Do you hate Itsy Bitsy Spider as much as I do? The boring, slightly droning, melody, the pointless story, and, well, not to put too fine a point on it… the protagonist, an eight-legged beastie? Not that I’m particularly scared of spiders. My sister always was, but I was the one who killed the spiders: Deborah Spider-Slayer, you might call me. In point of fact, I’d say that I have more cause to be afraid of spiders than she does, because if there were a conference of spiders (ick), then they’d probably look at me, with the blood of countless innocent spiders on my hands, and instantly slap a price on my head, while they’d never give her a second glance. But the point is: no, I’m not really scared of spiders, I just don’t like them, and if you make me sing songs about them over and over again I may want to throttle you. The YouTube videos are the worst– watching these stupid cartoon spiders which are supposed to be cute (nice try, people) scuttle around… they make me itch. Itch to plant my fist in the computer screen and stop that tinny music, that stupid spider, that… pardon me. I hate those videos.
Which is why I completely and totally adore Itsy Bitsy Spider by Richard Egielski.
This book takes a boring song about a freaking spider and, to my frank astonishment, makes it charming. What differentiates it from all of those trying-and-failing YouTube videos? Oh, and believe me, believe me, I have done the research here. I have sobbed my way silently and patiently through “the purple itsy bitsy spider,” “the pink itsy bitsy spider,” and even, God help me, “the blue itsy bitsy spider.” They are not cute. I’m sorry, Changeling, I know you like them, and you somehow even like the song without the aid of any additional media, but on that point our taste differs– sharply.
But Richard Egielski takes what I consider to be unpromising ingredients in the extreme and comes up with something frankly beautiful. What does he do? He makes a pop-up book. I know, I know: I don’t like the song, I don’t like spiders, so why would I want it in a touchable, moving, 3D form? Well, there’s the one major advantage of the book: you don’t have to hear the melody at all… until your kid learns to sing it by herself, that is, but at least even then it will be more pleasant to hear her than a tinny electronic rendition on YouTube. Even so, I wouldn’t have expected to like a 3D spider wriggling out of a book, but it turns out that I was delighted to be surprised.
It’s not easy to define exactly how Richard Egielski’s Itsy Bitsy Spider works but the YouTube videos (in my view) fail, because it all comes down to illustration; the text and melody, of course, remain the same, and they are, again of course, a dead loss. Illustration is the only real variable at play, and one easy way out is to say it’s all a matter of taste. The Changeling likes the videos, right? So maybe they’re actually OK and it’s just that they’re not to my taste. OK, sure, that’s a valid point. A totally valid cop-out if you want to take it, I say cheekily. But I think there’s a real difference between the two types of illustration at play here, and not just of quality (the difference between a Caldecott Medalist who’s paid to do good work and whichever poor uncredited artist animated those videos), but of conception. Egielski put immense powers of imagination into developing a whole world for this little song, and the videos really just want to, as it were, make it cute.
Shall I illustrate the point, as it were? Well, take a pen. Draw a circle with a smiley face on it. Add eight straight lines around it, and one straight line going up. Colour it your favourite colour. Congratulations! You’ve made your very own Cute [Insert Colour Here] Itsy Bitsy Spider! Richard Egielski, by contrast, clearly sat down and thought out a world as nuanced as Tolkien’s Middle Earth. (Perhaps I exaggerate slightly.) The spider is a little creature who lives in a world which is much larger than he is (a toddler can relate), and his friends are the other little creatures of his itsy bitsy world: beetles and dragonflies and so on. Ordinary objects to us (cans, tea pots, and salt shakers, for example) are large to an itsy bitsy spider, so they become schools and shops and homes. The creatures are dressed charmingly for their peregrinations around the town: top hats, canes, and bowties on an elderly beetle, and caps and overalls for our little protagonist. One charming fellow gets a waistcoat: I approve. The detail lends character and substance to an otherwise vapid story. And the sturdy pop-ups? Dear Lord, they’re charming. Our little innocent climbs up the waterspout to “peek-a-boo!” (the Changeling says) from the top. His mother is knitting a web behind the window to the side. The rain unfolds downward, showing clouds above, each face on each rain drop individual in character, and then the itsy bits spider truly cascades out of the spout on the next page. It’s almost dramatic in feeling, and the setting is, again, vivid in detail and texture.
I can’t say that the book has made me like the song, but it has made singing it with the Changeling much more pleasurable. Of course, she has to sing the whole song for each page (Dear God: please let her learn to sing it verse by verse with each page speedily in our days, Amen.), but at least there’s plenty to look at and a world to learn as we slowly leaf through. Compared to the lackluster dramatizations on YouTube, the genuine drama of learning a small creature’s life, world, and story is charming and almost exciting.
I still don’t like spiders, itsy bitsy or otherwise, and I’d still rather hear the Changeling sing almost anything else (well, maybe not “The Wheels on the Bus”), but I consider this little spider a buddy, and he has nothing to fear from Deborah Spider-Slayer.