Review of the Day: Worm and Caterpillar Are Friends by Kaz Windness
There is such a thing as being too well-informed about the history of children’s literature. I’ll give you an example. In 1972 a “picture book” was released called Hope for the Flowers by Trina Paulus. It was an allegorical book, meaning it was not really intended for kids. But if you were the child of hippies in the 70s or 80s then it’s 75% possible that this book made it into the regular roster of your reading, alongside The Lorax and The Table Where Rich People Sit. It’s the story of two caterpillars because, honestly, is there any better metaphor in existence than that? I think not! Caterpillars and their trajectory have inspired what may be the greatest picture book of all time (The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle) as well as modern classics like Becoming Charley by Kelly DiPuccio, The Very Impatient Caterpillar by Ross Burach, or my personal favorite the (now out of print) Adios, Oscar by Peter Elwell. But the metaphor, from the days of Eric Carle and hippy dippy Hope for the Flowers has always been the same. Caterpillars = personal metamorphosis. This is what I mean about being too well-informed about picture books. You get so bogged down in the same themes over and over again. Even the hippies were into it! It makes it hard to appreciate when folks are trying new things. But there is one book, at least, the eschews the easy metaphor for something a little more complicated. Better still, it isn’t even technically a picture book. It’s an easy book a.k.a. the most difficult genre of books for kids to write in (and I mean that truly). Worm and Caterpillar by Kaz Windness takes a dive into some well-worn territory of children’s literature and manages to forge an entirely new path that is entirely of its own making. A welcome entry in a thoroughly difficult format.
Worm’s pretty pleased. It has a best friend (name: Caterpillar) and the two are clearly exactly alike! “…we are the same!” declares Worm. Caterpillar responds, “We are not the same.” After all, Worm eats dirt and Caterpillar is “more of a leaf person”. True, they both fear birds, but while caterpillar has legs, worm crawls on its belly. And, as Caterpillar points out, “I like that we are different.” Being different doesn’t mean you can’t be friends. And as Caterpillar starts to change, that statement is put to the test. When Caterpillar emerges from a chrysalis, they’re now called Butterfly and they have wings and everything. And as Worm points out, they’re not really the same but “We never were, Butterfly.” And that’s okay! “I like you just as you are.”
Here is the problem with any easy book. You are charged, as an author, with creating a story with an enticing plot in as few words as humanly possible. There’s a rumor out there that Green Eggs and Ham was based on a dare that Dr. Seuss couldn’t use just 50 words to write a coherent story. Kaz Windness, fortunately, is not under such strict restrictions and, indeed, to read this book is to understand that different easy and beginning books start at different places. To read this particular book you’d need a rudimentary knowledge of how to read panels and speech balloons (and act that, in my experience, is far more difficult for adults than children). You also need to be accomplished enough to read words like “crawl”, “strange”, and “nectar.” To be honest, the word “Wormtastic” (which I think is in a section at the beginning intended for adults anyway) is the longest and most complicated in this book. I wouldn’t hand this to someone just at the very beginning of their reading career, but for a kid that’s graduated beyond “Hop on Pop” this is an excellent next step.
Now let’s do a little dig down now into the logistics of this book itself. First off, return to the fact that it is, in fact, an “easy book”. Your library may have a different term for these titles. They may call them “Beginning Books” or “Easy Readers”. In this case the book appears to be part of Simon & Schuster’s “Ready to Read Graphics” division. That means it has all the trappings of an easy book but with panels and speech balloons. Personally, I find it odd when publishers feel some sort of obligation to distinguish their easy readers in this way. There was a time when the vast majority of librarians, and even parents eschewed comic book formats and conventions. But in this current era of Marvel movies, can’t we finally declare the war over? This whole “Seduction of the Innocent” battle cry against comics lives on in the more conservative corners of our population, but for the most part folks understand that sequential storytelling is a boon not a bane on children’s literature as a whole. Besides, it distracts from what Kaz Windness is actually accomplishing here.
It doesn’t take a huge amount of imagination to see this book as a magnificent trans narrative, by the way. I know that’s taking the whole metamorphosis metaphor into a fairly obvious place, but the reason this book works far better than a lot of (more obvious) picture books or easy books out there is because it’s not about change itself. It’s about how your friends and family accept that change. Worm is a good strong ally to Butterfly. Realizing that Butterfly was telling the truth all along (that they weren’t the same) Worm comes to accept that change and embrace it. I prefer books where you can bring multiple interpretations to the final product. In this case? Mission accomplished.
Another book that this reminds me of is the nicely twisted but not entirely successful Tadpole’s Promise by Jeanne Willis. That book presented the idea of a tadpole and caterpillar growing up together and took it to a darker extreme than most of your regular run-of-the-mill stories (being British, it falls into that well-worn category we like to call Stories Where the Protagonist Gets Eaten). Of course the most literal comparison to this book is 1982’s Caterpillar and the Polliwog by Jack Kent. But even that title was more concerned with the effects of different change rather than different paths of personal growth. It’s a fine book. It’s just not this book.
So how’s the story itself? That sounds funny to say that when you’re talking about a book with a limited vocabulary, but think about it. If kids grow up reading boring easy books, aren’t they just going to associate reading with boredom? If you want to grow a child’s love of reading, best to give them something compelling right from the get-go. As mentioned before, I thought I’d seen all the various worm/caterpillar tropes and permutations out there in children’s literature, but I was mistaken. Wrack my brain though I might, I can’t think of a single, solitary title where a worm and a caterpillar are friends. Isn’t that strange? Caterpillars apparently befriend pollywogs all the time, but wouldn’t worm make more sense? Part of what I love so much about this book too is how self-aware Caterpillar is from the start. Worm kicks everything off by declaring that the two of them are identical, and Caterpillar doesn’t let that go. They gently correct, first through words and, later, with some stunning visuals. Windness even brings in elements that I’d never seen before, like Worm fearing Caterpillar’s change because now it looks like a bird. But in the end it’s the message that remains and stands out. Friends do not have to be the same to be together. Difference is no impediment when you like one another as you are.
In terms of illustration, the book is mute on the subject of medium. Bit of a pity. In picture books the publication page will sometimes reveal how the artist made their art. In this case it could well be entirely done on the computer, but it’s always nice to know if that was combined with watercolors, acrylics, or even just pencil sketches at some point. Whatever the case, Worm and Caterpillar is a bit lovelier than your average everyday easy book. There are variations to the characters colors. There’s shading. There’s an overall color palette as capable of invoking a bright spring day as it is the haze of morning or drizzle of rain. Look, for example, at the first official two-page spread of the book. It’s what opens the story, and it’s just of Caterpillar and Worm saying hello to one another. Now if you handed this assignment to anyone else they might have phoned in the picture. Just played it nice and easy with something simple. Windness, in contrast, decided that since this is the official opening of the book, she might as well put her back into it. So the scene is this gorgeous spread of a pond, tree, field, and sky all dipped in dreamy pinks, purples and blues, like something out of a dream. Our heroes are just these small characters in the bottom right-hand corner of the page. It’s as if you’re being reminded, right from the start, of how small they are. Heroes of their own story, but in the grand scheme of things, quite tiny. And all this is in an EASY BOOK! Fan-freakin’-tastic.
They say that Walter de la Mare once said that “Only the rarest kind of best in anything can be good enough for the young.” It’s a great sentiment and one I abide by (though I’ve yet to hear anyone cite precisely where Walter supposedly said this). It’s usually applied to picture books and works of fiction, which I feel is a bit unfair. Considering how many books for children come out on a regular basis we should be applying these standards to comics, nonfiction, early chapter books, and, yes, easy readers. Our books for kids should have only the best words and the finest art. And if that’s the level we’re trying to attain, then I have good news because Worm and Caterpillar Are Friends completely clears that bar. It’s fantastic writing, simple words, and jaw-dropping art all presented in the smallest, most inauspicious of packages. Consider carefully the books you give to the earliest of readers. Consider your responsibility. Show them only the best. Show them this book.
On shelves now.
Source: Copy checked out of library for review.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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