Ana Sampson: Songs of Scuttling and Slime – in Praise of Creepie Crawlies

Silly though it is, I am not a fan of insects – despite their tasteful ‘mini-beast’ rebrand. I was once so rattled by a sizeable spider that my husband told me that because spiders were ‘territorial’ there couldn’t possibly be another lurking. (As well as being cowardly, I am gullible, and blithely repeated this to people for years before someone pointed out what utter nonsense it was.)

My daughter meeting a giant millipede.

I have children now and I don’t want to bequeath them my fear. I managed not to shriek while capturing a mammoth spider under a pint glass. I took my youngest to meet various horrifying creatures including a giant millipede and managed to only back away two paces as it wound around her fingers, saying through gritted teeth, “Oh, isn’t he handsome?” (It took a herculean effort, though. So many legs!)

I’m never going to be delighted to cuddle a cockroach or tickle a tarantula, but poems and books have helped me be chill around crickets and easy around earwigs. The greatest gift you can give a spider-phobic child is surely a copy of E B White’s Charlotte’s Web and here is one of my favourite poems about creepy crawlies to share.

A Snail’s Advice to His Son

After Gervase Phinn

Always keep your shell clean, son.

It shows the world you care.

Hold your antennae straight and proud

and pointing in the air.

Trail your slime in crisp, clean lines

in parallel to walls,

stick to grass where dogs are banned

(and games involving balls).

If you must steal mankind’s veg

wait till they’re not around.

Steer well clear of allotments (‘least

until the sun’s gone done).

Although you may not have one, son,

be sure to chance your arm.

Confronted by a gang of slugs,

let your response be calm.

Keep your head in times of stress

(inside your shell, if poss).

When I am gone, just carry on.

Smile, despite your loss.

Keep that sense of patience,

never let your stride be rushed;

and don’t take life too seriously, son,

for few survive uncrushed.

Jamie McGarry (From The Dead Snail Diaries, The Emma Press)

Poetry can help us look at the world in new ways, and here it gives us the point of view of a young snail, lovingly advised by his wise father. Ascribing relatable emotions to a creepy crawly can really help a child (or a grown-up!) to become less afraid of a creature. While reading the poem we are firmly on the snail’s side, seeing through its eyes. And of course, on a more serious note, this is part of the enormous power of poetry: it can build empathy and understanding and help us see different points of view. I can think of few things our world needs more.

Here’s a final reminder to the scaredy cats, myself among them, that the less cute denizens of the animal kingdom need our protection too (even if the phrase ‘beetle fat’ gives me the heebie jeebies…)

Hurt No Living Thing

Hurt no living thing,

Ladybird nor butterfly,

Nor moth with dusty wing,

Nor cricket chirping cheerily,

Nor grasshopper, so light of leap,

Nor dancing gnat,

Nor beetle fat,

Nor harmless worms that creep.

Christina Rossetti

Ana Sampson

Ana Sampson is the editor of eleven poetry anthologies for children and adults. These poems appear in Wonder: The Natural History Museum Poetry Book, which is out now in hardback and published in paperback on 30th March 2023.