Saturday, April 6, 2019


By Melanie Watt

(Tundra Books, 2015)

This is another picture book that speaks to the power of the subject matter that can be presented in this format. Watt, the acclaimed author/illustrator of Scaredy Squirrel and Chester books, takes on the five stages of grief as developed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross while also chronicling a funny adventure. Actually, there are two stories that play out simultaneously, two examples of loss or change.

First is the titular bug, a housefly that unexpectedly gets sucked up in a vacuum cleaner. The fly goes through denial, bargaining, anger, despair and acceptance as it adjusts to its new environment and a future life seemingly trapped forevermore in the vacuum bag.  But, just before the bug gets sucked in, Napoleon the household dachshund, experiences his own loss, one portrayed throughout the book primarily in the illustrations. The mad vacuumer sucks up Napoleon’s favorite chew toy, a soft little dog stuffie with button eyes. Napoleon navigates this loss, experiencing his own saga of denial, bargaining, anger, despair and acceptance.

I have read this book to classes for its pure entertainment value and it has been a big hit. I do have to specifically point out the fact that the dog’s toy gets sucked up because the kids often miss this piece. It’s a great example of how an audience must “read” the pictures in picture books. Truly outstanding picture books add something extra in the illustrations. 

Watt offers an opportunity for a deeper read, beginning with the first page in which she offers two definitions of the key words in the book’s title: bug and vacuum. 

            Bug:                 an insect; an unexpected glitch
            Vacuum:          a cleaning machine; a void left by a loss
How brilliant that both meanings of each word apply in the book!

Ideally, I’d go through the book a couple of times, on different days. The first reading would be for fun, with some incidental learning of the five stages of loss. (Each stage is specifically introduced on a double-page spread, with the emotion featured as environmental print on a spray can, a box of detergent, a TV dinner box, a book cover and a tissue box.) Before the second reading, I’d invite students to chime in with a retelling of the story. Perhaps one or more of the stages will be mentioned, perhaps they won’t. But the second read allows the reader to stop on each stage and talk about how the bug and the dog are experiencing change or loss. For bargaining, for instance, the fly starts out saying that, clearly, the wrong bug got sucked up. The fly asks to postpone its stay. (“Can I be vacuumed next Monday instead? Tonight’s bowling night with the dung beetles!”) Eventually the fly finds the stub of a pencil and a scrap of paper in the vacuum to write a letter. It makes an offer: Set me free and I’ll be a reformed bug! The dog’s bargaining is simpler. He offers up a doggy treat for the vacuum in exchange for the release of his beloved toy.

A counselor could display the five stages of loss/change and add in examples from the book. It would serve as a great beginning point for talking about kids’ feelings as they deal with loss/change in their own lives (e.g., death of a relative, a friend moving, a change in friendship, news that they have to play inside on a rainy day, a canceled or postponed play-date) or as they try to understand a friend or relative who is experiencing a loss or a change.

I adore Bug in a Vacuum! It’s playful while offering the framework for understanding how we work through some of life’s greatest challenges, disappointments and losses. I hope you’re able to track it down and add it to your personal or professional library.

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