The Worm Whisperer by Betty Hicks, of which I won an ARC through Goodreads, is a solid piece of middle-grade realistic fiction. Stylistically, I have very little to say against it. Its language uses the proper tone for its audience. The details are all clear as a video. It avoids clichés. It captures the rural feel of Appalachian Banner Elk, NC.
A few words of caution before you take my word for it:
1) Betty Hicks is a sister from my alma mater; I’m biased, but I do think that she learned her lessons well (not all of us have).
2) My sister is currently attending Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk. I’ve visited the town and had a good long talk with a man who owns a store that sells woolly worm themed tourist goods, but I have never attended the Woolly Worm Festival.
MAJOR spoilers ahead!
Hicks had the gall to seem to kill the woolly worm, Tink, to which she had been making her reader and main character attached. I was impressed that she would do such a thing in a middle-grade book. Tink is essentially Ellis’ best friend and the only creature (apart from the duck, Puddles, and her ducklings, six of which Hicks does kill) with whom Ellis can be honest. Things seem to be tumbling apart and Hicks wisely has made victory at the Woolly Worm Festival important in so many ways for the charming Ellis that the reader is compelled to wonder how this can possibly end well. But end well it does—though not in the way that Ellis expects. Ellis’ loss at the Woolly Worm Festival is yet another bold decision by Hicks.
If there is one stylistic flaw it is that Hicks tries to include too much and impose too much significance upon details—like Puddles the duck and her dead ducklings. Ellis is dealing with so much in the story—his father’s injury, new responsibilities at home, an altered family dynamic, poverty, a boyhood crush, not being taken seriously by his peers, finding true friends, competition, a bully—that I’m not sure that his gripe with his mother, forced because of his father’s injury to work several jobs and become and absent parent, is given the attention necessary for me to feel that Puddle’s dead ducklings were more than a tangent. But I find this stylistic flaw a reasonably forgivable one—at least since it was not very strongly felt. It is more impressive to me that The Worm Whisperer can cradle as much as it does.
If I can say anything else against the story its that I’d have liked to spend a little more time in the happily ever after, to be reassured that the family dynamic returns to something more palatable to Ellis, that he can maybe hold hands with Alice, that he enjoy his friends’ company rather than feeling that he needs to perform his “class clown” role with them…. The ending is not abrupt, but it is brief, and focuses primarily on the rediscovery and coming resurrection of Tink, almost ignoring the plethora of other troubles with which Hicks has burdened Ellis.
The only reason for me to give The Worm Whisperer less than five stars is my proclivity to save-the-world fantasies over personal dramas.
Hicks, Betty. The Worm Whisperer. New York: Roaring Brook-Holtzbrinck, 2013.
This review is not endorsed by Roaring Brook Press, Holtzbrinck Publishing Holdings Limited Partnership, or Betty Hicks. It is an independent, honest review by a reader. The review is of an uncorrected proof won through the site, Goodreads.