The Spider and the Fly

written by Mary Howitt
illustrated by Tony DiTerlizzi

Mary Howitt's The Spider and the Fly
illustrations by Tony DiTerlizzi

Children's book review by Steve Barancik

Ages 5-10

Stranger Danger for beginners!

First we teach trust. Then we teach distrust. It's a complicated world out there!

Presumably, the people a baby is first surrounded with are people she can trust. After all, those are the only people we let near! But then, little by little, we send her out into the wider world, and we can't entirely control the surroundings.

Time to teach distrust. Or at least, a healthy skepticism.

Mary Howitt's The Spider and the Fly has been doing that for nearly 200 years. (Which means it's in the public domain and I can reprint it below.)

The Spider and the Fly

Artist Tony DiTerlizzi gives this cautionary tale a playful, horror movie treatment in this 2003 Caldecott Honor rendering. His fly looks like a 1920s flapper, straight out of a silent film, and his spider looks like the moustache-twirling villain with an oily charm.

The beautiful fly - with her two long legs and her four long arms - is both wide-eyed and skeptical. She is a guest in the spider's cobwebbed mansion, but the spider's web is his bedroom, and she seems to know better than to go there.

Still, Howitt's spider is so full of flattery...

"Sweet creature!" said the Spider, "you're witty and you're wise,
How handsome are your gauzy wings, how brilliant are your eyes!

Our little fly grows charmed, and charm distracts. She doesn't notice DiTerlizzi's ghosts of previous victims hovering concernedly around. It doesn't even register with her that the dinner her host serves consists entirely of fly parts.

flapper from The Spider and the Fly

The interplay of Howitt's verse and DiTerlizzi's ominous black and white imagery is beguiling. Children used to happy picture book endings won't even see the ages old outcome coming. As commentator William Bennett wrote, "Not everyone who talks sweetly offers sweets."

To play up the parental utility of The Spider and the Fly is to undervalue it as a world-class picture book, which it is. Still, the book presents itself consciously as an age-appropriate warning to youngsters that there's danger out there. In a letter to readers at the end - signed only by "Spider" - the ill-intentioned creature admonishes:

Be warned, little dears, and know that spiders are not the only hunters and bugs are not the only victims. Take what has transpired within these pages to heart, or you might well find yourself trapped in some schemer's web.

The Spider and the Fly is horror movie fun...with a message!

The Spider and the Fly

by Mary Howitt

Will you walk into my parlour?" said the Spider to the Fly,
'Tis the prettiest little parlour that ever you did spy;

The way into my parlour is up a winding stair,
And I've a many curious things to shew when you are there."
Oh no, no," said the little Fly, "to ask me is in vain,
For who goes up your winding stair can ne'er come down again."

"I'm sure you must be weary, dear, with soaring up so high;
Will you rest upon my little bed?" said the Spider to the Fly.
"There are pretty curtains drawn around; the sheets are fine and thin,
And if you like to rest awhile, I'll snugly tuck you in!"

Oh no, no," said the little Fly, "for I've often heard it said,
They never, never wake again, who sleep upon your bed!"
Said the cunning Spider to the Fly, " Dear friend what can I do,
To prove the warm affection I 've always felt for you?
I have within my pantry, good store of all that's nice;
I'm sure you're very welcome -- will you please to take a slice?"
"Oh no, no," said the little Fly, "kind Sir, that cannot be,
I've heard what's in your pantry, and I do not wish to see!"

"Sweet creature!" said the Spider, "you're witty and you're wise,
How handsome are your gauzy wings, how brilliant are your eyes!
I've a little looking-glass upon my parlour shelf,
If you'll step in one moment, dear, you shall behold yourself."
"I thank you, gentle sir," she said, "for what you 're pleased to say,
And bidding you good morning now, I'll call another day."

The Spider turned him round about, and went into his den,
For well he knew the silly Fly would soon come back again:

So he wove a subtle web, in a little corner sly,
And set his table ready, to dine upon the Fly.
Then he came out to his door again, and merrily did sing,
"Come hither, hither, pretty Fly, with the pearl and silver wing;
Your robes are green and purple -- there's a crest upon your head;
Your eyes are like the diamond bright, but mine are dull as lead!"

Alas, alas! how very soon this silly little Fly,
Hearing his wily, flattering words, came slowly flitting by;

With buzzing wings she hung aloft, then near and nearer drew,
Thinking only of her brilliant eyes, and green and purple hue --
Thinking only of her crested head -- poor foolish thing! At last,
Up jumped the cunning Spider, and fiercely held her fast.
He dragged her up his winding stair, into his dismal den,
Within his little parlour -- but she ne'er came out again!

And now dear little children, who may this story read,
To idle, silly flattering words, I pray you ne'er give heed:

Unto an evil counsellor, close heart and ear and eye,
And take a lesson from this tale, of the Spider and the Fly.

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