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Book Review: Diary of a Worm by Doreen Cronin

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Picture books don't have to educate young readers, but plenty do -- even those that don't look like that's what they're up to. Cases in point: two recent kid-lit releases with Vermont connections. Doreen Cronin's Diary of a Worm is illustrated by South Burlington artist Harry Bliss, a cartoonist for The New Yorker and Seven Days. The Ghost on the Hearth is a Vermont Folklife Center story retold by Norwich author Susan Milford. Diary takes an underground route to edification, while Ghost is much more direct. The former approach makes for a more successful picture book.

New York attorney Doreen Cronin came out of nowhere in 2000 with her first picture book, Click Clack Moo: Cows That Type. The book, expressively illustrated by Betsy Lewin, tells a simple tale of disgruntled dairy cows, a noisy typewriter and the power of labor activism. It hit pay dirt, winning a prestigious Caldecott Honor award, and Cronin followed up with a sequel, Giggle, Giggle, Quack. Like those earlier books, Diary takes an irreverent and anthropomorphic approach; unlike them, it doesn't actually tell a story.

As its title suggests, Diary details the daily doings of a worm. The book opens with the introspective invertebrate enunciating an adage that's sure to strike a chord with today's eco-indoctrinated elementary schoolers. "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."

What follows is a sequence of entries that feels more like a list than a plot. The dirt-digesting diarist hangs out with a friendly spider, teases his sister that her face looks just like her rear end, eats his homework, aspires to be a Secret Service agent and faces the terrors of fishing season.

Bliss, whose previous picture-book credits include William Steig's Which Would You Rather Be? and Fine, Fine School by Sharon Creech, provides full-color illustrations that are right in tune with the gently subversive tone of Cronin's text. The humble narrator -- a little-boy worm sporting a red baseball cap -- is an anatomically correct update of Richard Scarry's groundbreaking Lowly Worm. Dad worm looks the part in wire-rim spectacles and the worm teacher wears cat-eye glasses with a librarian chain.

Art and words work best together here when they startle us with an alternative take on events we've all experienced from the other side. The entry about humans digging for fishing bait shows the worms' world in cross-section, with a giant spade slicing into the sod perilously close to the cozy, leaf-furnished living room where the worm family is nervously gathered. Father worm looks up from his book and asks, "Did you guys hear something?"

Equally terrifying, on the facing page, is a game of hopscotch shown as the menacing soles of a little girl's sneakers poised over the heads of two gasping, anxious worms. Another brilliant bit shows the worms at their school dance, where they put their heads in, put their heads out, do the hokey pokey and turn themselves about. Without arms or legs, it's a short dance.

It's hard to miss with a picture book that's funny, especially when the jokes appeal to both children and adults, for different reasons. But Cronin and Bliss slip some insidious instruction between the gags. Like more traditional "concept" books -- works that introduce the very young to abstract ideas like shapes, colors or numbers -- Diary invites readers to consider similarities and differences between worms and spiders, and between worms and the kids themselves.

Size, for example. The text implicitly alludes to that reality in its concluding entry, which evokes the same philosophical mood with which the book began. "It's not always easy being a worm," the narrator concedes. "We're very small, and sometimes people forget we're even here. But, like Mom always says, the earth never forgets we're here." This is the ur-message of classic children's literature, from Jack the Giant-Killer to Harry Potter -- that even those who seem wee or weak can make a difference. Diary of a Worm also shows that even a book that's light and lively can impart an important message.

If Diary of a Worm offers its edification with an edge, Ghost on the Hearth wears its purpose on its sleeve. It's the latest in a series of picture books based on oral histories harvested from the archives of the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury. The project's purpose is not only to produce quality children's literature, but also to preserve the heritage of the informants who originally told the tales, and to encourage readers to become storytellers themselves (a page at the back of the book offers practical suggestions). Meeting all these goals can be a challenge.

Ghost on the Hearth is based on a story that Claire Chase -- a Winooski native now living in Underhill -- attributes to her great-grandmother in Cap Sante, Quebec. Twelve-year-old Emily, the eldest of nine children in a poor family, goes to work at a farm on the outskirts of town. In exchange for room and board, she helps with the household chores, including scraping the candle drippings from the stone hearth every evening before going to bed.

Sadly, she falls ill and dies, and another young girl named Jenny comes to take over her duties. One morning her mistress finds wax on the hearth. But when she confronts Jenny, the girl insists that she cleaned the wax. Solving the mystery yields a ghost, a moral question and a lesson in forgiveness.

Lydia Dabcovich, an experienced illustrator from Brookline, Massachusetts, provides lively paintings in deeply saturated colors reminiscent of the work of Anita Lobel. Rich in detail -- wooden shoes, lace caps, a spinning wheel, a rack of pipes -- they nicely flesh out the story's historic and geographical setting. Susan Milford, the author of numerous children's activity books and folk-tale collections, writes in a clear, straightforward style. While the prose doesn't exactly sing, it also never stumbles.

Unfortunately, for a book that promises a spooky story, Ghost is unlikely to raise many goose bumps. For one thing, though the unexplained wax is curious, it's hardly scary -- and neither the art nor the language does much to make it so. For another, after a rather slow beginning, the ending is way too fast. The ghost appears, the answer is revealed and the problem is resolved in quick order.

It's hard to say without hearing the archival tape, but it seems likely that this "retelling," as Ghost bills itself, aims to remain faithful to the original, oral account. That would help explain the awkward pacing. The most compelling family story does not necessarily translate into a riveting picture book. And while knowledge that a tale has been handed down by a real family may thrill adults, that fact alone doesn't guarantee Ghost will be a thrilling read for children.

You wouldn't think worms could be more exciting than ghosts. Surprise, surprise.

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