Reviewed in the United States on February 6, 2020
I don’t teach classes on how to write children’s books. I imagine that doing such a thing would be enormously challenging and rewarding, depending on the people involved. Still, that doesn’t stop me from sometimes coming up with a list of writing rules for my class of imaginary students. And as I found myself reading Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera I found myself coming up with an entirely new rule I'd never thought of before: No subject has ever truly been done to death. I mean it. Honeybees, after all, are basically the Abraham Lincoln bios of science and nature informational picture books. They’re ubiquitous. So much so that a person could be fooled into thinking that we’ve seen everything a book of bees could offer. That’s why great writing for kids, when you encounter it, reminds you that there is always a new way to look at this old, familiar world of ours. If you buy only one bee book for the rest of your life, make it this one.
A bee emerges. Pulls itself out of a cell for one into “a teeming, trembling flurry.” Since her scientific name is Apis mellifera we’ll call her Apis, but that is where the anthropomorphization ends. Apis eats, dries, then sets to work. She has wings, but does she fly? No, first she must tend to the larvae, tend to the queen, build combs, process food, and guard the hive. And then? Then? Then will she fly? She will. And she’ll work continually until, on the thirty-fifth day she will lie still at last. And exactly at that precise moment, a new bee pushes out of her cell to start the cycle all over again. Backmatter includes a two-page diagram of the different parts of a honeybee, additional information, a definition of terms, online resources, and a Bibliography of kid-friendly bee books.
Why, you might ask, is this bee books heads and tails the best you’ll ever see? What does it do that no other book of its kind has accomplished before? Well, to be frank, most bee books are interested in the individual bee and its role in producing honey. These books essentially are saying, “Okay, bee. What’s in it for me? What are you doing to improve MY life?” Honeybee has a slightly different take. We do follow one bee, from birth to death and everything in between, but even with our focus centered so tightly on this one individual, it’s quite clear from the get-go that this is not a place where individuality flourishes. The colony is as much a character as dear Apis here. Moreover, while I knew that different bees had different jobs, I never realized that one bee could switch between many different jobs in the course of its short life. Nor did I really have a clear sense of what each of her jobs might entail. Add in the hyperrealistic beauty of Eric Rohmann’s art, and you have a bee book that stands apart from the pack not merely because it’s full of top-notch writing but because its illustrations just drink in the subject matter.
It took me a little while to realize it, but Candace Fleming plays by the rules. By this I mean she is capable of writing an informational picture book without filling it to the brim with fictional elements. I’m actually a lot more lenient towards fiction-like insertions in my nonfiction picture books when the topic is science rather than history. If you want to put in speech bubbles and googly eyes and nutty concepts where planets are talking on the phone or cells have individual personalities, go for it. In the case of Honeybee, Fleming does utilize one tool from her fiction toolbox: An engaging narrative. To set the scene, the author follows one average bee, giving her the name of her species, but what really caught my attention was how Fleming actually manages to make a book of facts privy to rising tension. The book is constant badgering you. Peppering you with little hints that maybe after accomplishing this new job, THIS time “Apis” will fly. By the time flying really does take place, you are rewarded with a grandiose gatefold that somehow manages to feel cathartic and awe-inspiring all at once. Yet nothing about that image would hit home as hard as it does had Ms. Fleming’s words not done their duty. She provides the set-up. Eric Rohmann gives you the payoff.
Speaking of Eric Rohmann, how ‘bout that guy, eh? Last time I saw him on the picture book circuit he was bringing giant squids to life. From these enormous creatures he’s scaled way way down. Not that you’d necessarily know it. These lush oil paints (scrupulously fact-checked by bee and pollination expert Dr. Mark L. Winston) appear on pages that clock in at 11.75 inches tall by 10 inches wide. The distance at which you would usually find a bee no longer exists. You feel almost unsafe, coming into this close a contact with these Apis melliferas. In one picture the head takes up the better part of two full pages, Rohmann carefully centering the gutter of the book right between the insect’s antennae. I imagine using this book with a group of kids, encouraging them to “pet” the bee as it works. The artist also takes care to change directions and perspectives throughout the story. There’s the aforementioned gatefold of the bee flying for the first time, and not long thereafter an overhead shot of the bee on top of an enormous purple coneflower, stretching out like a particularly lovely landing pad. Rohmann imbues his painting with what honestly feels like care and love. I imagine some child just poring over these huge images, feeling like they could dive into one scene or another. Dive in and maybe stay there. Could you blame them?
When I was a child I remember watching an episode of 3-2-1 Contact where a sedate bee sips sugar water while someone gently strokes its back. I have always had an inordinate fear of bees, but there was something so gentle and comforting in that image. The bee couldn’t have cared less about the human, but seeing it not object either was calming to me. I think around that age a book like Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera would have been very welcome to me. I just combed through the professional reviews of this book to see if anyone’s already used the word “lush” in conjunction with it. No one? Then let it be me. Lush and luscious even, this art’s a showstopper and Fleming’s text, let me remind you, reminds you that no topic is ever truly overdone. Not when you have masters of the form bringing it to life in an entirely new, and yet wholly accurate, way. This is the bee book we’ve all been waiting for. We just hadn’t met it yet.
For ages 3-10.