I remember How to Eat Fried Worms as a book that was assigned to me in early elementary school. I can’t remember many of the details, but I have a feeling the assignment was from my beloved third grade teacher, who remains my favorite teacher of all time. If I am right about the timeline, it has been roughly 22 years since the last time I read this book. Basically, all I remembered when I brought the book home from the library is that some kids dare each other to eat worms, and that somewhere in the story, there is a bad word. As it turns out, my summary wasn’t far off, just lacking in details.
The main character of the book is Billy, who is dared by some boys in the neighborhood to eat 15 worms in as many days. If he succeeds, he wins 50 dollars, and if he loses, he has to fork over 50 dollars to his buddies. The rules of the bet are that the other boys get to choose the worms, but that Billy gets to choose how they are prepared, and what condiments are used to mask the taste. When it starts to look like Billy might actually achieve his goal, the other boys start trying to sneakily break the rules so they won’t have to come up with the money to satisfy the bet.
This book is very short, as are the chapters, and much of the story is told in dialogue amongst the boys as they set forth the terms of the bet, and then begin to serve Billy the worms. The bet is really the sole focus of the book, and the only subplots in the story relate directly to Billy’s difficulties in completing the challenge. Even so, despite the limited glimpses we have into the lives of the characters, each of them - even some of the parents - comes fully to life through his or her reactions to the bet and the way they each speak and behave. There is very little exposition - rather, everything is revealed slowly, one step at a time, as each worm is eaten.
As I mentioned, there is one instance of foul language ("bastard"), but it’s said in a moment of real anger, and I don’t think it bothered me much as a kid. I think I remember the aforementioned teacher taking some time to talk about using that word, but even the details of that situation are mostly fuzzy inmy memory at this point. I imagine the use of this word is why this book has been challenged in some places, but I don’t think it’s that big a deal within the context of the larger story. I suppose adults reading it aloud could just change that word if it was that much of a problem, but I think most kids would understand not to go around calling people bastards, in the same way that most kids I know would not eat a worm, no matter how much money was on the line.
Though it has been years, everything from the illustrations (by Emily Arnold McCully) to the layout of the book and the chapter titles felt really comforting to me, like visiting an old friend or wrapping up in a favorite blanket. I didn’t have many moments where I remembered a specific line or scene, but I had a strong sense of nostalgia as I read and a definite sense of recognition that I had been this way before. Though How to Eat Fried Worms is now 40 years old, there is very little that should keep contemporary kids from reading it. Boys will always be fascinated by eating disgusting things, and all kids love to read about bets and squabbles among kids their own age. How to Eat Fried Worms will be on prominent display in my library throughout this summer’s Dig Into Reading program, and I hope a whole new generation of readers will create their own deeply ingrained memories associated with the story.