To Bee or Not to Bee


It’s good to be back on this blog this month. We took a nec­es­sary break, but can­not be away from talk­ing about books for too long. The pres­sure builds…

Phyl­lis is busy writ­ing in the North Woods, so I am bee-side myself with enthu­si­asm for doing this blog.

bee drinking water
Copy­right: madozi / 123RF Stock Photo

We have a make-shift bird­bath on our deck, next to our hum­ming­bird and ori­ole feed­ers, and this sum­mer the bees have found the bird bath. I guess I nev­er asked myself if bees got thirsty but the answer is yes. And I have loved watch­ing them lean in from the edge of the bird­bath and grab a drink of water.

And that has put me in mind of some favorite “bee” books.

Bee and MeFirst, a big chal­lenge for a pic­ture book writer — dis­cussing in words a word­less pic­ture book. But I must try. I love this book—Bee and Me by Ali­son Jay — so much. And I know Phyl­lis does, too. It’s not an old book but new this year. The sto­ry begins with a city, where there are many tall build­ings, lots of cars and three trees. The next spread clos­es in on a apart­ment house and an approach­ing bee.  When the bee flies in the win­dow of one apart­ment, the girl who lives there is fright­ened and gets a swat­ter. She traps the bee, who pass­es out. The girl then reads about bees and feeds the bee some sug­ar water. The bee flies off, into a ter­ri­ble rain­storm, then drenched, shows up on the win­dowsill again.  A hair dry­er and more sug­ar water lat­er, the bee has grown. And a series of small vignettes in the next spread show the bee grow­ing big enough to sit in a bas­ket, go on a pic­nic, ride a bike, even stroll past a flower shop. The bee gives the girl a ride (much big­ger now) out into the coun­try, where they gath­er seeds. They return to the city and sow the seeds from the sky. The bee leaves for the win­ter. On the next to the last page spring has come and with it flow­ers, green roofs all over the city, peo­ple out­side on bicy­cles, danc­ing, strolling. On the last page, the bee has returned and the girl, a new kid friend, and the bee run through the bird and flower- filled city land­scape. This book cov­ers so much ground — from bar­ren land­scape to Eden, from bee-fright to bee-friend­ship. And I haven’t even men­tioned the won­der­ful details of city life with­in the illus­tra­tions. Read­ers who want more infor­ma­tion about plants good for bees and oth­er bee-friend­ly activ­i­ties will find the end­pa­pers a great start­ing pace.

Bee & Me interior

Now for a dif­fer­ent kind of chal­lenge, writ­ing about a book I used to love. I remem­ber read­ing with fond­ness sev­er­al decades ago The Bee-Man of Orn by 19th cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can writer Frank Stock­ton. The ver­sion I know was illus­trat­ed by Mau­rice Sendak and pub­lished in 1964. The Bee-Man is a hap­py man who lives with his bees.

Thee Bee-Man of OrnHe is com­plete­ly con­tent­ed in his sim­ple life — until a Junior Sor­cer­er comes along and assures the Bee-Man that he has been trans­formed and that, for sure, he should be changed back to what­ev­er he used to be. And then the Junior Sor­cer­er goes on his way. The Bee-Man, curi­ous (“I have an hon­est desire to become what I orig­i­nal­ly was.”) goes out to dis­cov­er what he orig­i­nal­ly was.

He meets a Lord of the Manor, who looks attrac­tive until he kicks the Bee-Man, a Lan­guid Youth, and res­cues a baby from a drag­on. When he sees the baby he decides he must have been trans­formed from a baby. “…by mag­ic arts the Bee-Man was trans­formed into a baby and raised by the grate­ful moth­er of the baby he saved. Years lat­er, the Junior Sor­cer­er, now a very Senior Sor­cer­er, pass­es the old house of the Bee-Man, only to find the baby has grown into the Bee-Man of Orne.

I love Mau­rice Sendak’s illus­tra­tions of the con­tent­ed Bee-Man, fierce griffins and drag­ons. I love the theme of the sto­ry. We are what we are — and that is okay. Be your­self and that’s okay.  And the gen­tle kind­ness of the Bee-Man, who says he would nev­er kick a poor old man, who tries to help the Lan­gor­ous Youth, and shows unchar­ac­ter­is­tic feroc­i­ty with the drag­on to save a baby.

Some­one said we can nev­er step in the same riv­er twice. We nev­er read the same book twice. We change. What we notice and are dis­turbed by changes. I was dis­ap­point­ed this time to notice the Very Imp, who stands at the entrance of cave that holds the drag­on and the grif­fin “resem­bles in col­or a fresh­ly pol­ished pair of boots.” Why does the Very Imp have to be dark-skinned? Why not green, or orange? And what does it say about the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry that the Very Imp is the col­or of a pair of boots. He’s not evil. Still, I feel that Stock­ton was once more play­ing into that old meme of untrust­wor­thi­ness relat­ed to skin col­or. Some may say I’m too sen­si­tive here, but when I look around at our cul­ture right now, I think any­thing that con­tributes to old but still liv­ing stereo­types, reveals old but still intense prej­u­dices, must be object­ed to. If I could re-write this sto­ry and make the Very Imp the same com­plex­ion as the Bee Man, I would.

This book might be good for dis­cus­sions with old­er kids as part of a unit on the sub­tle mes­sages our sto­ries give us. And there are Mau­rice Sendak’s won­der­ful illus­tra­tions. But it’s not the book I thought it was.

Giant Jam SandwichFinal­ly, not bees but fly­ing insects, are impor­tant in anoth­er favorite—Giant Jam Sand­wich by Janet Bur­roway and John Ver­non Lord. What are the peo­ple of Itch­ing Downs to do when a swarm four mil­lion wasps flies into town? “They drove the pic­nick­ers away,/They chased the farm­ers from their hay,/ They stung Lord Swell on his fat bald pâté,/They dived and hummed and buzzed and ate.” When Bap the Bak­er sug­gests a giant jam sand­wich they all pitch in and even­tu­al­ly get rid of the pests. This sto­ry is so much fun. Burroway’s won­der­ful rhymes pull us along as we watch the com­mu­ni­ty work­ing togeth­er to get rid of the pests and cel­e­brat­ing togeth­er their suc­cess­ful ven­ture.  I nev­er tire of the sound of this sto­ry or idyl­lic vil­lage where every­one can work together.

Bee DancePhyl­lis has told me of a very well-reviewed “bee book” by a Min­nesotan, which I have not been able to find in time for this col­umn, but I hope you can: Bee Dance by Rick Chrus­tows­ki, pub­lished by Hen­ry Holt, 2015.

We have the bees and oth­er buzzers with us for a few more weeks. Let’s enjoy them.  And here are oth­er wor­thy bee books:

Ang, Karen. Inside the Bees’ Hive. New York: Bear­port Pub­lish­ing, 2014.

The Case of the Vanishing HoneybeeMarkle, San­dra. Out­side and Inside Killer Bees. New York: Walk­er and Com­pa­ny, 2004.

_____________ The Case of the Van­ish­ing Hon­ey­bees A Sci­en­tif­ic Mys­tery. Min­neapo­lis: Mill­brook Press, 2014.

Mortensen, Lori (illus­trat­ed by Cris Arbo). In the Trees, Hon­ey Bees. Cal­i­for­nia: Dawn, 2009.

Polac­co, Patri­cia. The Bee Tree.  New York: Philomel, 1993.

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Liza Ketchum
6 years ago

Our grand­daugh­ter LOVES Bee and Me. She reads it while I dri­ve her home after school, por­ing over the draw­ings. Like you, I’ve noticed bees drink­ing from my bird­bath this sum­mer, for the first time (or maybe I did­n’t pay atten­tion in pre­vi­ous years?). Peo­ple are slow­ly becom­ing more aware of bees and the need to pro­tect them. The USPS “Pro­tect the Pol­li­na­tor” stamps are in high demand. Thanks for this love­ly post!

Marsha Wilson Chall
Marsha Wilson Chall
6 years ago

My grand­kids are ter­ri­fied of bees. Now I know the anti­dote – a good book, as hoped! Thanks for the great titles, Jackie.