November 16, 2023
11 Fantastic Animal Life Cycles Books by John Himmelman
One of my favorite things to do with third graders is to go to vernal pools in the spring and try to find animal life cycles in the water. These rich outdoor labs provided my students the opportunity to see frogs and toads in at least three different stages as well as many invertebrates. They could hear them, see them, and even feel them!
These experiences were enhanced by the integration of picture books as an introduction to animal life cycles and how they may appear in nature. There are thousands of books about animal life cycles, but my go-to author for life cycle picture books is John Himmelman. Read on to find out what he offers and how these books could serve you and your students as you study animal life cycles!
A little bit about John Himmelman
John Himmelman is an author and illustrator from Connecticut in the United States. He has written over 75 books for children in the last three decades, mostly about natural history topics.
Himmelman is an avid naturalist, enjoying birding, exploring his backyard, and searching the Northeast United States for a variety of animal species. He has led birding trips for multiple organizations throughout the years and co-founded the Connecticut Butterfly Association (Himmelman, 2013).
John Himmelman’s passion for the outdoors and life science shows through his words and illustrations. You can trust his experience, knowledge, and passion to help you introduce animal life cycles to your students at any age, especially elementary-aged kiddos.
Teaching animal life cycles
Teaching animal life cycles fits in many different grade levels, but if your district uses the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), it aligns best to the standards in third grade. According to the NGSS, 3rd graders are supposed to “develop models to describe that organisms have unique and diverse life cycles but all have in common birth, growth, reproduction, and death” (NGSS 3-LS1-1).
All teachers know the complete metamorphosis of butterflies and teach the four stages of egg, larva, pupa, and adult. Just as popular, frog metamorphosis is also covered by teachers emphasizing egg, tadpole, froglet (or pollywog), and adult.
The integration of picture books in your efforts of teaching animal life cycles can really help your students understand the ebb and flow of animal stages. Picture books have been shown to generate interest and motivation in students as well as provide context, encourage communication, and connect science information in real-world context, making them the perfect place to start your science unit (Mahzoon-Hagheghi, 2018, 41).
Keep in mind that every living thing has a life cycle, whether it has four stages or not. Many picture books can be found to help teach the four stage life cycles, but finding literature to explain other life cycles is not as common.
When teaching animal life cycles, make sure to diversify your representation. You should include animals with four distinct life stages, but you should also include animals with two, three, seven, and more stages to help children gain an understanding of the diversity of life we have on our planet.
Life cycle picture books
John Himmelman has a fantastic series of life cycle picture books called The Nature Upclose Series. Each book in this series features an animal and what it experiences over time. John Himmelman uses a storyline to showcase how each animal responds to being born, finding food, watching out for predators, and mating.
Below is a list of 11 life cycle picture books about animal life cycles that can help you teach metamorphosis in invertebrates and amphibians as well as typical growth in birds and mammals.
This story starts in the spring when a ladybug lays her yellow eggs on the underside of a leaf. A larva hatches and eats aphids from nearby flowers.
After she has grown, she turns into a ladybug pupa. Before summer, she emerges as a ladybug adult where she looks for food.
As she is flying through the air she has to avoid being eaten by a warbler, being squashed by a child, and being captured by a praying mantis. She then finds a mate and lays eggs of her own. When fall comes she finds a place to sleep with other ladybugs through the winter.
This story starts in the summer when a monarch butterfly migrates north where she lays eggs on milkweed plants. A larva hatches and feeds on milkweed leaves.
After eating a lot, the caterpillar attaches herself to a fence and turns into a chrysalis. After two weeks she emerges as an adult butterfly. While feeding off of a milkweed flower, the monarch butterfly is caught by a child but is set free.
In the fall, she makes her journey south to Mexico with millions of other monarch butterflies. In the spring she makes her way north again where she mates, lays eggs, and dies.
This story starts in late spring, when a luna moth lays her eggs on the underside of a leaf. The larvae emerge and begin eating leaves. One gets really plump but avoids a hunting hornet.
In early summer she wraps herself in a leaf and closes it with silk, creating a cocoon. She spends the winter as a pupa inside her cocoon.
In early spring she emerges as an adult luna moth. At night, a bright light attracts her and she ends up on a child’s wall. The child sets her free. She sends out pheromones to attract a male, they mate, and she lays eggs.
This story starts in spring when a young pill bug climbs out of her mother’s pouch. She spends most of her time eating and growing quickly. The pill bug sheds her skin in order to make room for her rapid growth, and then she eats it!
She spends the summer growing and avoiding danger by rolling into a tight ball. A child finds the pill bug and then releases her. She rolls up and sleeps under a log for the winter.
In the spring she finds a mate and young pill bugs climb out of her pouch. She continues this cycle for three years.
The story begins on a spring night when a slug slips under a damp rock and lays a cluster of eggs. After a few weeks, a young slug hatches from an egg and looks for tender leaves to eat.
By summer, the slug has grown darker and smells something new. It avoids an American Toad and eats cat food. By late fall, the slug is fully grown. It spends the winter underground.
In the spring, the slug follows a trail of slime to find another slug and ends up mating with it. It lays eggs under a moist rock and continues the cycle throughout the seasons.
*Note: Each of John Himmelman’s books in the Nature Upclose Series has natural history information included on the credits page at the front of the book. The slug information includes the fact that all slugs are hermaphrodites, neither male nor female. This may be a good topic to cover before you read the story or at least have for your background knowledge in case any questions come up.
The story begins in the spring when an adult earthworm leaves its egg case underground. After two months, baby earthworms hatch from the egg. The young earthworm tunnels through the soil and eats dead leaves. It leaves castings on the surface and is fully grown by fall.
The earthworm spends the winter underground sleeping. When it rains in spring the earthworm comes back to the surface. The earthworm avoids being eaten by a mole and begins to look for a mate. The earthworm lays its egg case in a tunnel and moves on with its day.
It avoids being eaten by a robin, being drowned by a flooded tunnel, and being squashed by a child on a basketball court. It continues this cycle throughout the seasons.
*Note: Each of John Himmelman’s books in the Nature Upclose Series has natural history information included on the credits page at the front of the book. The earthworm information includes the fact that all earthworms are hermaphrodites, neither male nor female. This may be a good topic to cover before you read the story or at least have for your background knowledge in case any questions come up.
This story begins with a young house spider crawling out of an egg sac. She joins her mother’s web along with the other spiderlings from the egg sac where they stay for several weeks. The house spider ends up getting carried away by a house fly that gets stuck on the web but then breaks free.
She weaves a small web on a bookshelf and catches a small insect for food. As she grows, she sheds her skin. She catches a yellow jacket which supplies her with a week’s worth of food.
An adult vacuums up her web but she escapes and creates a web in the corner of a bedroom where she mates with a male house spider. She lays eggs and wraps them in a silk egg sac.
*Note: This story ends with an illustration of the female spider dangling above a child’s open mouth while they sleep … consider skipping this page so that you don’t perpetuate certain spider fears amongst your students!
This story begins in the spring with a female wood frog laying eggs in a vernal pool. The tadpoles hatch after three weeks and spend time hanging from their egg mass. The tadpoles eat algae and grow legs.
Two months after hatching, the tadpole emerges as a frog and he hunts for food near the pool. As he grows bigger, he moves further into the forest. His camouflage helps him avoid being eaten by a raccoon.
In the fall he gets ready for winter by sleeping below the leaves. In the spring he makes his way to a vernal pool where he uses his vocal pouches to call for a mate. He doesn’t find one, but continues to eat throughout the summer and sleeps for the winter.
The next spring he returns to a vernal pool and calls for a mate; this time he finds one and she lays eggs. He continues this cycle throughout the seasons.
This story begins in the spring with a female salamander laying eggs in a pond. The first salamander larva emerges and eats a copepod. It avoids being eaten by a giant water bug and starts to grow hind legs.
By the end of the summer, she can no longer breathe underwater and must leave her pond. She hunts for invertebrates as she moves farther into the woods. A milk snake grabs her but lets go since her skin tastes bad.
The salamander sleeps in a burrow during the winter. When the spring rains begin, the salamander emerges and migrates to a pond to mate and lay her own eggs. She then returns to the woods and continues this cycle throughout the seasons.
This story begins in the spring when a female Ruby-throated hummingbird lays eggs and they hatch two weeks later. The young are nearly full grown within three weeks and practice flying.
In the summer, one of the young birds flies from the nest. He eats insects and sips nectar from flowers. When the fall comes he migrates south to Central America. He molts, or loses old feathers, and grows new ones for the breeding season.
When spring comes, he flies north and enjoys eating insects and drinking from hummingbird feeders. He dances for a female, they mate, and then she lays eggs in a nest later. He continues this cycle throughout the seasons.
This story begins in the summer when a female White-footed mouse gives birth to baby mice. They grow quickly and are ready to leave the nest within just a few weeks. At night, one of the mice leaves and he finds food such as cherries, blueberries, and insects. He has to watch out for predators like owls.
When the fall comes, he looks for a warm place to spend winter. He finds an empty bird house and stores seeds and nuts inside for winter. He spends his winter nights foraging for food and his winter days sleeping.
When spring comes he finds a female mouse, they mate, and she will take care of the babies after they’re born. A cat grabs the mouse, brings it into a house, and a child rescues him and releases him back outside. He continues this cycle throughout the seasons.
BONUS! A Dandelion’s Life
If you’re also interested in plant life cycle books, this title is included in the same series and is about the dandelion life cycle.
This story begins in summer when a dandelion seed floats through the air, drops into the soil, and grows during fall.
In winter, the dandelion leaves get covered by snow. The spring gives the leaves the rain it needs to grow. In the summer, the stem forms and opens into a yellow flower.
The flower has many visitors that pollinate it, helping it to produce seeds. The seeds get spread by the wind and the stem withers away. The plant grows a new stem and flower the following spring.
After reading this amazing list of titles, my hope is that you can find a book (or two or three) that will aid you in introducing animal life cycles to your students. The storyline and illustrations put together by John Himmelman will bring to life the concept for your students and will help them understand the diversity of life cycles present on this planet. Enjoy these lovely stories and more by a very talented and knowledgeable author and illustrator!
Himmelman, J. (2013). Noisy Bug Sing-Along. California, United States: Dawn Publications.
Mahzoon-Hagheghi, M.; Yebra, R.; Johnson, R. (2018). Fostering a Greater Understanding of Science in the Classroom Through Children’s Literature. Texas Journal of Literacy Education, 6(1), 41-50. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1183979.pdf
Do you have any amazing books that you read to introduce animal life cycles in your classroom? Describe them in the comments section to help a fellow elementary teacher out!