One of the problems with being a worm is that worms don’t have fingers. It’s true that worms don’t usually need fingers but if, for example, you’re a worm who would like to marry another worm where, exactly, do you wear the ring your spouse intends you to wear?
This nettlesome annoyance arises about halfway through Worm Loves Worm, the debut book by J.J. Austrian, illustrated by veteran author and illustrator Mike Curato. The worms at the heart of this slyly inventive and open-hearted story also don’t have feet to dance their wedding dance with, as a neighborhood beetle points out. Love, it turns out, can be a real pain in the butt (yet another thing worms don’t have). As the worms realize by the book’s end, love can also be freeing and even a little revolutionary.
Austrian concocted the idea for the book one night after his nearly 5-year-old son asked why two women in the neighborhood—close friends to Austrian and his family—couldn’t get married. Worm Loves Worm was finished before the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, so a book that could have been received as a kind of protest book had the Supreme Court not issued the decision it did is now a book of celebration. I recently got on the phone with Austrian and Curato to ask them about thinking like worms in love, among other topics.How did the idea for this book come about?
J.J. Austrian: It started with me. I wrote it because I had to; I was assigned it by a professor. She said she wanted to challenge me to write a picture book and this was the idea I came up with and then I workshopped it and from there, I ended up reading it to Anne Urse, who’s the author of The Real Boys and Breadcrumbs, and she liked it so much, she pitched it to [publisher] Balzer + Bray.
That’s not the normal road-to-getting-published story I usually hear from writers…Austrian: Everyone else I know hates me. I’m a 30-year overnight success. I’ve been writing off and on since I was a teenager, though, so I always have to say that. I had the idea because my son, when he was not quite five we lived in the Hudson Valley, and there were two women, wonderful people who were like aunts to my children. My son asked if they were married and I had to tell him at the time they couldn’t be married and naturally he said, ‘Why not? Why can’t they be married?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Well, that’s dumb; they love each other.’ It was like, What’s wrong with all the adults? And then I started to think about that argument about it not being natural and then I thought about worms getting married and being hermaphrodites.
Mike Curato: It was funny how quickly everything went. It just felt like the right fit. This is the first book I’ve illustrated but not also written—it was an easy adjustment. I thought it was pretty liberating because I didn’t have to worry about the text; it was locked up. It was just my job to bring it to life with the illustrations. Right away, I saw the characters jump out at me.
Then this book was planned before the Supreme Court made its decision on marriage equality…
Austrian: Long before that.
So what could’ve been seen as a protest book can now be read in an entirely different light.
Curato: I would hope for many it would be a celebration; it would’ve been viewed more as a protest kind of story. With our fortuitous timing, it’ s celebrating that everyone can get married now. I think it’s going to be a great resource for teachers and parents who aren’t from an alternative family to explain the concept of different kinds of marriages. There’s just an onslaught of people getting married. I think for the most part it’s good vibes. I think it won’t be included in every classroom because that’s just the state of things. It’ not like the Supreme Court changed everybody’s minds.
Austrian: Just to piggyback off that, when I started writing it, it was a bit of a protest book and I have to give my advisor and classmates a lot of credit. I couldn’t make Cricket [who wants the worms to decide which is the bride and which the groom] mean or angry. I think most people aren’t that way; they’re just unaware, or at least I hope they are. I hope the book makes kids aware. I’m 48 and unfortunately, there were no books like this when I grew up and I was homophobic only because I knew nothing about homosexuality. I’m writing this for a younger version of myself. And I agree with Mike it won’t be in every library but hopefully people read it and come away with that message that love is love and if you move toward love everything will get better.
Curato: We were just at the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) conference and we were signing copies, and I was heartened to see a mix of people interested in the book. Some folks were LGBT and some were honestly looking for a book like this to bring to their classrooms because they don’t know much about the LGBT community. So it was really nice to see that. We ran out of books.
Claiborne Smith is the editor in chief.