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Didactic tales do not reach children. Over the centuries, storytellers, rabbis, and Christ himself have relied on better tricks. You have to give your audience an entertaining story, with images that linger in the mind. Many have used the image of the spider to evoke desirable character traits such as industriousness, perseverance, cleverness, or cunning. In West Africa, griots spin tales featuring the humorous spider/man Anansi, who often shows children what they should not do. Every child needs to meet Anansi, as the storyteller Patrick Addai relates in his essay “I will always remain a spider.”
What are your favorite spider stories? Here are some of mine:
Great Spider Read-alouds from Many Cultures
Arkhurst, Joyce. The Adventures of Spider: West African Folk Tales. Illus. by Jerry Pinkney. Little, Brown, 1992. Entertaining and accessible collection of six Anansi tales retold by a NYPL librarian/storyteller. My favorites include “How Spider Got a Thin Waist,” which shows the result of Spider’s greed; (2) “How Spider Got a Bald Head,” which features some hot baked beans in an unexpected spot; and (3) “ How the World Got Wisdom,” which reveals why no one person or culture holds all the answers.
Badoe, Adwoa. Pot of Wisdom: Ananse Stories. Illus. by Baba Wague Diakite. Badoe’s witty retellings of ten Ananse folktales are enlivened by Diakite’s boldly patterned illustrations.
Bruchac, Joseph, Ka-Hon-Hes and Michael Caduto. Native American Stories. Fulcrum, 1991. Collection focuses on the many lessons nature can teach humans. See the Muskogee/Creek myth “How Grandmother Spider Stole the Sun,” a story simple enough for children to retell.
Cronin, Doreen. Diary of a Spider. Illus. by Henry Bliss. HarperCollins, 2005. Ages 5-8. Spider keeps a diary, allowing young readers to see the world according to arachnids. Cronin’s fresh, funny story shows the engaging protagonist at spider school, at sleepovers, and in the throes of friendship — in this case, among different species.
Cummings, Pat. Ananse and the Lizard: A West African Tale. Holt, 2002. Ages 6-8. When Ananse the spider hears that whoever guesses the name of the daughter of the village chief will get to marry her and get half the kingdom, he’s sure he’ll be the winner. But tricky Lizard has his own scheme, and this pourquoi tale reveals why lizards always stretch their necks. Cummings skillfully employs humor and lively, bright watercolor, gouache, and pencil illustrations to render a vivid West African setting for this story she says she found in a bookstore in Ghana.
Dewey, Jennifer Owings. Once I Knew a Spider.Walker, 2002. Ages 6-8. This gentle, beautifully told true story features two mothers, one human and the other a spider. It begins when a spider makes its home in the windowsill of an expectant mother’s home. As the year progresses, the young woman observes a delicate egg sac. Miraculously, the orb weaver survives the fall and winter, and stays with her eggs until spring. Although the story is a little longer than most read-alouds, it is a powerful reminder of the magic in our actual world, and how it can touch our lives. An afterword provides additional information on spiders.
Haley, Gail E. A Story A Story: An African Tale. Aladdin, 1980. Caldecott winner presents a stunning match of bold illustrations and the humorous Anansi folktale of how stories spread throughout the world.
Howitt, Mary. Illus. by Tony DiTerlizzi. Spider and the Fly. Simon & Schuster, 2002. Ages 6+ DiTerlizzi’s silvery, stylish illustrations, which won a Caldecott Honor, put a fresh spin on a trite old poem. Using black-and-white gouache and pencil drawings that get reproduced in silver-and-black duotone, the illustrator has created paintings with a perfectly spooky quality. The vain, naive Ms. Fly is shown with a silly flower umbrella and flapper attire, while the slick spider is dressed in a silk robe and six slippers. Darkly humorous details foreshadow the fly’s demise.
Kimmel, Eric. Anansi Goes Fishing. Illus. by Janet Stevens. Ages 6-9. That cunning Anansi tries to trick Turtle into catching a fish for his dinner, but Turtle is too smart to fall for that — and ends up with a free meal. This folktale explains the origin of spider webs. Also see Kimmel’s other Anansi tales.
Max, Jill. Spider Spins a Story: Fourteen Legends from North America. Rising Moon, 1997. This fine collection of spider stories from many Indian nations includes “How the Spider Got its Web,” “Osage Spider Story,” the wise and lovely “Legend of the Loom,” and the Cherokee legend “Spider, the Fire Bringer.”
McDermott, Gerald. Anansi the Spider. Henry Holt, 1972. Ages 6-8. When the clever spider Anansi runs into trouble, he calls for help from his six industrious sons. McDermott’s simple, memorable pourquoi tale shows how the moon came to be in the sky. The boldly patterned illustrations won the Caldecott Medal.
Musgrove, Margaret. The Spider Weaver: A Legend of Kente Cloth. Blue Sky, 2001. In this folktale from Ghana, a wise and wondrous spider teaches two Ashanti weavers to incorporate bright, intricate patterns in the cloth they fashion.
Pae, Wod-Ldy and Margaret H. Lippert. The Talking Vegetables.
The villagers plant a garden, but Spider doesn’t do his part. Finally, he tires of eating plain old rice and decides to help himself to the vegetables. But they won’t hear of it — and tell him so! This Liberian folktale humorously shows the importance of working together to accomplish a goal.
White, E.B. Charlotte’s Web. HarperCollins. This endearing classic focuses on the friendship of Wilbur the pig and Charlotte the spider. Never has so much wisdom found its way into one small novel. No child should grow up without hearing this one.
Informational Books for Children Ages 6-9
Berger, Melvin. Spinning Spiders. HarperCollins, 2003. Berger provides a clear, lively introduction to spiders. The detailed illustrations by S.D. Schindler will enhance children’s understanding and appreciation of spiders’ varied features.
Glaser, Linda. Spectacular Spiders. Lerner, 1998.
Markle, Sandra. Outside and Inside Spiders. Atheneum, 1994.
———————Sneaky, Spinning Baby Spiders. Walker, 2008. In vivid but simple detail, Markle shows and tells about 14 species of spiders. Text is enhanced with mesmerizing, full-color photographs by various photographers, capturing such moments as the spiders guarding their young or catching a fly.