CM . . . . Volume XV Number 13. . . .February 20, 2009.
The Mealworm Diaries.
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2009.
153 pp., pbk., $9.95.
Grades 3-5 / Ages 8-10.
Review by Karen Rankin.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
The classroom noises settled, and still nobody came to say, “Do you want to work with me?” They were all paired up.
Fine, Jeremy thought. I don’t care. I don’t need a partner. But even as he lifted his chin, he felt his shoulders droop. A prickly feeling at the back of his eyes forced him to blink. He took a deep breath and sat up. I am not gonna cry. Not on the second day in this school. Not ever.
He glanced up to find Mr. Collins watching. Would he say, “we’re going to rethink the partners you’ve chosen?” Or something else … anything that would mean he wouldn’t have to be the one left over.
Mr. Collins’ gaze turned to Aaron. Oh no. No. Not Aaron. The teacher raised an eyebrow. “Well, Jeremy,” he said, you and Aaron seem to be the only people without partners. Since you’re the keeper of Aaron’s mealworm, you get to decide if you’re willing to work with him or if you’d rather keep both worms and work alone.”
There was a howl of protest from Aaron, but Mr. Collins kept his eyes on Jeremy, who was beginning to feel that everybody else was watching too.
“Loser,” Tufan called out.
Jeremy’s stomach clenched at the word, but it was Aaron who began to screech, “Am not! Am not! Am not a loser! I’m smart. I’m smart! I’m smarter than you are!”
There were snickers.
“That’s enough,” Mr. Collins said firmly, and he frowned at Tufan. “I’ll talk to you later,” he said. Then he turned back to Jeremy.
“Well, Jeremy?” he asked.
Jeremy looked over at Aaron, who was now tapping his pencil against the edge of his desk. “Can … can I work alone?” Jeremy began. “Can I work alone if it turns out we don’t work well together?”
“I can live with that,” Mr. Collins said. “Can you, Aaron?”
Aaron shoved the eraser end of his pencil right up inside his nose and grinned like a gargoyle.
Jeremy and his mother have recently moved from rural Nova Scotia to downtown Toronto. They are living with Milly, a kind and elderly relative while Jeremy’s mom goes to college and works part-time. Jeremy is plagued by terrible nightmares in which he is involved in some sort of accident. At school, he does not even hint about his troubles. On the second day of school, his teacher, Mr. Collins, gives everyone in the class a mealworm to nurture and observe. When Aaron “Cantwait” sends his mealworm flying across the room, Jeremy happens to catch it. As per the above excerpt, the two boys then end up being partners. Working with hyperactive Aaron tries Jeremy’s patience, but he soon realizes that Aaron knows a lot about mealworms. As more troubling hints about Jeremy’s past are revealed in snippets of dreams and conversations with Milly, Jeremy comes to the conclusion that Aaron, though “weird,” is smart. When Jeremy discovers that he will have to wear shorts during gym, his nightmares get worse. Finally, he shows Milly his legs. One of them has a very long scar. Milly assures Jeremy that, although it is “a humdinger,” it is not “ugly.” Still, Jeremy is nervous. He doesn’t want to answer questions his classmates will ask when they see his leg. Aaron is the first to notice Jeremy’s scar. When he announces that it looks like a lightening bolt, Jeremy is pleased. He is learning to tolerate – even appreciate – Aaron, but he doesn’t consider the two of them friends. On the other hand, Aaron views Jeremy as his best friend. When Jeremy accidentally kills Aaron’s mealworm, he lets Aaron take the blame and then feels guilty. During a Thanksgiving visit with his grandparents back in Nova Scotia, Jeremy is finally able to talk about his troubling part in the accident that broke his leg and killed his father. When he returns to Toronto, Jeremy tells his classmates that his dad is dead. He also takes responsibility for the mealworm mistake and decides that he and Aaron should continue partnering-up for projects.
Jeremy is a well-rounded protagonist. He’s kind, sensitive, and anxious about his relationship with his mother. However, when it comes to the behaviour of Tufan, the class bully, Jeremy initially prefers to mind his own business: “We were minding our own business, he [Jeremy] kept telling himself. We didn’t do anything wrong. Why should we be responsible for Aaron?” Milly, Aaron, and Mom are fleshed-out and credible secondary characters. Peripheral characters – including Grampa, Jeremy’s new friends and Tufan – are also convincingly sketched. Jeremy’s exact age and grade are never revealed. Readers who notice this (likely deliberate) omission can decide for themselves: Mr. Collins’s cross-country running team – which Jeremy and Aaron join – is for grades four, five and six.
Anna Kerz’s first novel is a finely crafted blend of humour, drama, and suspense. The measured and compelling revelation of Jeremy’s dark secret is well balanced by scenes from his science and gym classes as well as the development of his relationship with Milly. The plot has some nice, realistic surprises and a satisfying as well as uplifting conclusion.
Karen Rankin is a Toronto, ON, teacher and writer of children’s stories.
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