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Wholesome origins of ‘Fried Worms’

Special to The Times

“How to Eat Fried Worms,” the popular children’s book by Thomas Rockwell that is now a New Line film, was rejected by 23 publishers before it found a home at Franklin Watts in 1973. As Rockwell explains it, back then a lot of people thought the subject matter was a little too disgusting. “Of course, that was a different time, now on television everyone’s eating everything,” he says.

When Rockwell talks, one can almost hear his small-town roots. His genial manner is only fitting: He is the son of Norman Rockwell, the legendary Saturday Evening Post cover artist who made his livelihood depicting the glowing warmth of hearth and home.

Thomas has made his own name not too far afield, as a children’s author. “Worms,” his most famous book, embraced the squirmy side of those happy small-town homes and the mischievous boys who lived in them.

A hit since its publication, the book has sold 3 million copies, won several awards and has never been out of print. A new edition is being brought out nonetheless, as a tie-in with the movie, which opens today.

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Speaking by phone from his home -- a converted chicken shed a few miles outside Poughkeepsie in upstate New York -- Rockwell, 73, evinces an entirely non-Hollywood trust of the film business and comfort with his small role in it. “I was pleased that it was the people that made ‘Narnia’ and things like that,” he says of “Worms” producers Mark Johnson and Philip Steuer. Rockwell’s only concern was that the movie would shy away from any actual worm eating, but during a recent screening, his worries were allayed. “They did it beautifully, they didn’t back off at all,” he says.

In the book, a boy makes a $50 bet with a friend that he can eat 15 worms in 15 days. The movie raises the dramatic tension a notch by making the main character a new kid in town who makes a worm-eating bet with the class bully for acceptance.

Rockwell learned of Hollywood interest in his book about eight years ago. He received a script last year, a courtesy of the filmmakers. “I looked it over and made a few minor suggestions, but mostly, I don’t know anything about making a movie, so I left it to them.”

Rockwell says he doesn’t mind the movie’s changes to the story. The film is sure to attract new readers and, in the meantime, the book’s still doing fine.

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“I got a letter the other day from a young girl in the third grade who just read the book, and she sent me a letter that I’d sent to her mother when her mother was in the third grade,” he says. “So it’s going down the generations.”

Rockwell was always interested in writing, though he didn’t set out to be a children’s author. His first literary job was ghostwriting his father’s autobiography, “My Adventures as an Illustrator.”

“He had a professional ghostwriter, but he was afraid he was going to say something that he shouldn’t say, very un-Norman Rockwell, so they got me,” Rockwell says. “Because he felt he could censor me, I guess. But, of course, there wasn’t anything that startling revealed.” Really? There’s no dark underbelly to Norman Rockwell? Thomas Rockwell laughs heartily. “No, there isn’t any.” No Mel Gibson-style drunk driving incidents? He hoots, “Oh, dear!” sounding like a character out of, well, a Rockwell book or painting.

Growing up in the tiny town of Arlington, Vt., he didn’t feel like he had a particularly famous father. He points out that this was pre-television, so fame wasn’t quite as overwhelming back then. And for a small town, Arlington was packed with talent. The author Dorothy Canfield Fisher made her home there along with many other writers and artists. Four of those artists drew Post covers as well, “so it didn’t seem so remarkable then,” says Rockwell, “it was just sort of what your father did. He didn’t stand out as if he played shortstop for the New York Yankees or something like that.”

Rockwell’s father and mother, Mary, an unpublished author, encouraged their three sons to be creative. “My father used to tell us he wanted us to be bankers so he could retire to his rocking chair on the porch, but, of course, he didn’t,” says Rockwell, whose brothers are artists.

It wasn’t until he had a son and started reading to him that Thomas Rockwell became interested in writing in that genre. His first published effort was “Rackety Bang and Other Verses,” illustrated by his wife, Gail. And his idea for “Worms” came out of a bad day.

He had been working on a book called “Squawwwk!” but things weren’t going so well. “I went down to see a publisher about the manuscript for ‘Squawwwk!’ and she hadn’t liked it, so I was feeling very bad,” he recalls. “I was driving home and I guess I was feeling as if I’d been eating worms, and suddenly it popped into my head: ‘Why don’t I write a book about a boy who eats worms?’ ”

He’s written a host of other books since then and still likes to write every day. He’s now working on a book of poetry for kids, so the rocking chair is not calling yet. “Neither of my kids became bankers, so what could I do?”

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