The Worm Whisperer

( 1 )


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 ...

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The Worm Whisperer

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Being funny has earned Ellis the admiration of his classmates, but the fourth-grader’s life is pretty serious at the moment. His injured father needs an operation that requires money his family doesn’t have; his mother is working constantly; and Ellis is left to handle chores and help care for his father. Because Ellis’s classmates count on him for comic relief, he doesn’t share how hard his life is. A ,000 prize for winning the Woolly Worm (aka caterpillar) race at an annual festival in Ellis’s North Carolina town offers him a chance to solve his family’s financial problems. Ellis’s gentle ways with animals—especially his new caterpillar, Tink—are a particularly touching part of this empathic story. There are a few twists and turns, but Hicks (the Gym Shorts series) pulls the narrative threads together in a pleasing if perhaps too neat way. Hatke (Zita the Spacegirl) contributes cheerful b&w spot illustrations that bolster the value and comfort Ellis finds in family, friendship, and faith. Ages 8–12. Agent: Tracey Adams, Adams Literary. Illustrator’s agent: Judith Hansen, Hansen Literary Agency. (Jan.)
From the Publisher
"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

Children's Literature - Greta Holt
Every school student feels that he must find a trick to make himself fit in, or at least be noticed. Ellis has found his niche in humor. The kids in class love his remarks, and the teachers do not mind because Ellis's jokes are not cruel. Ellis is proud of his new found position with his classmates, but he does not feel funny inside. Mom has lost her job and Dad cannot work because he has an injured back. One thousand dollars is needed to pay the deductible for Dad's surgery. Ellis does all the chores at home and picks blueberries on the family farm to help out. He dearly wants to get the $1000 so that Dad and Mom can be happy again. Each year, the area hosts an annual Woolly Worm Race, and the prize is one thousand dollars. Ellis loves nature, and he would like to dream away his days in the woods and at the pond. He decides that his talents may lie in being a worm whisperer, just like the neighborhood horse whisperer Mrs. Puckett. Ellis finds the worm that he hopes will win the race and save his family. He names the worm Tink and whispers it into excellent racing strength with the support of his friends Alice and George, and in spite of the bullying Randy. This story mixes fanciful coincidence with the stark reality of an economic crash. Its tone is serene—at peace with the effort it takes to thrive, and with the outcomes life offers. Although not overtly religious, the story could be part of a church library, as well as a school collection. Reviewer: Greta Holt
School Library Journal
Gr 4–6—Ellis loves animals; he even senses that he can communicate with them. His unique talent may be the solution to his family's financial woes. When Ellis bonds with a woolly worm he finds on his family's blueberry farm, he decides to enter it in the town's Wooly Worm Festival race and hopes to win the prize money. Ellis achieves his goal, but in an unexpected way that is both realistic and emotionally satisfying. Caring for Tink encourages the boy to reach out to his friends and to several adults in town, all of whom are well-defined supporting characters. 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. Fans of Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's Shiloh (S & S/Atheneum, 1991) will enjoy this "boy and his bug" tale of responsibility, family love, country life, and a wise young hero.—M. Kozikowski, Sachem Public Library, Holbrook, NY
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781596434905
  • Publisher: Roaring Brook Press
  • Publication date: 1/22/2013
  • Pages: 192
  • Sales rank: 714,469
  • Age range: 8 - 12 Years
  • Lexile: 560L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.80 (d)

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.

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Read an Excerpt



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.


Text copyright © 2013 by Betty Hicks

Illustrations copyright © 2013 by Ben Hatke

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 25, 2013


    Awsome, simply MARVELOUS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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