September 13, 2022

When Spider Met Shrew

Written by Deborah Kerbel
Illustrated by Geneviève Côté
Groundwood Books
32 pp.
Ages 3-6
September 2022
When a group of animals realize that there's something missing in their lives, they come together in a unique way to help each other out.
From When Spider Met Shrew by Deborah Kerbel, illus. by Geneviève Côté
The story begins with a hungry spider who creates a web to catch its food. But when the wind grabs the spider and its web, Spider makes the acquaintance of a shrew whose field is about to be plowed. Spider offers to help Shrew find a new home.
When a storm strikes, they take shelter in the tree of a bat, who is wet, and an opossum, who has lost its mother. The foursome go off in search of Possum's mother until they meet a depressed beagle saddened by the loss of her puppies. Dog is invited to be Possum's new mom, at least temporarily, and they all get on Dog's back. Bat can now move around, even though its wetness prevents flight; Shrew can share in Dog's doghouse; Possum has a surrogate mom on whose back they can travel; and Dog is needed again. Finally they meet Pony who misses the fun they used to have with a human riding them. Guess what they all do?  After that, there is only one need to fulfill and that's the one that started this whole story.
From When Spider Met Shrew by Deborah Kerbel, illus. by Geneviève Côté
Cumulative tales, those that build with repeated words or actions to progress the story, are fabulous for engaging young readers and helping them recognize words. Though a modified cumulative tale in that the words are repeated but not rigorously throughout the story, When Spider Met Shrew has that echoing of a spider who is hungry, a shrew who is homeless, a bat who is wet, an opossum who is scared and a dog who is sad. (Since the pony is at the end of the story, their boredom doesn't get repeated.) Deborah Kerbel gives us that repetition but goes beyond and that's what makes When Spider Met Shrew a little different. Whether children will read the story themselves or as part of a story time read-aloud, they'll get into the rhythm of the story, but they will also feel for the plights of the animals and appreciate their compassionate companionship that results in a happy ending that comes from helping out a friend or two, in their own way. Cumulative tales can be on the simple side, relying on the reiteration to carry the story, but, by embedding that repetition in a story of different animals feeling vulnerable because of human interference, the cycle of life, weather and time, Deborah Kerbel makes us feel not just laugh.
From When Spider Met Shrew by Deborah Kerbel, illus. by Geneviève Côté

Likewise, Geneviève Côté's watercolour illustrations may look simple with a background and a couple of animals, but the artwork is far more complex in its emotional substance. The burdens of the animals are evident both in words and graphics and their willingness to express those vulnerabilities enables them to get the support they require.

Alone a spider, a shrew, a bat, an opossum, a dog and a pony have hunger, homeless, sadness and more, but together they have better.

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