“She started freaking out,” Murdock recalls.
Eevee is no longer that child. She is now a 19-year-old college student who doesn’t fear gnats — or other six- and eight-legged creatures. A family photo shows her letting a tarantula crawl across her hand.
But Murdock shared that playground memory with me on a recent morning to explain how that small insect led to a big undertaking by her and her mother, Patsy Helmetag. Together, the two wrote and illustrated a book that helped the bug phobic deal with the Brood X cicada emergence 17 years ago, and that now, as the red-eyed creatures prepare to make another grand appearance, is landing in the hands of the newly anxious.
When it comes to bugs, most of us fall into one of three categories: the enthusiasts, the tolerators and the terrified.
I used to think that those who stood in the last group couldn’t step into the others, at least not without a lot of therapy. Cicadas showed me otherwise.
I grew up petrified, literally, of them. As a child, I called them by their Spanish name, “chicharras” and whenever I would see their crinkly discarded skin near me, my body would lock up. I would have to will myself to get away.
Then I happened to give birth to a bug-loving child who saves worms from sidewalk deaths and can name more types of beetles than I knew existed. His favorite insect, it turns out — because of course — is the cicada.
In them, he doesn’t see a pest. He sees iridescent wings and cool red eyes and a magic in how they wait for years just to play for days. He sees them with awe, not fear. He is now 8, so he has never seen the Brood X cicadas, but he’s pulled me toward plenty of others over the years. And eventually, he got me to stop walking away from them and to start looking closer at them.
I’m still not an insect enthusiast. I don’t want to stand in a swarm of them, and the thought of one getting tangled in my hair causes me to automatically shake my head as if to free its imaginary legs. But I am no longer in the terrified category. I now stand with the tolerators, rooting (from a distance) for their existence instead of wishing for their extermination.
The idea that someone or something could change how people perceive insects drew me to the book Murdock and Helmetag released in 2004 and again in 2021. Based on social media reactions, it is helping ease fears in the Washington region and other places across the country that will soon see billions of the Brood X cicadas crawling and clinging and mating.
“I got this book for my daughters this year (ages 5 and 3) and they LOVE IT!” reads a comment on a Washington-area Facebook page. It describes the two girls as now “excitedly (not anxiously) awaiting” the cicadas’ debut.
“We just bought this for my bug-phobic mom who is in her 70s,” reads another comment.
One parent sent a private message to Helmetag, saying her daughter is now “obsessed” with the main cicada in the book. She included a picture of a construction-paper version the girl created.
As Murdock and Helmetag tell it, they initially wrote “Cecily Cicada” for Eevee. Knowing that she was likely going to have a hard time when the cicadas started making their way out of the ground — and then out of their skins — Murdock mentioned to her mother during a road trip that she wished a book existed that made the subject fun and relatable.
“Why don’t we write that book?” her mother replied.
During their drive, they started coming up with words. Smartphones didn’t yet exist in every pocket and purse, and they couldn’t find any paper. So, they improvised. They scribbled down rhymes on a cereal box.
The book starts in a “dreary, earthen hole ‘neath the sassafras tree/ On Huidekoper Street in Washington, D.C.”
There, a nymph named Cecily waits, remembering the advice of her mama: “In seventeen years you’ll know what to do/And something amazing will happen to you.”
After mother and daughter came up with the words, Helmetag had about two weeks to draw the illustrations. The clock wasn’t self-imposed. It was nature-imposed. The Brood X cicadas were coming.
In the interest of time, the two decided to self-publish the book and get copies printed. That’s when they learned they couldn’t just order a dozen or two copies. They had to order at minimum 4,000.
“I sort of pictured us with thousands of books forever,” Helmetag recalls. But that year, working with bookstores across the Washington region, they ended up selling nearly 7,000 copies. “If you’d walk through Glover Park, you’d see kids walking around with the book and holding their little cicadas. It was so gratifying, and so unexpected.”
Knowing the Brood X cicadas were coming again this year, Helmetag spent part of the pandemic, while sequestering in her Annapolis home, working on new illustrations. This time, she didn’t have to rush. She could do it in the way she had envisioned.
She and Murdock, who have both written books since “Cecily Cicada,” decided to make the 2021 version of the book available through Amazon and several area toy stores.
So far, they have sold more than 2,500 copies. A person in Ohio also contacted the family to get permission to turn the book into a nature walk. The plan calls for printing the pages on large weatherproof boards so that children can read the story as they walk.
Murdock, who used to live in D.C. and now teaches in Boulder, Colo., says she believes the book is resonating even more with people this year because the pandemic made it relatable in a new way. Many of us have been stuck at home, waiting to get out.
“We sort of all feel like Cecily,” she says. “We’ve basically been her, stuck down in those holes. We’re all kind of emerging this spring.”
Murdock hopes people who read the book see in it the message that some things require long waits, and that’s not easy, but it’s important to hold on to hope and resiliency. She points to two lines in the book: “You know how it is if you’ve had long to wait/ When that thing finally happens, isn’t it great?”
Helmetag hopes people take from the story a respect for cicadas and an appreciation for how much time occurs between the appearances of Brood X. When she and her daughter first published the book, she was 55. Soon, she will turn 72.
In 2004, Murdock was a mom of a 2-year-old and 6-month-old. Her children are now in middle school, high school and college.
At the end of the first book, a picture of Eevee shows a cherub of a child. Now, she has an apartment on the West Coast and a coffee table topped with both versions of the book. The covers look different, but they end the same.
When you see a cicada, please give her a smile
‘Cause you may not see one again for a while.
Just look at the grown-up who’s reading to you.
When the cicadas come back, you’ll be a grown up, too!
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