Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Butterflies are Pretty Gross!

 by Sue Heavenrich

Tundra Books, April 2021

What with the days getting longer, insects are flitting and buzzing, whining and zipping about the yard. Among them are butterflies, pretty and – according to Rosemary Mosco – pretty gross! They taste with their feet. They lick salt from muddy puddles. Some of them even eat poop! And their kids! Butterfly larvae can be rude, stinky, and sneaky. 

Truth is, butterflies are complicated. And Rosemary and Jacob do a great job getting that information across to readers of all ages. They highlight the science and shenanigans of seven species, including the Monarch who narrates the book. And believe me, he’s none too eager to give up Secrets of The Order (Lepidoptera). Granted, this is a picture book, but it’s got enough humor in it to entice adults to read it again and again. Plus Back Matter!

I “met” Rosemary through her online Bird and Moon cartoons. I met Jacob at our regional SCBWI conference (west-central NY). So I am really happy they are able to join me here on the GROG blog today and share some of their secrets – which are not gross at all! Imagine that we are sitting around a table slurping coffee through our long, tubular butterfly tongues (Rosemary, do butterflies drink coffee?) and chatting about words and art.

Sue: So Rosemary, What made you want to highlight the gritty side of butterfly life?

photo by Adrianne Mathiowetz
Rosemary: I got the idea for this book when I overheard someone say "I like bugs, but not butterflies. They're just boring and girly." Well, I'm a girl (okay, a woman), and I know butterflies to be gross, funny, beautiful, and wonderful - just like us. I wanted to highlight the complexity of these familiar critters. I was hoping to show that everything is much more complicated and interesting if you take a deeper look.

Sue: What sort of research did you do?

Rosemary: I started with a big list of strange butterfly facts. Then I whittled it down to my favorites. I read books and papers, and I also spoke with two experts. I talked to Phil Torres, who is a true renaissance man: he's an adventurer, researcher, TV host, and butterfly expert. He has taken great tropical footage of butterflies eating jaguar poop and drinking turtle tears. Phil read an early draft of the book and provided footage that helped the fabulous artist Jacob Souva nail down the strangest scenes. I also talked to Professor Naomi Pierce of Harvard - she has a wealth of knowledge, and she's particularly interested in butterflies that let ants babysit their caterpillars. The facts about alcon blue butterflies in this book come from her research.

Sue: And you watch butterflies too, right?

Rosemary: Yes, enthusiastically! I even travel to other places to watch them. I've been to the National Butterfly Center in Texas twice for the Texas Butterfly Festival. It's hard to pick a favorite, but I love zebra swallowtails. They're these beautiful black-and-white-striped butterflies that like to drink from puddles in the middle of hiking paths. 

Sue: And Jacob, you did research, too for the illustrations.

This book took a lot more in-depth research than a normal project would. We cover a lot of ground. Tundra’s art director, John Martz, had me walking the fine line between fiction and non-fiction to weave the book into a whole. For example, Monarch Butterflies have small little legs that sit up near their heads. I made a run at it, but couldn’t make it look reassuring enough for young readers! So we compromised and pushed them down a bit to take on a more recognizable form. He also wears sneakers and drinks coffee …. Also, Rosemary pointed out a few inaccuracies here or there after I turned in the finals. There was a “butterfly” on the cover that turned out to be a sneaky moth! I am so grateful for her knowledge and was happy to make changes where needed. This book was a team effort in the truest sense.

Sue: one of my favorite spreads shows the “sneaky caterpillars”. How did you decide to turn this spread into a filmstrip?

Jacob: This book presented some unique storytelling challenges. The narrator (monarch butterfly) speaks directly to the reader and then takes them on a journey into the strange facts. How does that look? How do you weave the strange and gross details into a narrative that makes sense? The thumbnail stage for this book was very important.

I landed on the narrator using a few different devices as a narrative tool to get into a set of images. The first is binoculars, second an old retro film projector, and the third is a top secret room. The “sneaky caterpillar” illustration worked best as a series of images that show how the ants take in and adopt the caterpillar over time. We had some dialogue back and forth about whether a film strip would be clear enough to work. 

Sue: You create your illustrations digitally. Any pros and cons you’d like to share? 

Jacob: There are a lot of benefits to working digitally. I love how easy it can be to change things and tweak color or texture after the fact. It’s a bit like working in oil paint that never “sets.” I really enjoy working with color so Photoshop is a bit like a giant playground. Texture files can be reused! And no mixing paint! It really is great.

On the downside, you can easily overwork an image to get it ‘just right.’ Sometimes this can drain the life from the work and it can become kind of stale. I combat this by not using the undo button too much and living with the imperfect lines and bits of unintentional collage. It’s something I’m very aware of. I also sometimes miss getting my hands dirty or spilling paint water!

Bird & Moon comics

Back to bugs. Rosemary, in one of your comics you listed animal body parts you wish you had. Do any butterflies have some superpowers – or body parts – you would like to have?

Rosemary: Butterflies can see ultraviolet, and they have special ultraviolet patterns on their wings that humans can't see. I'd love to be able to see even more butterfly colors. And of course I'd love a pair of big colorful wings. But they'd need to fold up for easy storage. It'd be hard to go through doors!

Sue: Any words of advice to readers?

Rosemary: I'd like to urge anyone reading this to go and explore their local insect populations. You'll be shocked, disgusted, and overjoyed by what you find - and you'll banish boredom forever.

Thanks for joining us today. Folks can find out more about Rosemary Mosco at her website,  and Jacob Souva at his website,


  1. Sue: Thank you for introducing me to two creatives—Rosemary Mosco and Jacob Souva.

    The story, BUTTERFLIES ARE PRETTY GROSS, told from the POV of the butterfly is intriguing.

  2. Oh, cool! I love gross facts about fascinating insects! This is the stuff kids love! Can't wait to read this book! Love it! Congrats!

  3. This looks right up my bug alley. Congrats!

  4. Wow. This looks like a great book. Kids (and adults like me) will love it. Thanks for telling us about it. Congratulations to Rosemary!

  5. LOL-love the gross facts about butterflies! I'll never look at them the same way. I'm looking forward to reading your book. Congratulations Rosemary and Jacob!