116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
In January, the American Library Association announced its list of winners for a host of prestigious writing and illustrating awards in children's literature. One such award, the Robert F. Sibert Medal for most distinguished children's non-fiction/informational title, was awarded to author Candace Fleming and illustrator Eric Rohmann, for their truly accomplished picture book, 'Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera” (2020, Holiday House, $18.99, ages 6 to 9). Fleming has appeared on the Sibert list three times in the last seven years, two of those with Rohmann for 'Honeybee” and for 'Giant Squid” in 2017.
According to an interview Fleming gave to fellow children's author Melissa Stewart for her blog, Celebrate Science, Fleming's purpose for writing 'Honeybee” was to create empathy in readers for the plight of the amazing honeybee. But how to do this?
'I wrote a birth-to-death story - a biography - of one bee, following her every movement from the day she emerges into her hive until 35 days later when, tattered and exhausted, she falls to the ground. I emphasized her struggles, heightened tension and suspense, and intentionally created an emotional punch.
And this Fleming does. Referring to the one bee we see hatching on the first page as Apis Mellifera, Apis for short, we learn so much about the all-too-short, but oh-so-busy life of this amazing, monumentally important creature that affects every one of us given that, without them, 70 percent of our food choices would be lost.
Fleming's generous gifts of writing along with her richness of prose, vividness of detail, dances of alliterations and rhythms within her language choices would certainly be enough for readers to learn, be entertained by, and ultimately, be inspired by, but what makes this picture book the powerhouse it is involves the added combination of Eric Rohmann's spectacular artistry. A two-time Caldecott medalist and children's author as well, Rohmann's vision succeeds in showing us the flurry inside the hive, how the grub-like larvae grow, how grandly oversized the queen is, how Apis defends her colony from a robber bee, and, ultimately, how we can imagine what we could not imagine before of the intricate and highly complex life cycle of the honeybee.
Their picture book reads like a motion picture with its introduction to Apis hatching before the credits roll. On the 25th day of her life, after we learn of all the other jobs she instinctively knows to do and dutifully performs (nurse, queen's maiden, comb builder, food preparer, guard and warrior), this is when the music swells and we hold back our tears of shared joy and freedom for Apis as she is finally allowed her first flight! In a gorgeous four-page, open-fold panoramic spread of an early morning sun-brushed meadow bursting with goldenrod, liatris and coneflower, she has earned her new job as forager for the hive. And, thanks to Rohmann's larger than life perspective, it is as if we are looking through a close-up lens of this magnificent creature who does so much for us.
Although the publisher states the age group for this book as 6 to 9 years, I feel it is a book for all ages. I learned so much about bees from it: All worker bees are female; A queen bee lays 2,000 eggs in one day; Bees don't just forage for pollen, they also forage for water and sticky plant sap that is like glue; They have a special sac called a 'honey stomach” and it is full when its weight equals their own weight; and, a forager bee visits 30,000 flowers in its short lifetime to make just 1/12 of 1 teaspoon of honey. This fascinating book also contains a thorough backmatter section with additional information on bees, their importance and further recommended resources for learning more.
Fleming and Rohmann are masters in the children's literature arena with close to 80 award-winning books between them. This spring, I will think of them and Apis with the first honeybee I see with my appreciation of that little amazing bee burning even stronger.
Wendy Henrichs is a children's author living in Iowa City.