Two Tales of Earthworms

I love children’s picture books, and I also love earthworms (the latter discussed in a previous post), so it’s not surprising that two of my favorite picture books feature this lowly but supremely important tiller of soil. hair in my dirt Gary Larson’s There’s a Hair in My Dirt presents a decided contrast with Diary of a Worm (story by Doreen Cronin; charming pictures by Harry Bliss). Of course part of the difference is that Larson’s book is really meant more for adults. One of my favorite bloggers, Isaac Yuen of Ekostories, wrote about Larson’s book here, providing a useful summary and thoughtful commentary.

Both books engage with plenty of humor. Some of my favorite lines from Larson include: “Mother Worm . . . . tried to make their home as cheery as possible, even going so far as always putting silverware on the table—despite the fact that none of them had arms.” And “[Harriet] was as excited as a tapeworm in a meat patty!” From Diary of a Worm there are humorous references to Junior Worm (as I call the unnamed first-person narrator) eating his homework and telling his sister that “no matter how much time she spends looking in the mirror [a puddle on the ground in the drawing], her face will always look just like her rear end.”

Along with the hysterically funny one-liners are some much needed reminders of important truths. From Larson: “As any worm with half a ganglion knows, the plants did a little more than just make the air crisp and clean—they made the air air! Every molecule of oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere was put there by a plant.” My husband especially enjoyed Larson’s reminder that the grey squirrel, though “cute,” is an aggressive invader that has driven out native Red Squirrels (and attempts to invade people’s attics, as well—the source of my better half’s quarrel with them).

Diary of a Worm by Doreen Cronin; illustrated by Harry Bliss. One of my favorite books!

Diary of a Worm by Doreen Cronin; illustrated by Harry Bliss.
One of my favorite books!

Diary begins by informing the reader that “Mom says there are three things I should always remember: 1. The earth gives us everything we need. 2. When we dig tunnels, we help take care of the earth. 3. Never bother Daddy when he’s eating the newspaper.” Junior Worm ends his little tale by concluding: “It’s not always easy being a worm. We’re very small, and sometimes people forget that we’re even here. But, like Mom always says, the earth never forgets we’re here.”

Both books also address the question of humans and their relationship to the natural world. For Larson, this is the heart of his book, addressed in an unabashedly moral tale told by Father Worm featuring a “beautiful young maiden” named Harriet whose sentimental and well-meaning but uninformed interventions in Nature ultimately result in her rather gruesome death when she “rescues” a mouse from a snake—a mouse infected with a deadly disease. Yeah, not really a children’s book. (Although little boys may well like it because of that—as Larson reminds us, some things about biology can’t be changed.) Like the little worm, the reader is tempted to ask, “What kind of story is that?”

But Larson’s gruesome little satire is designed to illustrate a very specific moral: “Loving Nature is not the same as understanding it. . . . Connections . . . are the key to understanding the natural world.” And earthworms, it turns out, are crucial in this natural web: “We till, aerate, and enrich the earth’s soil, making it suitable for plants. No worms, no plants; and no plants, no so-called higher animals running around with their oh-so-precious backbones! . . . Heck, we’re invertebrates . . . . Spineless superheroes, that’s what we are!”

Diary‘s examples are more specific, giving the reader a visceral sense through the drawings of how a worm might respond to activities that many humans engage in without giving them a thought: “Fishing season started today. We all dug deeper.” Followed by a worm’s-eye view on the next page of child playing hopscotch, “a very dangerous game,” that nicely illustrates E.O. Wilson‘s parting words in his introduction to Larson’s book: “Just watch where you step; be careful of little lives.”

Both contain appealing illustrations, Larson’s with his trademark critters that manage to look anatomically correct even while wearing harlequin eyeglasses and a beehive hairdo (for Mother Worm), while the humans are typically Larson: goofy-looking, overweight, and rather grotesque. Harry Bliss’s drawings in Diary of a Worm strike a nice balance: whimsical without straying into cutsey—the be-spectacled worm father and baseball-capped son no more anthropomorphic than Larson’s worm family, the background details such as bottle-cap seats for the little worms in class a charming way of showing the small dimensions of the worm family in a way that relates to children’s experience.

Where Diary differs most strikingly from Dirt is its portrayal of inter-species friendship between Junior Worm and Spider. Obviously in the real world, the two seldom meet and Spider would be more interested in Worm as potential food if they did. Nonetheless, the interactions between Worm and Spider nicely illustrate how each differs from the other, giving the reader a good sense of how special and unique each kind of creature is. To quote from Wilson’s introduction to the Larson book: “We all need one another, each in our special niche.”

Each of these books does indeed occupy its own special niche, and each is well worth perusing multiple times for its richness in both text and pictures. Their minds and hearts engaged by books that teach love of Nature, future generations will be better primed to follow Wilson’s parting dictum: “Just watch where you step; be careful of little lives.”

7 Comments

  1. Elouise said,

    June 12, 2014 at 3:24 pm

    Nancy, I love this review! I think some of my family members will like these books. Thanks for introducing them to me.

    • Nancy Adams said,

      June 12, 2014 at 4:04 pm

      You’re welcome! Glad to introduce them to other readers. I found Diary of an Earthworm when my nephew was young enough for picture books. I miss shopping for them for him. There’s also a Diary of a Spider and Diary of a Fly by the same team, but the earthworm book is my favorite.

  2. ambfoxx said,

    June 12, 2014 at 3:38 pm

    Thank you for sharing these!! I love the excerpts you chose. Any worm with half a ganglion… Be careful of little lives…

    When I was little my father used to make up Mother Worm stories.(He didn’t write them down, as far as I know. I think he improvised.) She was a huge and benevolent earth worm. One of her adventures was helping dig the tunnels for the subway system in Boston, making work easier for the people. In another story she meant well–I can’t remember what she was up to–but got stuck in the entire length of one of those long low roadside motels. My sister and I loved those stories. Needless to say I grew up as a friend to worms.

    • Nancy Adams said,

      June 12, 2014 at 4:06 pm

      Those sound like great stories, Amber! And your father sounds like a kindred spirit. They would be wonderful written down.

  3. June 14, 2014 at 8:50 am

    I read a book as a kid (can’t recall the exact name) about a kid who started a business gathering earthworms and selling them to fishermen. I remember liking it a lot.

    • Nancy Adams said,

      June 14, 2014 at 4:10 pm

      Don’t know that one. One of those instances where human interest and worm interests collide! Though most fisherman eat what they catch, and I eat fish, so I can’t be too sanctimonious. I like robins, too, and they probably eat more worms than go on fishing hooks. All part of the cycle of life, and you can’t really choose sides. Even vegetarians who respect earthworms will find themselves liking robins as well!

      I’ve never fished, but it sounds like a peaceful activity that puts you much more in tune with the environment than, say, most types of hunting (white-man hunting at any rate).

      Thanks for stopping by!

  4. June 26, 2014 at 2:01 pm

    […] My last post, comparing two delightful tales of earthworms (Gary Larson’s There’s a Hair in my Dirt and Diary of an Earthworm by Doreen Cronin and Harry Bliss), gave rise to some more serious thoughts. […]


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