I love the fall, but I especially love the weeks just before Halloween when the wind takes the leaves, the days grow short, and there is a special quality to the autumn light. This is when I most enjoy reading one of my all-time favorite picture books, The Spider and the Fly by Tony DiTerlizzi, a 2003 Caldecott Honor Book. Although it’s not technically a Halloween book, it has just the right creepy vibe for the Halloween season.
The book is based on a narrative poem (story poem) written by English poet, Mary Howitt, first published in 1829. That’s right, 1829! The poem has long been in the public domain, but Tony DiTerlizzi’s amazing black and white gouache and pencil illustrations have instantly elevated it to the status of a modern day classic.
The Spider and the Fly is a cautionary tale about a fly entrapped by a very charming, yet deadly spider. If ever there was story begging to be read aloud, this is it.
Exceptional picture books can be used in many ways. Here are six ideas to use The Spider and the Fly as a mentor text to teach several literacy and language skills:
The two main characters, the spider and the fly, both personify very real human qualities and characteristics. The charming spider always has an ulterior motive for his charm, while the naïve fly is easily seduced by the spider’s false words of flattery.
“Sweet creature!” said the Spider. “You’re witty and you’re wise, How handsome are your gauzy wings. How brilliant are your eyes!
I have a little looking-glass upon my parlor shelf. If you’d step in one moment, dear, you shall behold yourself.”
“I thank you, gentle sir,” she said, “for what you’re pleased to say. And bidding you good morning now, I’ll call another day.”
At this point in the story, you think the fly (beautifully illustrated as a dragonfly) will perhaps get away…but sadly, she doesn’t.
2. Character Traits
This is a terrific book to teach character traits because there are only two main characters, the spider and the fly. (There are also two silent insect ghosts, former victims of the spider, who try unsuccessfully to persuade the fly to leave. The ghosts are never mentioned in the poem, but they are clever visual additions to the picture book.)
3. Compare & Contrast
Because there are only two main characters, this book is a natural to compare the similarities and contrast the differences of the personalities and physical characteristics of the spider and the fly with a simple Venn diagram.
4. Moral or Lesson
This cautionary tale comes with a lesson. If only the fly had listened to her instincts instead of falling for the spider’s flattering words, she probably wouldn’t have ended up as one of the insect ghosts!
“And now dear little children, who may this story read,
To idle, silly, flattering words I pray you ne’er give heed”
5. Using Picture Clues & Text to Make Inferences and Draw Conclusions
The text doesn’t come right out and explain exactly what happens to the fly, but it is certainly implied.
“He dragged her up his winding stair,
Into his dismal den,
Within his little parlor–
But she ne’er came out again!”
The fly is wrapped up like a mummy in the spider’s web. There is the silhouette of the spider in a chef’s hat holding a knife and fork, making his intention clear. On the very next page, the fly is illustrated as a ghost, joined by the other two ghost bugs. I think we can safely infer she was eaten.
6. Letter Writing/Perspective/Point of View
The final page of the story is a letter written from the point of view of the spider. He is extremely unapologetic about eating the spider…he is a spider after all! (This section is an addition written by Tony DeTerlizzi and provides a very satisfying conclusion to the story).
“No doubt you’ve finished our delicious tale and are surprised by this little tragedy, but then again, what did you expect from a story about a spider and a fly? Happily ever after? …”
The poem, “The Spider and the Fly,” was written by Mary Howitt (1799-1888) and published in 1829.
Tony DiTerlizzi illustrated Mary Howitt’s narrative poem and transformed it into a Caldecott Honor winning picture book in 2003. He has one of the best author/illustrator websites I’ve seen.
This YouTube video provides some of Tony DeTerlizzi’s insights as he was illustrating The Spider and the Fly.
Check out these fantastic FREE resources for The Spider and the Fly from Tony DiTerlizzi’s fantastic website: