As It Happens

She was bullied for her love of bugs. Now, this 11-year-old has written a picture book about it

When she was in Grade 1, Sophia Spencer was bullied for her love of bugs and decided to set her passion aside. But after her mother wrote to a group of entomologists for support, Sophia became an unexpected internet sensation. Now, she's sharing her story — and her love of bugs — in the picture book, The Bug Girl.

Sophia Spencer's book tells how scientists from around the world helped rekindle her passion for insects

Sophia Spencer says she was bullied by her classmates for her interest in bugs.

This Q&A was originally published on Feb 20, 2020. Sophia has since won the Canadian Museum of Nature 2020 Youth Nature Inspiration Award.

When Sophia Spencer was in Kindergarten, her love of bugs made her popular with her friends. But when she switched schools in Grade 1, she says her passion started to get her bullied — by kids who didn't think bug hunting was a suitable pastime for a girl. 

Now, 11-year-old Spencer is the author of the picture book The Bug Girl

It's the true story of how her love of insects has affected her short life in big — and sometimes difficult — ways. She wrote the book with author Margaret McNamara and it's just been published by Tundra Books. 

Sophia and her mom, Nicole Spencer, recently joined As It Happens host Carol Off in studio to talk about the project. Here is part of their conversation.

I have to start with the million-dollar question: why do you love bugs so much?

SS: Well, I get asked that a lot. And I think it's mainly because they have their own ecosystem. Like they've made their own world, their own mini-universe.

The cover of Sophia's book, The Bug Girl: A True Story. (Chloe Shantz-Hilkes)

Your story begins with the first time you fell in love with an insect. Can you tell us that story?

Well, when I was two-and-a-half, I went to a butterfly conservatory in Niagara Falls, which is a zoo that's just for butterflies. And then as soon as I walked in there, a blue butterfly perched on my shoulder. And it was just crawling all over my face, and it didn't leave. The entire time I was there, it was just on me. And when I left — 'cause, you know, you can't take home exotic butterflies — the guards had to take it off of me. 

So Nicole, when did you realize your daughter had a really special connection with insects?

NS: After we left the conservatory, she asked if she could get a bug net so she could try to catch some bugs. So it pretty much spiralled after that — where I was buying containers, and nets and magnifying glasses. And my life revolved around Google for a really long time because if she found a bug outside, she'd want to know about [it].

Sophia with Morgan Jackson, the first entomologist who responded to her mom's call-out for support. Sophia has since co-authored a paper with him. (University of Guelph)

Sophia, when you started going to kindergarten, at first you had classmates that you could share your love of bugs with. How did they respond in school?

SS: Well when I was in kindergarten they loved it. Like if they ever found a bug, they could be like, "Sophia, what's this bug?" And I would usually know what it was. And they responded really well. And I still know some of the kids from kindergarten, and they're like, "I can't believe children did that. Like, it's cool [to] like bugs." And I'm like, "Thank you!" 

And what you're referring to is what happened when you switched schools, I think, in Grade 1. What happened with the kids there?

Well, the kids at my newer school, they didn't like the fact that I was different. So they would tease me, they would bully me — if I would bring a bug in from home, they would like knock it off on my shoulder and kill it. So I felt just really upset, really sad and, you know, beat down.

Sophia is ready to catch some bugs. (Submitted by Nicole Spencer)

And so at one point, you decided that you just had to give up a bit on your bug interest, right? You sort of packed things up. What happened?

Well, I started to pack up all my bug stuff, all my bug nets. I let all the bugs that were at home — I let them go. I just gave up, because, you know, I wanted friends. If I could have friends, but not do my passion, then I was ready to give that up.

Did that help? Did the kids — did they stop bullying you and become friends with you?

No, not really. They knew I still liked bugs — but they knew I was just faking it. So they still didn't like me.

Nicole, for you, for being a mom, and to see the effect this had on her in school — what effect did that have on you?

NS: It's heartbreaking to see your kid go through something like that. And then you get really angry. I didn't want to see her give up something that she had loved for so long, and was so excited about.

I thought if I thought outside the box, and wrote a letter to the Entomological Society of Canada, we could maybe get a pen pal for her.

And it went viral. And we had an amazing outpouring of support from across the world.

Sophia with her book, The Bug Girl: A True Story, in the As It Happens studio in Toronto. (Chloe Shantz-Hilkes)

Sophia, when your mom wrote the letter to the Entomological Society, did you think that you'd get much of a response?

SS: She didn't tell me that she was doing it. She didn't want to, like, get my hopes up.

And then what did you see happen? 

Well, she told me that she asked and that, you know, it went viral. And that there was so, so many people that liked bugs. And that told me I should keep doing what I loved.

From all around the world, right?

NS: We had women that were studying bugs in the Amazon writing emails to us, and telling her that, you know, they had had similar experiences growing up — that they had been bullied for their love of insects, and they didn't let it stop them.

Did you tell your other kids at school? Did they know that you were becoming a kind of star?

SS: Well, when this happened I was in a different school. I changed schools again after Grade 1. And the kids there were a lot nicer. They encouraged me a lot.

And then, yeah, we started to make the book.

And that became The Bug Girl: A True Story — which is a beautiful book. What did you think of it when you saw the whole book put together like that?

When I first read it, I thought it was just an amazing book. I thought it was just so cool. It really does express like the story really, really well.

In this illustration from The Bug Girl: A True Story, Sophia packs up her bug-catching instruments after being bullied because of her passion. (Chloe Shantz-Hilkes)

So I tested your book on the weekend with my granddaughters. And they love your book. But ... my granddaughter Chloe, who's almost eight, she wanted to know what feelings you had when you first had that butterfly land on you.

The first reaction I had was, like, "This is really cool. It's not leaving — it's on me. It's not leaving me."

I was very surprised at the fact that I was the only one in the whole conservatory that it was staying on.

And both [my granddaughters] had one last question for you: what do you want to be when you grow up?

Well, I'd like to be an entomologist. I'd like to grow up to study bugs in different environments.

Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A edited for length and clarity.


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