexistent. As someone who encourages teachers to integrate poetry and children's literature into content area instruction, Leslie's books are a gift.

Let's start this review by exploring from the back. My students know how much I love back matter. It's one of the components that I believe separates good nonfiction texts from great ones. The back matter in Spi-ku consists of a glossary of 24 terms, notes on poetics forms, spider identification that includes common and scientific names (genus and species) for the 53 spiders illustrated so carefully by Meganck, ideas for going on a spider hunt, an annotated bibliography with resources for further study, the author's acknowledgements (yes, she consulted with experts!), a double-page spread showing spiders' relative sizes, and a page of close-up illustrations of the spiders that appear on the cover. Phew! See what I mean about back matter? This information adds a welcome layer of depth to the text.

While many of the poems in the text use Japanese or Japanese-inspired forms, such as haiku, tanka, dodoitsu, and cinquain, there are other forms, including limerick, double dactyl, free verse, concrete, and many more. The first poem, "Araneae All Around" provides a nice introduction to the humble spider and the volume. The poems are all accompanied by illustrations of spiders, their silks, and webs. I found myself constantly flipping between the pages and the spider identification in the back to try and determine exactly what spiders I was looking at. After the introductory poem, Bulion introduces arachnids, or the class of invertebrates that spiders belong to.

(Click to enlarge.)

I adore the word play in using mite in this poem. This is the kind of thing that students will remember. I know this one turn of phrase is a great way to remember at least one other type of organism found in the arachnid class. As pictured above, each double-page spread includes one or more verses and a block of informational text. The spiders highlighted in the text blocks appear in boldface to make them stand out. The information unfolds in a thoughtfully organized fashion, taking readers on a journey that has them learning about spider silk, spider movement, how they catch and eat their meals, their webs, how some spiders capture prey without the use of a web or snare, how spiders fool both prey and predators, spider senses, and so much more. 

I learned as much from the poems in the book as I did the nonfiction excerpts. The 3 different spreads on spider enemies all include poems for two voices and are particularly engaging when read aloud. The text ends with a final poem entitled "Appreciate Araneae!" After learning so much about them, it's hard not to appreciate all they contribute to "Our Spiderful World," which just so happens to be the heading for the last block of nonfiction text. (Go ahead, see for yourself!)

(Click to enlarge.)

There is so much to love in this volume. I encourage all you folks who are fearful or disdainful of spiders to be brave and take a peak. I guarantee that by the end of it, even the biggest spider-haters will be converts. 

For all you teachers out there, Leslie has developed a particularly useful Educator's Guide. Don't miss it!

Thanks to PeachTree for sending me a copy of the book and including me on the blog tour. You can check out the other stops this week to learn more.
You can learn more about Leslie Bulion and her books at her web site. You can also find her on social media at:
You can learn more about Robert Meganck and his art on his web site. (Turns out, he's my neighbor here in Virginia. Hi Robert!) You can also find him on social media at:
Finally, keep up with PeachTree Publishing and see what's new in their world of books at:

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