Friday, April 19, 2013

THE SPIDER AND THE FLY by Tony Diterlizzi

Diterlizzi, Tony. The Spider and the Fly. Based on the tale by Mary Howitt. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002. ISBN: 978-0-689-85289-3.

The Spider and the Fly revamps Mary Howitt’s cautionary tale about a soothsaying spider and a sweet, na├»ve fly by pairing the verse with Tony Diterlizzi’s Caldecott-honored illustrations. At first glance, contemporary book browsers might wonder how a poem written in 1829 (complete with Victorian vernacular) could hold the attention of today’s child reader. However, all dusted off and with a fresh coat of paint, this story proves that some scares are timeless. Diterlizzi’s drawings toe the line between charming and creepy, with an aesthetic nod to old film noir and Edward Gorey. The story itself plays out the melodrama of an unsuspecting damselfly who meets an unfortunate end at the many hands of a scheming spider.

The text rings with the moralizing overtones common to the children’s literature of its era. This is a story with a lesson, particularly for little girls, about the big bad world. Some parents may bristle at the basic plot trajectory – a wide-eyed babe in the woods is taken in, seduced, and murdered by an unctuous older man – but hey, they’re only insects! And as the afterword reminds any disgruntled readers, “What did you expect from a story about a spider and a fly? Happily ever after?” That being said, this book would best be reserved for an elementary school aged reader (the jacket advises 6 and up).

Diterlizzi’s illustrations really do balance out the spookiness and slime with sophisticated fun. The little Fly is all rouged up like a flapper while the Spider smolders like a portly Gomez Addams. The backgrounds of each scene are not to be missed; these pages were designed for lingering. The Spider’s lair is dripping with beautifully gory detail, decorated by a dead ladybug footrest and a coffee table copy of The Joy of Cooking Bugs. Diterlizzi also accomplishes a haunting range of light and shadow using only black, white, and shades of gray.

All in all, this is a lovely book with some serious style. There’s an applicable message about the dangers of sweet-talking strangers, but the illustrations are worth the price of admission alone.

Emily Lohorn

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