Review of the Day: Wolf! Wolf!
Wolf! Wolf! written and illustrated by John Rocco. Hyperion Books For Children. $15.99.
Yesterday at work I had three different patrons ask me for alternate versions Cinderella. How many versions do you want, ask I. As many as you’ve got, reply they. Oy. While searching and running and running and searching for the myriad of admittedly very interesting picture books out there, I started to think about folktales that span the globe. From Ed Young’s, "Lon Po Po” (a Chinese take on Little Red Riding Hood) to “Duffy and the Devil” by Margot Zemach (a book with a “Rumplestiltskin” twist), the world is full of familiar tales. On the flip side of the coin are the stories taken from one culture and put into another for the very first time. Though they haven’t the history and mythology of those stories that naturally developed in different settings, such tales can be interesting in their own right. A fine example of this kind of storytelling is John Rocco’s take on the classic Boy Who Cried Wolf tale. Set in Japan, “Wolf! Wolf!” offers us arthritic wolves and dumb-as-a-post human boys in a tale that is as droll as it is surprisingly gentle.
An old wolf is long past his young hunting days and tries supporting his empty stomach with a large and lovely garden. Trouble is, he has no way of keeping weeds away from his patch of land and the canine is growing increasingly hungry. One day he happens to hear someone calling him from across the mountain. When he investigates, he sees that it’s just a young boy playing a trick on his local villagers. When the boy makes his cry a second time the wolf comes again, but begins to tire of the tricky child. The third time the kid gives a cry the wolf has just about had it. Since his mere appearance (parasol and all) is enough to scare the thoughtless boy up a tree, the crafty creature makes a deal. If the boy ties the plumpest of the goats to a fence post in the wolf’s garden, he’ll... uh... “spare” the rest of the flock. Sure enough, the boy does as our hero asks, but when he finds that the goat has eaten all the weeds and left the now enormous vegetables untouched, he finds that this new friend may prove more useful than as a quick nosh of double-goat dumplings.
It seems surprisingly logical in retrospect to take the tale of the Boy Who Cried Wolf and tell the story from the wolf’s point of view. Rather than make this yet another “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs” knock-off, though, Rocco’s tale makes a kind of perfect sense. When you think about it, when the boy cries, “Wolf! Wolf!”, he is, in a way, directly calling the wolf to the flock. This wolf, being just a tad over the hill, goes to the boy because he thinks he may know the person calling him. The story itself obeys the Rule of Three, and it’s nice to read something where the child character is a putz and the supposed antihero is the smartie. Of course, a part of me wishes that Rocco had stuck to his guns and allowed the wolf to eat the plump and juicy goat at the story’s end. On the other hand, he sets up the happily ever after finale well in advance so that it doesn't feel tacked on when you reach it.
The idea of setting the story in a Japanese setting makes for an interesting read. Not knowing anything whatsoever about the culture of that country, I can’t really speak to whether or not the costumes, clothing, and look of the story are accurate. What I can tell you is that Rocco's pictures, for all their cartoonish glee, carry with them a great deal of sophistication. There is, for example, a picture of the wolf soaking his aching feet in the bank of a riverbed that fills the page beautifully. In the water large white koi flit in the dappled beams of sunlight under large lily pads in a calm green sea. In another view the wolf naps in a cherry blossomed glen beside long eared rabbits and light blue butterflies as the sunbeams reflect the dying day. What Rocco has successfully captured in these images are varying qualities of light. He also knows exactly where to place the white space on his pages too (never an easy task). And if you find that you are unfamiliar with Mr. Rocco’s work, pick up the nearest “Percy Jackson” book and look at its cover. Seem familiar? There you go. On the website Imagekind Mr. Rocco's work was described as, “incredibly whimsical and filled to the brim with color and fantastic details.” There is little need for me to try to say it any better than that.
I once reviewed the children’s book, “A Room With a Zoo” by Jules Feiffer and mentioned in the piece that I had never seen a work of fiction for kids really drill home the agony of throwing one’s back out. Such a feeling is replicated here in “Wolf! Wolf!” but in this case it’s the ache of elderly joints and creaky knees. Grandparents reading this book to their progeny will relate to this most unexpected of protagonists. Altogether, a fine new look at a story we’ve all heard before. The real joy of this book is that not only does it pair with your standard Boy Who Cried Wolf retellings, it can even be read and enjoyed without having any knowledge of the original tale. Beautifully rendered and written with aplomb.
On shelves March 30, 2007.
And be sure to take a gander at Mr. Rocco's website and blog.
(By the way, if you happen to be interested in how folktales crop up in one place or another, consider giving a glance to Idries Shah’s, World Tales: The Extraordinary Coincidence of Stories Told in All Times, in All Places. I don’t know if it’s still in print, but it’s certainly one of the finest records of extraordinary connections between different cultures held together by similar stories.)