Review of the Day: Wolves
Right off the bat I want to make something perfectly clear. I am going to give away the ending of this picture book and I’m going to give it away repeatedly. I’m going to talk at length as to the implications of what the ending means, how that ending fits into the larger scheme of children’s book publishing today, and whether the ending is, in fact, any good at all. So if you like surprises in your books for the preschool set, consider eschewing this review. I’m painting a great big SPOILER ALERT here in bright red shiny letters, each syllable capped off with flickering lights and vaguely carnivalian music.
All set? Right-o. Now, I think I first heard about “Wolves” through the children’s librarian grapevine. You know. The one where you hear someone say at a staff meeting, “Have you seen this book called ‘Wolves’?” I actually saw the book one-on-one in a bookstore, though, and it's no secret as to why I picked it up. It has an infinitely appealing cover. Pure white with just a fuzzy bunny, pointy nose held high and the straightforward black font of the word WOLVES above the tasteful maroon of the author’s name. So I picked it up, gave it the old look-see, and found that it was like nothing I’d perused this year.
A rabbit goes to his local “burrowing” library to check out a book on wolves. While walking home he starts to read about those wild and wily animals. It turns out that wolves can survive in lots of places and that they can have forty-two teeth. As the rabbit reads facts like these, nose planted firmly in his book, he doesn’t see that the characters in his story have seemingly stepped off the page. Wolves follow the bunny everywhere until, in a final moment of jeopardy, we see only the book that our hero was reading, torn and slashed to bits. On the next page, however, we are assured that in an alternative ending the wolf was a vegetarian and all ended happily. Of course, the two-page spread after that may tell a different story altogether...
There are plenty of picture books in which the protagonist dies unexpectedly and in a suitably humorous fashion. I am thinking of books like “Ugly Fish” by Kara LaReau or “Tadpole’s Promise” by Jeanne Willis. If we’re talking children’s literary trends, this has to be acknowledged. Never before have so many books so willingly allowed the hero of the story to be eaten in an untimely manner. What does this say about our society as a whole? Haven’t a clue. Maybe our kids have always been able to handle this dark humor and authors are only now responding in kind. I mean, how different is this mild violence from the Bugs Bunny cartoons and Muppet Show segments of our own youth?
That said, Gravett does something with the ending of “Wolves” that allows it to stand apart from its gently demented brethren. Gravett has invested a great deal of care in this story, and it shows. Once the bunny has disappeared with only a torn up book left in its wake, the next two pages show a single torn slip of paper containing the words, “The author would like to point out that no rabbits were eaten during the making of this book. It is a work of fiction. And so, for more sensitive readers, here is an alternative ending.” Fair enough. But rather than draw an additional scene for the last part of the book, Gravett does something pretty clever. We see the rabbit and the wolf chowing down on a hitherto unmentioned jam sandwich together. The thing is, Gravett has taken a great deal of care to show a spread that squeamish parents will buy as a legitimate ending, and intelligent children will not. The text, first of all, is purposefully saccharine. “Luckily this wolf was a vegetarian, so they shared a jam sandwich, became the best of friends, and lived happily ever after.” No human being on the planet could read those lines and not come off sounding like Glinda the Good Witch from the filmed “Wizard of Oz”. Then look at the pictures. The rabbit is there, sure, and the wolf too, and they certainly SEEM to be eating a jam sandwich. Look a little closer, though, and it's clear that these characters have been ripped out of earlier illustrations and haphazardly arranged on the page. The jam in the sandwich is the same material as the book the rabbit was reading earlier. The jaw of the wolf hangs loosely from his head while the rest of his limbs look like they’ve been plucked from earlier pictures in the book. And even EVEN if the reader buys this ending, they’ve the last two-page spread to deal with. On a mat that presumably would be under the Rabbit’s front door mail slot, a pile of letters, bills, and menus all addressed to G. Rabbit lay scattered. One of these is a library notice from the West Bucks Public Burrowing Library showing that the rabbit’s book "Wolves" is now seriously overdue. Any guesses as to why?
And have I mentioned the art? I have not. Aside from what can only be called one-of-a-kind storytelling, Gravett is a wiz with mixed media. From postcards and envelopes to the cloth binding of the book the bunny carries with him, the real and the unreal meld seamlessly into one another. The rabbit is drawn but has a three dimensional quality. He has the ability to walk in front of montages that show what his book looks like as he reads it. Gravett’s details are even more remarkable. When the rabbit leaves with a book about wolves you can see that one of the books left on the shelf that he could have taken has a rabbit on the cover instead. Stains are visible on the back of the rabbit’s book and the very binding on the spine shows that it was published by Simon & Schuster (which makes me wonder if the original Great Britain version read “Macmillan” overseas). Actually, I think a lot of things were changed inside the book so as to render it Yankee friendly. Phone numbers are clearly American. Ditto addresses. And in a different vein I suppose a person could raise some kind of a stink over the fact that the wolves seem to grow bigger and the rabbit smaller as the danger rises to its peak. That, however, I feel was a conscious act on the part of the illustrator that allowed her to bring the climax to a fever pitch. Finally, the view of the rabbit’s book, now criss-crossed with rips and tears and even a bite or two is worth the price of admission alone.
Recently I reviewed another picture book that, like this one, originally made its publication debut in Great Britain. When I talked about “The Opposite” by Tom MacRae I spoke of the distinctly English air the title carried in its wake. “Wolves” does not carry that same air, but it does have a distinctly foreign sense of humor. None of that is to say that American audiences of a certain stripe won’t immediately latch on to what Gravett is able to do here. The real joke of the book is that “Wolves” really does contain actual honest-to-goodness factual information about the animals in question. A kid reading "Wolves" could actually learn a lot about those critters by reading this book. So you have your real with your unreal, your mixed-media and twist endings alongside your non-fiction subject matter and drawn characters. I hate to get all academic on you, but “Wolves” can definitely be read on several different levels here. Some kids will dig it. Others will stare at it with undisguised confusion and then demand a seventy-fifth reading of “The Giving Tree”. In the end, Gravett has done the near impossible. She’s created something amusing, disturbing, and never seen before. A great book if you know what you’re in for and can appreciate what the author/illustrator has done.