Valentine’s Day is just around the bend, and if you’re looking for a good holiday picture book to share with children, I’ve got just the one for you: J. J. Austrian’s Worm Loves Worm, illustrated by Mike Curato.
Worm and Worm, two nearly identical-looking creatures (only their eyes distinguish them), love one another and want to marry. Cricket points out that they’ll need someone to officiate. Beetle says a best man is necessary (“best beetle”). The bees call for bridesmaids (“bride’s bees”). At each suggestion, the worms comply, asking, “Now can we be married?” More questions are posed to them: How can they wear rings if they have no fingers? How can they dance if they have no feet? How can they wear hats, hold flowers, and eat their cake? The very patient worms have a solution for each challenge posed. Spider has some handy solutions, too.
Then—insert drum roll, please—“which one of you is the bride?” ask the Bees. Each worm decides they can be the bride. “But one of you has got to be the groom,” notes Beetle. Each worm decides they can be the groom. (The fact that the singular “they” was chosen as 2015’s Word of the Year, mostly as a response to gender identity issues, is making this paragraph easy for me to write. Thank you, American Dialect Society!) Problem solved. They’ll just change how it’s done, the worms say.
Hermaphrodites for the win.
Here at Kirkus, Claiborne Smith has already written about this book. Specifically, he talked to the author and illustrator back in early January. But I still want to do my part to tell readers about this story, because it’s well-done—and pulls off something rare in picture books. It manages to make a point and tell a love story without preaching to child readers (always a turn-off) and without boring them.
There’s a difference between a picture book telling the story of a romance and one that tells a story of love and/or friendship, as this story does. It’s hard to pull off the former—and can lead to a twitchy kind of boredom in a child audience. Frankly, children are interested in lots of things, but romance isn’t exactly one. I’ve seen picture books telling stories of romance that are beautifully illustrated, well-crafted, and charming as can be, but I always find myself wondering: What child would want to read this? Many of them are adult books disguised as children’s books.
As but one example, last year I saw Marlise Achterbergh’s Princess Nina, a picture book import illustrated by Iris Compiet. It’s the story of a princess whose parents seek a suitable prince for her hand in marriage. No one quite does it for Nina—until, that is, she meets Princess Melowo. Nina falls hard for her. The book’s text captures well how it feels to fall in love: After she first meets the African princess, Nina can't sleep that night. "She thought about Princess Melowo: the way she walked and moved her hands, the stories she told, the sound of her voice. Princess Nina felt a tickle in her belly." The way she moved her hands? Yes, it’s the little things, isn’t it? When you first fall for someone, that is, you’re enamored by every little mannerism. That particular moment in the text rings so true.
And the fact that it’s a same-sex love is welcome. But don’t tweens—and definitely teens—care about falling in love way more than elementary-aged children? It’s bizarre (some would say unsettling) to see a story about two people falling in love who look like 8-year-old girls, as they do in this picture book. It’s all fine and good in that children, to be sure, know about love, but they don’t know a lot about romance. I have no answers here; I merely wonder if it’s another of these adult books in disguise. Perhaps there are children all over the world finding that this story speaks to them, and I’m way off point.
Worm Loves Worm, however, isn’t about the tickles in one’s belly, which young children don’t quite have top of mind right now. Instead, it’s an invitation for children to ponder more traditional thoughts on partnership and marriage—all pulled off with an economy of text and art, as well as a lack of heavy-handedness. In his Q&A with Austrian and Curato, Smith even uses the word “revolutionary” to describe this, though—since the book is being published after the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision on marriage equality—both author and illustrator see the book as less of a protest and more of a celebration. (Fun fact: Austrian did think of it as a protest book as he wrote it, all before that historic day in June of last year.)
It’s a tale that is a triumphant tribute to love and true-blue friendship in all stripes—and a love story truly fitting for all ages.
WORM LOVES WORM. Text copyright © 2016 by J. J. Austrian. Illustrations copyright © 2016 by Mike Curato. Illustration used by permission of the publisher, Balzer + Bray, New York.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.