Stephen and the Beetle is a simple story with hidden depths. A young boy spots a beetle in his garden. He raises his shoe in the air as if to kill it, then a sudden thought stops him. The beetle then approaches the young boy. It looks like it is about to attack, then it too seems to remember something and walks away.
On my first reading, what struck me was the clear parallel between the young boy, Stephen, and the beetle. In the first half of the book, Stephen is the dominant character. He spies a tiny beetle on the ground and raises his shoe in the air, then a sudden thought crosses his mind: He wonders where the beetle is going and why. His child’s sense of curiosity is aroused. As his train of thought develops, he realises that he has the power to destroy the little creature. So he puts down his shoe and gets down to the beetle’s level.
Now, in the second half of the book, it is the beetle’s turn to head up the action. As it approaches Stephen, the insect takes on monstrous proportions, culminating in the point where Luján compares it to a “terrible triceratops”. On a terrifying – and very effective – double-page spread, the illustration depicts the giant beetle with a primal swirl of yellow brushstrokes against a black background; the earlier near-victim has become the aggressor about to attack. Only it too then stops mid-action and walks off, away from the young boy.
The mixed-media illustrations are an integral part of the story, both making sense of the narrative and illuminating it. Like Luján’s text, the artwork is both simple and complex. The young boy, Stephen, looks like he could have been drawn by a child, particularly his simple facial features, hands and clothing. Yet, on closer inspection, his depiction is highly detailed, with the cross-hatching on his shorts and intricately-drawn shoelaces. But more than this, Carrer’s illustrations magnify key moments in the story, such as the beetle-as-aggressor scene I mentioned above. In another example, when Stephen lifts his shoe as if to kill the beetle, the shoe looks huge: Carrer’s illustration shows a shape like a deflated balloon emerging from the toe box. This is no shoe, but an instrument of potential destruction. The more I read this book, the more I appreciate the clever – and often subtle – interplay between its words and images.
Stephen and the Beetle relies on us readers, both adults and children, to interpret certain key events as we see fit. We are not explicitly told that Stephen is about to squash the beetle; nor does Luján spell out what will happen if the boy drops his shoe, or what the beetle may have remembered mid-action. We can discuss and decide for ourselves and, in doing so, the issues raised become more immediate and meaningful – the value of living things, the fine line between life and death, the impact of our actions on other creatures and of theirs on us, and the awareness that a split second really can change our reality. Like I said, this seemingly simple story really does have hidden depths.
Stephen and the Beetle, by Jorge Luján, illustrated by Chiara Carrer, translated by Elisa Amado (Groundwood Books, 2012)
Original title (Spanish): Esteban y el escarabajo (Fondo de Cultura Economica, USA)
Jorge Luján is a highly respected Argentine author, poet and musician. He has created an outstanding body of work in collaboration with many world-renowned illustrators, including Chiara Carrer, Isol, Piet Grobler and Mandana Sadat. He lives in Mexico City, where he writes, sings and runs workshops on creative writing.
Chiara Carrer is an acclaimed Italian children’s book illustrator who has illustrated more than 100 titles. She has won many international awards for her work, including the UNICEF Prize, the Austrian Kinder und Jugendbuch-Illustrationspreis, the BolognaRagazzi New Horizons Award (Special Mention) and the Golden Apple at the Biennial of Illustration, Bratislava. She lives in Rome.
Elisa Amado is a Guatemalan-born author and translator. She has written a number of picture books, including Barrilete: A Kite for the Day of the Dead (Un barrilete para el Día de los Muertos), Cousins (Primas) and Tricycle (El triciclo), which is on the Américas Award Commended List and is a USBBY Outstanding International Book. She lives in Toronto.