About the Holiday
This month’s observance pays tribute to the role of zoos and aquariums and the work they do for education, conservation, and research to protect the world’s animals. As zoos and aquariums build exhibits that more closely resemble the animals’ natural habitats and offer interactive and hands-on programs, more visitors can learn about the environments and science of each amazing creature. These institutions are also reaching out with personal and online visits to schools by zoologists and other experts, increasing the interest in biology and animal science to students. Nearly 175 million people—50 million of which are children—visit zoos and aquariums each year. To celebrate today, visit your local zoo or aquarium!
Be Nice to Spiders
By Margaret Bloy Graham
One morning as the Zoo Keeper was about to open the gate, he noticed a matchbox with a note attached to it. The “note read: ‘Please look after Helen. I’ve had her since she was a baby, but I can’t keep her anymore. We have to move to an apartment that won’t take pets. Thanks, Billy.” When the Keeper opened the box, out jumped eight-legged Helen. She scurried into the maple tree and then “quickly spun a long silk thread and lowered herself into the ventilator of a big building” that turned out to be the Lion House. The poor lions—a father lion, a mother lion, and four cubs—were beset by flies. “The lions were annoyed, but Helen was delighted. She loved to eat flies.” Right away she wove a big, sticky web. “One by one the flies got caught…. And one by one Helen ate them.”
After a week, the Lion House was free of flies and the lions were comfortable. Helen moved on to the Elephant House. She set up her web, and in a week the elephants were happy too. Next, Helen went to the Zebra House and after she “had caught all the flies there, the zebras were able to eat their hay in peace.” In fact, the zoo turned into a peaceful place for all the animals. Helen was very content too.
One morning, the Keeper called all the workers together and told them that the Mayor was coming for a visit that day. He wanted them to clean up all the cages and especially “‘get rid of all those spider webs.’” Joe said that he thought spiders were beneficial, but the Keeper thought the spider webs made the zoo look a mess. With their brushes, brooms, and hoses, the workers scrubbed the cages clean. When they got to the Camel House, they found one of Helen’s webs loaded with flies. He swiped at the web, but Helen had vanished.
When the Mayor arrived, he declared that he’d never seen the zoo looking “‘so neat and the animals looking so well.’ Meanwhile Helen was still in the Camel House, hiding in a crack in the ceiling.” She was afraid to come out. Days passed and Helen grew hungry. Flies returned and began to bother the camels again. One night, Helen was so hungry that she came out and spun a web. She decided to stay in the Camel House—“she didn’t dare go anywhere else.” This was good for the camels, but not good for all the other animals.
The Keeper couldn’t understand what had happened. As he and Joe walked through the zoo, the animals and even the visitors were under clouds of flies and looking miserable. But then they went into the Camel House. Here there were no flies, and the camels were peaceful and happy. Then Joe spied one of Helen’s webs. “‘Look, Chief,’ Joe shouted. ‘Now I know what’s going on! See that spider up there? It’s eating all the flies…. Spiders are useful. That’s what I tried to tell you the other day.’”
The Keeper called all the workers together and told them about Joe’s discovery. He also had a new rule for the zoo: “‘Be nice to spiders.’ Soon the Zoo became famous for its happy, healthy animals, and Helen was treated like a queen.” One day, Helen even got her picture on the front page of the newspaper under the headline: “Local Zoo Named Best of Year; Three Cheers for Spider! Says Keeper.”
One of the people reading the newspaper was Billy’s dad. He showed the article to Billy, and the next day Billy went to visit Helen. He introduced himself to the Keeper, and then noticed something special in Helen’s web. It was an egg sac. “‘I bet there’ll be plenty of baby spiders soon,’” exclaimed Billy. And sure enough, a few days later Helen became the proud mother of lots and lots of little spiders. “From then on, Helen and her children and all the animals in the Zoo lived happily ever after.”
Margaret Bloy Graham’s classic story has been a kid-favorite since 1967—I know it was a favorite of mine and I was happy to pull my Weekly Reader Children’s Book Club Edition copy out of my collection for this review. Billy’s sweet concern for his pet spider, Helen’s initiative in dropping into the Lion House, and the natural solution to the zoo’s fly problem all combine to make this a story that is ever-fresh and appealing to kids. Graham’s smooth and straightforward narration is sprinkled with realistic dialogue and builds to a suspenseful turn that is riveting to children. Kids with pets of their own will cheer when Billy learns that Helen is a hero. The idea of natural, environmentally safe solutions to pest control is still relevant and resonant today.
Graham’s illustrations have lost none of their charm, in fact kids will be enchanted by the vintage look and adore little Helen who, with a smile on her face, snares plenty of flies in her webs. Readers will like seeing just how a spider goes about constructing a web and will enjoy spying where Helen is on each page. You can bet there will be a chorus of “noooo!” as a zoo worker raises his broom to sweep away Helen and one of her webs and an enthusiastic “yesss!” when Joe points out just how vital she is to the zoo. The illustrations also give adults and kids an opportunity to talk about how things have changed at zoos over the intervening years.
An impactful story with lots of heart, Be Nice to Spiders will be a favorite of kids who love spiders, zoos, and the environment.
Ages 4 – 7
National Zoo and Aquarium Month Activity
Splendid Spider Coloring Page
Having a spider in the house is lucky! Here’s an alert spider just waiting for some flies. Grab your crayons or pencils and feed him – or be a little silly. What else can this spider catch in his web?
You can find Be Nice to Spiders at these booksellers
Picture Book Review