Insects and Spiders: A Literature-Based Classroom Unit
Fiction, Nonfiction and Activities
for Preschool through Ninth Grade.
Insects may be repulsive or creepy to many adults, but kids are usually fascinated by them. There are wonderful classic books like The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Charlotte's Web as well as delightful new books such as Elise Broach's Masterpiece and Diary of a Spider by Doreen Cronin. The wide variety of books let us get deeply into the language arts and other curriculum areas through the science topic of insects and spiders.
There are also mesmerizing nonfiction titles such as Amazing Insects and Simon & Schuster Children's Guide to Insects and Spiders which lead us into biology, entomology, life sciences, chemistry, physics, math, the environment, and geography. With some of the classroom activities below we can also bring in art and dance.
By researching insects from different parts of the world we can expand into geography or the role of insects in people's lives in cultures around the world. As always, scientific research can include lots of opportunities for real world mathematics. The fascinating shapes and colors of insects are great for art projects. For a more sinister direction let's take insects into forensics by studying the human body in decay and then lice and ticks bring us around to the health curriculum. Does that cover everything? How about imitating the stride or flight of different insects for physical education and dance?
But enough daydreaming. Let's get to the books and specific activities. For all ages try starting with a picture book. The finest of them have a depth that rings true for children, teens and adults. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle is a classic from 1969. Older students often remember it fondly. You can read it aloud to the class to introduce the unit and then have some light discussion about it. This book is also available in many different languages so it's great for a multilingual classroom. Read more about this book.
Insect and Spider Picture Books
The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. (1981, Philomel. ISBN 9780399208539. Order Info.) Picture Book. 32 pages. Gr PreK-1.
In this classic picture book, a caterpillar hatches, eats, spins a cocoon, and emerges as a butterfly. Although the food he eats is not part of a real caterpillar's diet and the butterfly that emerges is not identifiable, the concept of metamorphosis the book portrays is a nice introduction to that life cycle and to metamorphosis as metaphor. Read More about this book including a few activities.
The Very Quiet Cricket by Eric Carle. (1990, Philomel. ISBN 9780399218859. Order Info.) Picture Book. 32 pages. Gr K-2.
A very small cricket tries again and again to make the cricket chirp by rubbing his wings together as other insects pass him, making their unique sounds. Each page has an insect and a verb describing his behavior. Each page also ends with "The little cricket wanted to answer so he rubbed his wings together, but nothing happened. Not a sound." Read More in our Featured Book Teachers Guide with activities, related books and links.
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Very Clumsy Click Beetle by Eric Carle. (1999, Philomel. ISBN 9780399232015. Order Info.) Picture Book. 32 pages. Gr PreK-2.
In this addition to the "Very" series, Carle has given us a click beetle. An advisory at the beginning of the book tells us that the protective device of the click beetle when on its back is to stretch, click and flip. This the beetle does but lands again and again on its back. Coached by various insect & animal friends, the young beetle tries in vain to right itself. It's the approach of a young boy and the further wisdom of an older click beetle that spur our beetle to victory.
Alien Invaders by Lynn Huggins-Cooper. Illustrated by Bonnie Leick. (2010, Raven Tree. ISBN 9781934960837. Order Info.) Picture Book. 32 pages. Gr PreK-4.
The little boy in this book sees the space aliens all around him, their robot legs, their shiny suits and helmets, their camera-lens eyes. "Mom says they are just bugs. But I am making friends with them, just in case." The humorously exaggerated illustrations of flies, spiders, bees, ants and butterflies are joined in the end by the boy dressed in a colander helmet, giant sunglasses, bat-like wings, oversized boots and a flower-filled tool belt, "just in case'"
One Hundred Hungry Ants by Elinor J. Pinczes. Illustrated by Bonnie MacKain. (1993, Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 9780395631164. Order Info.) Picture Book. 32 pages. Gr PreK-3.
The math in this one goes as far as you want to take it but the plot is delightful all by itself. One hundred hungry ants head off to a picnic but one ant keeps reorganizing them, insisting that his new way will get them to the picnic sooner. By the time they've gotten through all the possible combinations, the food is gone.
Diary of a Spider by Doreen Cronin. Illustrated by Harry Bliss. (2005, HarperCollins. ISBN 9780060001544. Order Info.) Picture Book. 30 pages. Gr PreK-6.
This is the sequel to Diary of a Worm. Here we have a young spider at home and at school. On grandparents day his grandfather teaches the class the difference between spiders and insects, that spiders keep the insect population in check, and that "butterflies taste better with a little barbecue sauce." This is a great book for a unit on spiders or for getting kids to loosen up and laugh.
Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears by Verna Aardema. Illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. (1975, Dial. ISBN 0803760892. Order Info.) Picture Book. 32 pages. Gr K-3.
This Caldecott award winning African tale uses the cumulative format. It happened this way: a mosquito said something foolish to the iguana who put sticks in his ears so that he would hear no more such foolishness. This frightened the next animal who saw the iguana and so on. As the animals explain the sequence of events, one part of the illustration shows what they think happened while another part shows what really happened. The books outstanding illustrations are done with vivid watercolors and an airbrush, each figure or part of a figure is outlined in white, giving the page a stained glass look. Read More.
Butterflies on Carmen Street/Mariposas en la calle Carmen by Monica Brown. Illustrated by April Ward. (2007, Pinata Books. ISBN 9781558854840. Order Info.) Picture Book. 32 pages. Gr K-3.
Spanish translation by Gabriela Baeza Ventura. This is a bilingual title with a paragraph or two in both English and Spanish on each page. Julianita is excited because they are studying monarch butterflies in school and her grandpa grew up in a village in Mexico where the monarchs over-winter covering the trees. Here's a way to bring Latin American culture into the science curriculum. Always a welcome idea.
Burnt Toast on Davenport Street by Tim Egan. (2001, Turtleback. ISBN 9780613354943. Order Info.) Picture Book. 32 pages. Gr K-4.
This book drips with deadpan humor. Arthur keeps burning the toast. A fly promises him three wishes if he'll put down the fly swatter. Arthur wishes for a new toaster, for the crocodiles on the corner to turn into squirrels and for a trip to a tropical island where natives sing and dance all day. Unfortunately the fly gets them a bit mixed up. The toaster turns into a squirrel and the crocodiles turn into toasters but the third wish comes out right, sort of.
Two Bad Ants by Chris Van Allsburg. ( 1988, Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 9780395486689. Order Info.) Picture Book. 32 pages. Gr 1-5.
Ants visit a kitchen and we see a household from their perspective. They are after crystals (sugar) for the ant queen. Two ants stay behind convinced that life will be better here when the others depart with their booty. Life is a constant series of threats, however, and an investigation of a wall socket zaps them back to safety.
Aesop's Fables by Jerry Pinkney. (2000, Chronicle. ISBN 9781587170003. Order Info.) Picture Book. 96 pages. Gr 4-6.
Included in this lovely collection of the classic tales is: The Grasshopper and the Ants. The fable of the wastrel versus the hard worker has been told in many ways over the centuries. The basic tale, however, remains: The grasshopper spends its summer fiddling, not heeding the ambitious ant's advice to prepare for the coming winter. When winter comes, the ant is rewarded for its diligence while the grasshopper suffers.
An Insect Easy ReaderGrasshopper on the Road by Arnold Lobel. (1986, HarperCollins. ISBN 9780064440943. Order Info.) Picture Book. 64 pages. Gr K-2.
In this controlled reader, grasshopper is the traveler and he encounters a different character in each tale. Each one he meets is foolish and will not listen to reason. One is a ladybug so disgusted by dirt that she is attempting to clean up a dirt road. A group of butterflies is so used to routine that they must make even meeting the grasshopper a part of that routine.
Insect and Spider Poetry
Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices by Paul Fleischman. Illustrated by Eric Beddows. (2004, HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0064460934. Order Info.) Poetry. 64 pages. Gr 3-9.
As in his previous collection I Am Phoenix, Fleischman has composed poems meant to be read by two people. Some lines are spoken by one, some by the other, and some simultaneously. This collection is about insects and he creates interesting effects and lively images. The challenge of reading these poems orally with exact timing makes for an exciting presentation of choral reading. This won the Newbery Medal.
The Random House Book of Poetry for Children: A Treasury of 572 Poems for Today's Child by Jack Prelutsky. (1983, Random. ISBN 978-0394850108. Order Info.) Anthology. 248 pages. Gr PreK-6.
Read the poem "Ants at the Olympics." Set up rules for an Olympics for the ants that they could really compete in.
Insect and Spider Chapter Books
James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl. Illustrated by Lane Smith. (1996, Knopf. ISBN 9780840376824. Order Info.) Chapter Book. 144 pages. Gr 2-4.
This is an outrageous fantasy. It starts with two wonderfully villainous aunts who are the guardians of young, orphaned James Henry Trotter. In Cinderella-like fashion, they mistreat their young charge but get their comeuppance when James takes up residence inside a giant peach, joining some monstrous sized insects who are already plotting their escape from the barren mountain. It's one fantastic twist after another and Dahl keeps us turning the pages rapidly in this exciting fantasy adventure.
The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden. Illustrated by Garth Williams. (2008, Square Fish. ISBN 9780312380038. Order Info.) Chapter Book. 144 pages. Gr 4-7.
Chester, the cricket, has arrived at Grand Central Station in New York City in a picnic basket. The station will never be the same. Mario Bellini, a boy whose parents run a newspaper stand there, befriends Chester as do Tucker, a mouse and Harry, a cat. Chester sings beautifully and entertains the travelers with his selections from great opera. His operatic voice brings fame and some misfortune to Mario and his family.
Charlotte's Web by E. B. White. Illustrated by Garth Williams. (1952, Harper and Brothers. ISBN 0060263850. Order Info.) Novel. 282 pages. Gr 3-6.
This book that's brought tears and laughter to so many generations is a book that we tend to take for granted. No other book in the field has handled the inevitability of the cycle of life with more skill and wisdom. At the same time White pokes gentle fun at advertising and human nature while he celebrates the simplicities of farm life. One more beauty of the work is that it can be understood on so many levels. Children much younger than eight may be too young to deal with the death of a favorite character, but kids from that age up can usually handle it. Read More in our Featured Book Teachers Guide including activities, related books and links.
An Insect and Spider PlayRichard George has done a wonderful adaptation of James and the Giant Peach (see above) as a play. It is available in hardcover or paperback. (2007, Puffin. ISBN 9780142407912. Order Info.) Performing this, with its fantasy insect characters, would be a great culmination to a classroom unit on insects and spiders. The play includes lots of specific set and costume suggestions.
Insect and Spider Novels
Masterpiece by Elise Broach. Illustrated by Kelly Murphy. (2008, Holt. ISBN 9780805082708. Order Info.) Novel. 304 pages. Gr 3-6.
Eleven year old James and a small beetle named Marvin become friends and join forces to prevent a crime at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Wonderfully written this book evokes The Borrowers, Charlotte's Web and The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Read More.
Grasshopper Summer by Ann Turner. Illustrated by Erika Meltzer. (2000, Aladdin. ISBN 9780689835223. Order Info.) Novel. 176 pages. Gr 3-9.
The Civil War is just ended and Sam is appalled when his father decides to move west. In Dakota Territory the family works together to build a sod house. When it is done, much to their surprise, everyone loves the sod house and there is much hope. The corn crop is planted and doing well and then come the grasshoppers. Turner's account of the awfulness of the grasshopper plague is enough to set your skin crawling and the destruction they leave behind is devastating. Read More in our Featured Book Teachers Guide including activities, related books and links.
The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron. Illustrated by Matt Phelan. (2006, Atheneum. ISBN 9781416975571. Order Info.) Novel. 134 pages. Gr 3-9.
Winner of the 2007 Newbery Medal, this book is populated with unforgettable characters and a gentle sense of humor bringing life to the classic plot of an abandoned child trying to find her place in the world. Ten year old Lucky's mother has died and her father has abandoned her. She is living in a trailer with her father's first wife in the town of Hard Pan (population 43) on the edge of the Mohave Desert in California. Lucky has a job cleaning up outside the Found Object Wind Chime Museum where she eavesdrops on twelve step meetings and their discussions of a Higher Power. Lucky's bravery is evident as she collects insects and scares away snakes. But she is also very vulnerable and at times overwhelmed by her fear of being abandoned again. Read More.
Insect and Spider Nonfiction
Thinking About Ants by Barbara Brenner. Illustrated by Carol Schwartz. (1997, Mondo. ISBN 9781572552104. Order Info.) Nonfiction Picture Book. 21 pages. Gr PreK-2.
The "imagine you are" style approach of this book puts the reader into the ants' world and, in the process, we learn a lot about ants: various kinds, roles in the colony, predators, and prey. This is also a great example of a picture book showing us the world from a different perspective.
Butterflies and Moths by Nic Bishop. (2009, Scholastic Nonfiction. ISBN 9780439877572. Order Info.) Nonfiction. 48 pages. Gr PreK-3.
Beautiful close-up photography and accompanying fact-filled text makes this book attractive to browsers or kids who want more information. Bishop has previously done wonderful books on frogs and on spiders. His photographs are vibrant and crisp and his writing is full of intriguing information well presented.
Clearly laid out in sections by topic--arthropods, exoskeletons, eyes, wings, camouflage, etc.--this book is engaging and thorough. Combining the straight forward text of traditional nonfiction books with clear and colorful illustration the whole is accessible and useful. This is one in a series of books by Crabtree Publishers about insects. Also available in Spanish (Order Info).
Cicadas!: Strange and Wonderful by Laurence Pringle. Illustrated by Meryl Henderson. (2010, Boyds Mills. ISBN 9781590786734. Order Info.) Nonfiction Picture Book. 32 pages. Gr PreK-6.
Cicadas, often confused with destructive locusts, have one of the strangest life-cycles of any animal. Some species remain underground in the larval stage for seventeen years before pupating all at once by the thousands for a few short weeks above ground before their death. One of the illustrations in this book has a confusing label of "metamorphosis" during a shedding of skin, which is more often referred to as a molt. Otherwise, this book provides lots of great information accompanied by informative and beautiful watercolors and is especially good for mixed age group settings.
Big Book of Bugs by Theresa Greenaway. (2000, DK. ISBN 9780789465207. Order Info.) Nonfiction. 32 pages. Gr 1-7.
This oversized nonfiction book has bright, large photos of insects and spiders. The photos selected are without exception clear, crisp and eye-catching. The overall effect is like having access to a diverse collection of bugs and looking at them through a magnifying glass. This book is good for browsing or for a first stop in researching individual bugs.
Gut-Eating Bugs: Maggots Reveal the Time of Death! by Danielle Denega. (2007, Children's Press. ISBN 9780531175255. Order Info.) Nonfiction. 64 pages. Gr 6-12.
This is a delightfully gross book about forensic science. Specifically this book explores how scientists use their knowledge about insects and dead human bodies to solve crimes. This is part of the 24/7: Science behind the Scenes series.
Some Classroom Discussions and Activities with Insects and Spiders
Brainstorm a list of different kinds of bugs. Organize the list by categorizing insects and arachnids. Find other ways to sort the creatures. Keep the list posted and add to it or make corrections as you work through your unit.
Create and perform a version of the Grasshopper and the Ants by Aesop as a stage play. See Aesop's Fables by Jerry Pinkney above.
Dance as various insects: spider, flea, caterpillar changing into a butterfly, ants, bees, or a housefly.
Go on an insect walk. Stop and watch an insect carefully making notes or drawings on clipboards to remember what you have observed. Be sure to record exactly where you found the bug.
Use string that has been dipped in diluted white glue to create spider webs on construction paper.
Social Studies: Mapping
Map the migration route of Monarch Butterflies.
Investigate the strangest insects and put flag-pins into a world map for each species.
Set a small, safe-to-handle insect down on a patch of ground and create a rough map of the path it takes.
Social Studies: World Cultures
How have different cultures seen insects? Research scarab beetles in Egypt, insects as food for humans, insects as pigment, and more.
Language Arts: Imagery and Symbols
Brainstorm a list of phrases such as "busy as a bee," "like a fly on a wall," and "tangled webs we weave." Think of some adjectives you could use in place of these phrases: frenetic, invisible, sticky, for instance.
- Language Arts: Imagery and Symbols
Search through online poetry collections for spiders or specific insects to find examples of symbols, similes and metaphors.
Language Arts: Writing, Descriptive
In something you are writing pick a character or two and select an insect you think they most resemble in looks, behavior or personality. Try some insect metaphors or similes in your description.
Divide students into pairs. Assign each pair to one square foot of ground. Have them observe and draw any creatures they find. Use a magnifying glass and dig down into the soil if possible as well. Chart and graph your results combining data from the entire class.
Math and Science: Measurement
Raise some caterpillars. Measure their length each day. Draw scale drawings of the caterpillar, chrysalis and butterfly each day.
Make cards with photos or drawings of insects and spiders. Use the cards to sort by various attributes. Lining the cards up in vertical stacks can create a bar graph of each attribute. You can photograph the bar graphs to preserve them before you rearrange the cards for another attribute.
Math and Science
What if insects were larger? Take the most common insects in your area and measure or lookup their size. Multiply their size by ten. How would your local environment change: How would the food chain change? Insects have exoskeletons--how do these limit insects' sizes?
Science: Life cycles
Many insects have fascinating life cycles. Have each student choose an insect and find out as much as possible about its different stages. On large round paper disks draw the stages and note the time period in each stage. Display disks on a bulletin board.
Related Areas of Carol Hurst's Children's Literature Site
Picture Books in the Science Curriculum
Other Themes and Subjects through Kids' Books
Eric Carle Featured Author
- Some of the books mentioned in this article are Featured Books on our site with activities, related books and links.