The Worm Whispererby Betty Hicks, Ben Hatke
You've heard of Horse Whisperers and Dog Whisperers, but Ellis thinks he might be a Worm Whisperer!
Ellis Coffey loves animals. He spends so much time outdoors that sometimes he thinks he can talk with them. When he discovers a caterpillar that seems to follow his directions, he knows he has a chance to win the annual Woolly Worm race. The prize money is $1,000
You've heard of Horse Whisperers and Dog Whisperers, but Ellis thinks he might be a Worm Whisperer!
Ellis Coffey loves animals. He spends so much time outdoors that sometimes he thinks he can talk with them. When he discovers a caterpillar that seems to follow his directions, he knows he has a chance to win the annual Woolly Worm race. The prize money is $1,000--exactly the amount of the deductible for his dad's back surgery. If Ellis is right and he can train his woolly worm to be the fastest in the county, he's sure can solve all his family's problems. But when you're trying to talk to insects, nothing is as simple as it seems.
From Betty Hicks, author of the Gym Shorts series for new readers, comes a story of friendship, family, and hidden talents that might be more useful than they first seemed.
“A satisfying ending neatly wraps up this warm story, and Hatke's occasional line drawings will add appeal for middle-grade readers.” Kirkus Reviews
“[an]empathic story.” Publishers Weekly
“Within this light novel Hicks unobtrusively includes classroom-friendly features, such as a weekly vocabulary lesson and information about metamorphosis, but these elements don't interfere with the trajectory of the story line.” The Horn Book
“Hicks writes with a gentle, sure hand, bringing to life the rural North Carolina setting. Hatke's expressive illustrations perfectly capture the book's emotional warmth.” School Library Journal
Read an Excerpt
The Worm Whisperer
By Betty Hicks, Ben Hatke
Roaring Brook PressCopyright © 2013 Betty Hicks
All rights reserved.
I'M NOT DEAD
Ellis liked everything about his obituary, even if it wasn't true.
An obituary is what gets written when you die. It's printed in the newspaper and says nice things — like how you've gone to heaven and how the world's a better place because you'd lived in it. Even if that's a lie, Ellis thought it was okay, because nobody wants to say bad things about a dead person.
He watched the minute hand on the classroom clock tick closer to three o'clock. Then he folded his obituary in half and slipped it into his book bag. For an obituary, it sounded pretty nice, but still ... it had a lot of mistakes in it.
For one thing, thought Ellis, I'm not dead. Even though, just last week, he'd said, "I am so dead." That's because he accidentally ripped a hole in his mother's favorite quilt — the one hand-stitched by his great-great-great-grandmother Hattie May, who'd been dead almost as long as Moses.
Besides the quilt, Hattie May had handed down the best recipe for boiled custard on the planet. Ellis's grandmother still knew the secret for making it sweet, but not too sweet, melt in your mouth, perfect.
Ellis missed Gram's custard. Two months ago she and Pops had zipped straight out of Banner Elk behind the wheel of their dream RV, and Ellis had no idea when they'd be back. But they'd mailed him lots of picture postcards because they knew he loved animals. They sent alligators from Florida, coyotes from New Mexico, moose from Maine. He pinned them to the corkboard on the wall in his bedroom.
He'd also watched a million nature programs with his dad before television went digital. Now, their old TV — the one with antennae that stuck up like rabbit ears — was as extinct as a dinosaur. Luckily for Ellis, he could hike the half mile to his pond to watch wildlife there. He went every chance he got.
And, he read every animal or insect library book he could get his hands on. Mr. Turnmire, Ellis's teacher, said that Ellis was animal-obsessed.
Ellis thought that Mr. Turnmire was word-obsessed. He wrote a new vocabulary word on the board every day. Each word had to have at least four syllables and ten letters or Mr. Turnmire said it wasn't worthy of their fourth-grade brain power. Mr. Turnmire also claimed that a person with a good vocabulary could achieve anything.
Ellis was pretty sure that wasn't true. Fancy words couldn't fix his dad's back. Or get his mom's old job back. Or buy a new TV that worked.
The school clock ticked another minute closer to three.
Still ... Ellis had to admit, Mr. Turnmire had an awesome dictionary. It was the size of a kitchen sink and weighed more than a baby pig. Every time Mr. Turnmire opened it, he promised, "Meaning and magnitude await!"
Mr. Turnmire was right. Fun words leaped out of it like small miracles. Ellis learned injudicious — a spectacular way to say "stupid." And regurgitation — a stupendous way to say "vomit."
Today's word had been obituary. That's how Ellis's obituary had gotten written before he was dead. It was part of an in-class assignment.
Molly had raised her hand and objected. "But Mr. Turnmire, obituary only has eight letters."
"Ah, but it has five syllables," Mr. Turnmire replied. "That's good enough to override the ten-letter requirement — just for today. Never take yourself so seriously that you can't make exceptions to your own rules."
Ellis shot up in his seat. "I've got one!"
Mr. Turnmire lowered his head at Ellis and said, "Ellison Coffey. Please raise your hand when you have something to share."
"Sorry," Ellis apologized, and raised his hand.
"Yes?" said Mr. Turnmire.
"I've got one," Ellis repeated.
"You've got one what?"
"An exception to a rule."
Ellis could tell by the way Mr. Turnmire raised one eyebrow that he didn't want to hear what was coming next, but he nodded for Ellis to speak.
Ellis cleared his throat, paused for suspense, and said, "Exterminate homework."
The class cheered.
Ellis's chest puffed out— exterminate was one of last week's vocabulary words, and he'd made the class cheer.
"Exterminate?" asked Mr. Turnmire.
"It means get rid of," said Ellis.
"I know what it means," said Mr. Turnmire.
Ellis knew that homework was probably here to stay, but it never hurt to ask. Without homework, he'd have more time at the pond to watch for ducks, foxes, groundhogs, deer, turkey — last week he'd seen a bobcat.
And, with no homework, he'd have more time to help his parents.
"No homework?" asked Mr. Turnmire, stroking his chin. "Not ever?"
"Well," said Ellis, trying his best to sound convincing. "Just no homework on days that end with the letter y."
Mr. Turnmire snorted. The class was quiet. Ellis could practically hear them naming the days of the week inside their heads: Monday ... Tuesday. ... Finally, they laughed.
"Nice try, Ellis," said Mr. Turnmire. "No homework?" He shook his head. "No way. But you get an A for effort. Way to use your brain!"
Ellis glanced around to see if everybody had heard Mr. Turnmire compliment his brain. Some pumped their fists. Others rolled their eyes. Randy gagged.
Alice was writing obituary in her vocabulary notebook. Ellis thought her hair was the exact same color as honey.
"Who'd like to use the word obituary in a sentence?" asked Mr. Turnmire.
Ellis searched his brain for a funny sentence. But there was nothing funny about death, so he burped.
The class laughed. Alice kept writing.
Mr. Turnmire sighed. "That'll do, Ellis."
Randy waved his hand in the air and said, "I have a sentence: 'Since Ellis is so dead, can I write his obituary'?"
"Hmm," said Mr. Turnmire. "Good idea."
Ellis's heart skipped a beat. Did Mr. Turnmire want him dead?
"I want you all to write each other's obituaries." Mr. Turnmire paused and thought a minute. "You'll draw names. Each of you will write the obituary of the classmate whose name you draw. But remember" — he raised one finger into the air — "obituaries honor a person. All your comments must be kind."
While Mr. Turnmire collected everyone's names on slips of paper, Ellis looked around the room and wondered whose name he'd get. He didn't know enough about anybody there to sum up a whole life.
Molly was picky and sometimes bossy ... but nice. George was fun, had big ears, and his dad had a CB radio in his truck. Alice was quiet, except when Randy bullied somebody or stomped on innocent ants, and then she'd shout, "Stop!" She had shiny hair, got good grades, and twice she'd checked out the same library book as Ellis. He thought that meant she liked animals and insects just like he did. And Randy ... well, Randy was a jerk.
Ellis drew a name out of the basket as Mr. Turnmire passed it. He unfolded the paper and read, "Randy." He reached out, trying to put it back, but Mr. Turnmire had already moved up the row to the next desk.
What could he write about Randy? Bully? Pea brain? Stink breath?
After a lot of thinking that made his head hurt, Ellis wrote:
Randy sang in the church choir. He liked playing tag at recess and was dearly beloved by his mother, his father, and his dog.
Ellis ended with a big fat lie and wrote,
He will be missed by everyone.
George drew Ellis's name. He wrote:
Ellison "Ellis" Coffey lived his whole happy life in Banner Elk, North Carolina. His family ran a blueberry farm, and that's why Ellis's fingertips looked like ink. He loved animals and insects. He was very funny and had lots of friends. Mr. Turnmire called him our class-clown-but-with- brains. The world was a better place because Ellis lived in it.
Ellis wished it were true.
He had lived his whole life in Banner Elk. He was funny. He did love animals. And he picked a lot of blueberries. Sometimes he squeezed them too hard, so his fingertips got inky-looking. But George was wrong about everything else. Ellis's life wasn't all that happy. He didn't have friends — just people who thought he was funny. It wasn't the same thing. And the world was not a better place because he lived in it.
The minute hand ticked straight up to three o'clock. Ellis slung his book bag over one shoulder. Time to go home. He wished he didn't have to.CHAPTER 2
THE SPIDER DANCE
Ellis climbed onto the school bus.
"Hey, Ellis," yelled George. "Come to the park."
"Can't." Ellis shouted back. He was surprised George didn't know that by now.
Ellis never hung out at the park after school. If he missed the bus, he'd have no way home. He lived too far out to catch a ride with anyone.
Plus, he had things to do at home. He had floors to sweep, laundry to fold, homework to do, Dad to look after.
Ellis slid into a seat behind two second-grade girls. He slipped a piece of paper out of his book bag and tore it into small pieces. Then he rolled one of the pieces of paper into a ball and tossed it between the girls. They stopped talking and turned. Ellis pretended to read his library book, All About Ants.
As soon as they turned back around, Ellis lobbed another paper ball, then leaned back in his seat and read his book again, as if he'd never looked up. The girls giggled.
The third time, they turned around just as he was getting ready to throw. "We caught you!" they squealed. Then they hid their heads. They couldn't stop giggling.
Second graders are easy, thought Ellis. He could make them laugh with one hand tied behind his back.
Ellis hadn't always been funny. He used to be quiet, like his dad. And his granddad. Coffey men didn't say much.
But last spring, something happened. Ellis's class went on a field trip. Not the kind where you go to a museum and touch dinosaur bones, or to a cave and see bat droppings. This was a field trip to a field — Mrs. Puckett's cornfield. His science teacher, Miss Williams, wanted the class to see how many different kinds of insects they could find.
Ellis couldn't wait. He ran ahead of everyone, tromping through giant weeds and tall, dead cornstalks. Then, all of a sudden, sticky stuff covered his face. Tiny legs crawled over one ear and across his eyes and into his nose. Ellis had plunged his face into the biggest spiderweb in Avery County.
He went crazy. He waved his arms and jumped up and down. He stuck his fingers up his nose to get rid of whatever was creeping around in there. He swiped his eyes and pulled away wispy stuff.
"Look at Ellis!" someone yelled.
"He's funny," shouted somebody else.
Ellis looked around. Everyone was laughing. Not at him. No. They were joining him, waving their arms and imitating him as if he'd invented the world's funniest dance — the spider dance. They pulled at their hair and flung their bodies like rag dolls between the corn rows.
Ellis tried to explain about the spiderweb, but they were all having too much fun to listen.
Suddenly, Ellis felt different. Changed somehow. Almost as if he'd discovered some new power. It made him feel all tingly inside. Even the top of his head tingled.
That wasn't his head that was tingling. Something was actually moving in his hair.
Ellis reached up and plucked a wiggly creature off the top of his head and dangled it by one long, thin leg.
"Yikes!" exclaimed Molly. "That's a spider!"
"It's just a daddy longlegs," said Alice. She walked over carrying a small box in her hands with three insects in it that she'd found. "It won't hurt you."
Ellis looked at the insect dangling from his fingers. He wondered if Alice had missed his spider dance.
His insides were still tingly from making everyone laugh and dance funny. He glanced around. All his classmates were watching. He lowered the spider over his open mouth and acted as if he were going to swallow it.
Choruses of "eeew" and "nasty" and "yuck" rang out around him, followed by hoots of laughter.
"Do it!" cheered Randy.
"Don't," said Alice.
The spider swiveled away from Ellis's mouth. Panicked, it twitched in the empty air.
Ellis listened to the laughter. It felt good.
But then he sensed something else. Fear. The spider was freaking out. Anyone could see that, but Ellis actually felt tiny needles of adrenaline pricking his insides.
Carefully, he placed the spider on the ground and watched it scurry to safety under a cornstalk.
"Wimp," jeered Randy.
"Thanks," said Alice.
Ellis's scared-spider feeling faded away. For a second he wondered where it had come from. But then everyone was telling him what a riot he was. He shrugged and tried to act as if it were no big deal. But on the inside, he was grinning like crazy.
From then on, he knew he had a reputation to uphold — class funny kid. He cracked people up.
And he was good at it. Right now, the second-grade girls in front of him on the bus were still giggling.
Ellis rested the side of his head against the window and counted, one by one, the telephone poles that whipped past. He wondered if Alice and Molly had gone to the park with George. He wondered for about the millionth time if Alice actually liked spiders. If he gave her one, would she thank him?
Tired of telephone poles, Ellis began to count mailboxes. At Macky Road, seven kids got off his bus. After two more mailboxes, five kids hopped off, including the giggling girls. More mailboxes. More kids. Finally, Ellis was the only one left — Ellis and Mr. V, the bus driver.
They rode five more minutes with no mailboxes — nothing to see but blueberry bushes. Most of them belonged to Ellis's family. Their blueberry farm went back even farther in time than Hattie May's quilt.
The bus turned off onto a dirt road and began to climb the mountain. Ellis had to move his head away from the windowpane because it was bumping his brains into marbles.
Four more curves.
"End of the line," Mr. V called to Ellis. The bus squeaked to a stop in front of his rutted driveway. Mr. V pushed the lever that opened the door. "How's your dad?" he asked.
"Fine," Ellis lied.
"You tell your mom I got extra tomatoes going to waste. She's welcome to pick some, but she'll have to hurry. First hard freeze'll get them soon."
"Thanks," said Ellis. He climbed down off the bus.
Ellis hiked up and around one more curve before his house came into view. It was an old white farmhouse that had a wraparound porch with ferns hanging on it. The plants were a sick green color that meant he needed to water them.
But first, he needed to check on Dad.CHAPTER 3
Ellis banged in through the kitchen, letting the screen door slam behind him. Mom's "Trust in the Lord" cross-stitch sampler slid sideways.
"That you, son?" called Dad.
"No," joked Ellis. "Escaped convict."
"Armed?" asked Dad.
"And dangerous!" Ellis growled in his best wanted-for-murder voice. He lunged into the living room, swinging his book bag as if he were David, about to hurl rocks at Goliath.
Dad laughed, held up his hands, and surrendered. He was lying as close to flat as he could get in a La-Z-Boy recliner.
He had to lie flat. He had a herniated disk in his back that made sitting hurt worse than a toothache the size of Beech Mountain. Standing hurt even more. And house painting, which was his job, was impossible. He hadn't painted anything in months.
The first time Ellis heard "herniated disk," he'd thought it was a new kind of CD or DVD. But it wasn't. It had something to do with not having enough squishy stuff between the stacked-up bones in your spine. Fixing it meant surgery. Surgery meant paying a deductible.
Deductible, thought Ellis. Four syllables and ten letters. A word Mr. Turnmire would love. It meant health insurance wouldn't pay for all the surgery. His dad would have to pay the first thousand dollars of it.
Only they didn't have a thousand dollars.
Dad tapped his crossword puzzle book with a pencil. He wore jeans, a T-shirt, and brown leather boots so old they were scuffed almost white. For years, Mom had tried to get him to buy new ones, but he loved those boots. "I like what I got," he'd say.
Ellis hoped that one day he'd look like his dad: tall, with a lot of muscles. But lately, Ellis thought that pain had shrunk him.
"What's an eight-letter word for impossible?" asked Dad.
"Surgery?" answered Ellis.
"Not enough letters," Dad muttered.
"Dad," groaned Ellis, "I was being funny."
"Oh." Dad nodded. "Right."
"If Mom liked spiders, would you give her one?"
Dad tilted his head back and thought about it. He took weird questions seriously. But sometimes he took forever to answer them.
Ellis shifted his weight from one side to another. He wiggled his fingers. He waited.
"I'd give her a ladybug," Dad finally answered.
"Not a spider?"
Dad shook his head. "Nope."
"What about an ant farm?" Alice hated for Randy to stomp on ants.
"Your mother hates ants."
Excerpted from The Worm Whisperer by Betty Hicks, Ben Hatke. Copyright © 2013 Betty Hicks. Excerpted by permission of Roaring Brook Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Betty Hicks is the author of the Gym Shorts series as well as novels Get Real, Out of Order, Busted! and I Smell Like Ham. She lives in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Ben Hatke is the author/illustrator behind Zita, the Spacegirl. He lives in the Shenandoah Valley with his wife and a boisterous pack of daughters.
Betty Hicks is the author of Basketball Bats and several sports novels for older readers, including Busted! and I Smell Like Ham. She lives in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Ben Hatke's first graphic novel was Zita the Spacegirl. He has published comics stories in the Flight series as well as Flight Explorer. In addition to writing and drawing comics, he also paints in the naturalist tradition and, occasionally, performs one-man fire shows. Hatke lives and works in the Shenandoah Valley with his wife and their boisterous pack of daughters.
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