Review of Carl and the Meaning of Life

Carl and the Meaning of Life
by Deborah Freedman; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary    Viking    48 pp.    g
4/19    978-0-451-47498-8    $17.99

Carl is an earthworm, always moving under the ground, digesting leaves and “turning hard dirt into fluffy soil.” When a field mouse asks him why he does that, Carl suffers an immediate identity crisis. He heads up and out into the world to see if any of the other animals can tell him his purpose and the meaning behind his actions. No one has any answers for him — not a mother rabbit, a haughty fox, or a nosy squirrel. After a long time spent questioning rather than burrowing, Carl suddenly realizes that there are no longer any animals to ask since, with the earth having turned barren and dry, they have all moved on in search of food and shelter. It is here that Carl’s epiphany leads him back down into the soil, doing his work and making it rich again. Animals return, seeds sprout, and clover blossoms once again — thanks to Carl. Freedman (Blue Chicken, rev. 1/12) wraps up her story with a light touch, leaving it to readers to deduce the role of an earthworm in maintaining ecological balance. Carl’s existential woes are illustrated via delicate earth-toned watercolors on expansive, full-bleed double-page spreads; playfully winding type is used on the spreads showing Carl’s burrowing habits. The words “the meaning of life” in the book’s title allow young readers to use their inferencing skills, as the story’s message is clear but not explicitly stated. A brief author’s note is appended, inviting readers to think about how they, like the indomitable Carl, “help the earth.” 

From the March/April 2019 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.
Julie Danielson
Julie Danielson
Julie Danielson writes about picture books at the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. She also writes for Kirkus Reviews and BookPage and is a lecturer for the School of Information Sciences graduate program at the University of Tennessee. Her book Wild Things!: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature, written with Betsy Bird and Peter D. Sieruta, was published in 2014.

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