The Leading Magazine for Primary Educators
Use Creepy Crawlies To Turn Fear Into Fascination And Inspire Writing
Main Subject: CPD
Subject: English Literacy
Turn fear into fascination by exploring the language of all things that creep, crawl, scuttle or skulk
Fear can be a powerful stimulus for a story. By exploring something that scares you through creative writing, that feeling of dread can be diminished, vanquished or even transformed into fascination.
I’m in the middle of writing a trilogy called The Battle of the Beetles, and the first book, Beetle Boy, was published in March. You can probably guess from the titles what the central subject matter of the books is.
When people read the book, or even just see the title, they make assumptions about me; that I was the kind of child who was fascinated by bugs, that I’m a scientist, or at least someone with an entomological pastime, that I live in the countryside, that I’m outdoorsy. None of this is accurate. I’m a city girl with a fear of insects, who screams and runs out of the house at the shocking sight of a large spider, who does the heebie-jeebie dance of panic if a moth comes within a metre of her head, who leaps out of her seat and squeals if anything buzzes close to her ear. Or at least I was, up until I started writing Beetle Boy.
So, how did someone with a fear of insects come to write a book about beetles? Well, I was accessorising a bit of prose with some creepy-crawlies, trying to create a dark and evil atmosphere, and I wanted to describe them well, so I looked up all the disgusting minibeasts I could think of on Wikipedia.
The page on beetles shocked me. It told me that they are classified in the order of Coleoptera, meaning ‘sheathed wing’. This is because most beetles have two sets; a hard outer wing, the elytra, and a softer pair underneath.
I didn’t know that beetles flew! I imagined them scurrying about under rotting wood. And there was much more. Like, did you know there are more types of beetle on the planet than any other creature? Over 350,000 different species have been recorded, making up one in every four of all known lifeforms.
They are vital to our ecosystem; they break down waste, pollinate flowers and are an important part of the food chain. Looking at pictures, I also discovered that beetles come in all shapes, sizes and colours. Some are so beautiful they’re actually called jewel beetles. Heck, I didn’t even know the ladybird was a beetle!
I was ashamed by my extraordinary level of ignorance about such an important and interesting creature, and I could only put it down to my fear. I had never really stopped to look at, think about or study an insect. I was too busy running away from them.
I couldn’t go back to my prose and use the beetle as a villainous accessory, it made me feel uncomfortable to cast such an important creature as a baddie. I didn’t want to be responsible for perpetuating the image of insects as horrible. In fact, my ignorance troubled me enough to look for children’s stories where beetles were positively portrayed, and I struggled to find many. That was when I knew I’d have to write one.
The challenge of studying hundreds of types of beetles in detail and writing about them positively, with friendly adjectives, pleasing metaphors and charming similes has been interesting. For one, I am no longer frightened of insects, I am fascinated by them. I’ve also learned that fear is a useful tool when describing something.
When frightened, we fixate on the subject, we notice everything about the way it looks and moves. If you ask someone why she’s frightened of snakes, she will usually erupt, spewing descriptive words to try to make you empathise with her fear. This is a rich harvest of imagery to work with. If you ask her to write it all down, and then transpose each negative sentence into an appealing positive description, challenging her to make a reader feel warmly toward the creature, she will have to use her imagination to consider the snake positively and think about the reader’s response to her words. I use this exercise as the basis of one of my creative writing workshops, and it always produces interesting results. Children have a lot to say about the things that frighten them.
MG Leonard’s debut children’s book Beetle Boy is published by Chicken House and is out now in paperback. Join in the People’s Trust for Endangered Species’ Great Stag Hunt at ptes.org/greatstaghunt