Sophia Spencer’s book-signing on Saturday packed The Book Keeper.
The Sarnia book store was full of fans of the 11-year-old P. E. McGibbon public school pupil and co-author of The Bug Girl (A true story), written with New York writer Margaret McNamara and published by an imprint of Penguin Random House.
“I think it might be the fullest we’ve had the store,” owner Susan Chamberlain said after one of Spencer’s teachers, Denise Jones, finished reading the book to a crowd of old and young fans.
Many lined up to have their copy signed, if they were lucky enough to get one.
The store’s initial 170 copies were sold out Saturday but more were expected in the coming days.
“It’s beautiful,” Chamberlain said about the book and its story of Sophia’s enduring love of bugs in the face of bullying by some Grade 1 classmates while her family was living in another Ontario community.
“I was on the verge of tears the first time I read it,” Chamberlain said.
Sophia fell in love with bugs after a butterfly landed on the then two-and-a-half-year-old’s shoulder while she was visiting the Niagara Falls butterfly conservatory.
Her interest grew in pre-school and kindergarten, but she stopped talking about bugs for a time after some Grade 1 classmates bullied her and stomped on a grasshopper she brought to school.
Sophia’s mother, Nicole, wrote to the Entomology Society of Canada, hoping one its members might offer her daughter, then 7, some encouragement.
Morgan Jackson, a society member and doctoral student at the University of Guelph, answered and asked permission to share Sophia’s story on Twitter, adding the hashtag #BugsR4Girls.
It went viral, with scientists tweeting hundreds of time to encourage Sophia to keep up her interest in bugs, leading to the youngster appearing on Good Morning America, The Today Show and NPR.
Jackson also made the impact of that Twitter post the subject of an academic article, with Sophia as co-author, published in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America in 2017.
Around that time, the family moved to Sarnia, her mother’s hometown, where they were contacted by McNamara, the pen name of Brenda Bowen, a New York-based author of more than three-dozen books for young readers.
Bowen heard Sophia on NPR and contacted an imprint of Random House, a publisher she has often worked with. “I said, ‘this really sounds like it should be a book.’”
The publisher suggested Bowen ask if she could co-write it with Sophia, so the writer arranged to travel to Ontario to meet with Sophia and her mother, and recorded her story.
“I clipped away” some of what Sophia said, “and what I left is in the book,” Bowen said. “So it’s her words, but it’s edited down and organized.”
She added, “It’s really not my book. … It’s Sophia’s book.”
Bowen said she was drawn by the fact Sophia couldn’t find other girls who shared her interest in bugs, a sign that young girls can still struggle when they don’t see examples of other women in roles they’re interested in.
“She was teased badly for having the interest, the intellectual curiosity that she had,” Bowen said. “Thanks to her mom and the internet, which played a good role for once, she found that she wasn’t alone.”
The story gives girls “a tremendous boost, and belief in themselves, and a sense that they can have their own likes and their own personality,” Bowen said, “and it can lead to great things.”
Bowen said it was a pleasure working with Sophia.
“She’s a really great kid, and she and Nicole are just a wonderful team. I really feel privileged to have been a little part of this for her.”
Sophia took questions from the crowd after Jones finished reading her book Saturday.
“Was everything in the story true?”
“What’s your favourite bug?”
What’s the best way to capture bugs? Sophia had some tips.
“We’re thrilled for her,” Jones said about the excitement about the book among staff at Sophia’s school. “She’s such a great kid – super smart and funny. We love her, and we’re very proud of her.”
Nicole said Saturday the experience has done a lot to boost her daughter’s confidence.
“I’m so happy for Sophia,” she said.