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Beetle Bedlam

by Vlasta van Kampen

Vlasta van Kampen thanks scientists and technicians at Agriculture Canada’s Centre for Land and Biological Resources at the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa for their interest and continuous flow of information over the three years during which she created this new picture book about beetles. The colours are glowing, the calligraphy is exquisite, and the beetles are drawn with care and love. There has been no descent to caricature (no bulbous crossed eyes or frilly underpants) and each beetle is distinctly portrayed in proper scale and orientation. Entomologists with an artistic bent will heartily approve. And it’s so nice to have a book about an underappreciated phylum.

Would this was a non-fiction book about beetles or another concept book like A B C,1 2 3: The Canadian Alphabet and Counting Book. The artist is responsible for the story as well as the pictures in this work, and the text is not up to the standard of the art. The awkward prose is neither a formulaic tale nor a straight narrative, there are lapses into colloquial exchange that clash with the proto-folktale format, and when the book is closed the lovely pictures still echo in the mind but the story has dribbled away. Parents reading the book will also have to do some narrative interpolating to cover up continuity errors and fill out the plot. This is unfortunate.

The story is structured as a trial. Bark beetle is in the dock to defend himself against the charge of killing trees and wrecking forests. Various other beetles are asked if they have corroborating evidence to support the accusation, but each is dismissed when they indicate they don’t know, weren’t there, didn’t see a thing. The Canadian bombardier beetle is asleep (“so I was napping in this tree, eh?”), and the South American Hercules beetle, whose horns are “totally bogus,” blusters he doesn’t know anything about “that tree business.” The harlequin beetle purrs “Puh-lease! And that awful little bug, who’s he?” The cartoon stereotypes avoided in the pictures are encountered in the prose.

Bark beetle has a politically correct defence. He’s homeless (puh- lease!) and he promises “from now on bark beetles will live only in sick or dead trees.” The judge requests another round of fermented sap. All cheer. (Questions from child: Are beetles really homeless? Do they all live in dead trees now? Is the beetle on his back because he’s drunk, or is it really medicine, as the ladybug says?)

We don’t know. Mixing up a message and a fantasy is tricky, unless you’re Arnold Lobel or Russell Hoban. Speaking of poets, verse might have helped. Like The Butterfly Ball, Edward Lear’s The Scroobious Pip (with Nancy Elkhom Burkert’s lovely bug pictures), or even Zemach’s The Judge, a cumulative poem would have given some scope for acting, personalities, rhythm, and drama. This text doesn’t do justice to the wondrous art. Too bad.