Books on the borderline? On wolves and testing the boundaries of picture books

Would you let your child loose with someone whom others might describes as threatening, morally corrupt, gullible, impudent, and very hungry for little people?

I’m guessing not.

And yet with picture books we do that more often than we might realise.

And our kids love us for it.

A great example of this is the newest board book from Gecko Press, a New Zealand based publisher I follow with great interest for they have a very particular eye when it comes to books which do things differently.

HelpWolfIsComing_COVERHelp! The Wolf is Coming! by Cédric Ramadier and Vincent Bourgeau, translated by Linda Burgess, is a wonderfully thrilling and delightfully funny story about a wolf making its way threateningly towards us, the reader and listener. As it gets closer and closer we’re invited to do what we can to stop Wolf in his tracks and save ourselves from his clutches.

Prompted to turn the book to an angle, we cause Wolf to start slipping off the page. By shaking the book, we can rattle Wolf. But can we actually save ourselves, and more importantly, save our children?

Like Hervé Tullet’s Press Here, Help! The Wolf is Coming! pushes the boundary of what we take for granted as a book and how we can interact with the physical object in our hands. It asks questions about how we allow ourselves to play, to let imagination take over whilst we suspend reality. Both Press Here and Help! The Wolf is Coming! encourage us to do various things to the book and these actions appear to have consequences for what’s on the page.

On one level, we are in no doubt that what we’re doing doesn’t actually cause any reaction; A physical book is not like an app, where a tap or a swipe does change what happens. On another level, however, we as readers and listeners have great fun becoming omnipotent, able to shape the story and take control of the book, even if (or perhaps because?) what happens, happens inside us.

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Help! The Wolf is Coming! not only tests the boundaries of what it means to be a book and engage with it. It also nudges up against themes which push boundaries. It’s about a wolf who is no doubt full of bad intentions. He’s all jagged edges, his mouth is blood red, his eyes stare strikingly out from the page. If we’re not careful, we are going to be eaten up. And yet I can guarantee this is a book that will be requested time and time again. Even though Wolf is a baddy through and through our kids will want to return to him. And why’s this? Why do we put ourselves through the worry and the fear?

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Perhaps it’s all for the peal of laughter and delight that comes with the relief when we realise at the end of the book that we’re safe and in the arms of our loved ones. Just like the thrill of a circus ride, coming face to face with a threat, a big worry, or an enormous fear is all worth it if, in the end, we discover we’re safe.

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That said, Help! The Wolf is Coming! will suit fans of Jon Klassen as the ending is potentially ambivalent. The door on the wolf may not actually be locked shut… and what then?

This book is sizzlingly good fun to share. It’s got an enormous appeal across the age ranges (don’t be fooled by the fact that is has been produced as a board book. I challenge you to give it to some 10 year olds and see how they react; I’d place money on a hugely positive reaction). Delicious desire, finely tuned tension, wit, power, giggles and exhilaration are all to be found in its pages. No wonder we’ve all returned many times to this book already.

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And returning to wolves is something which Gecko Press has also done several times now. They’ve a whole slew of great books which explore that double edged wonderfulness of wolves – their capacity to simultaneously provide enormous excitement and terrible anxiety – and their ability to make us feel clever at their foolishness.

In addition to Help! The Wolf is Coming!, they’ve published I am The Wolf and Here I Come! (such a great book for children learning to get dressed and one which will end with adult and child heaped in a bundle of tickles and kisses and cuddles), I am So Strong, I am so Handsome (two wonderful books about hubris), Wolf and Dog (a fabulous, gorgeously illustrated first chapter book about heart warming friendship). Noting this apparent predilection for all things lupine I asked Gecko Press publisher Julia Marshall for her thoughts on her wolfish catalogue and why she thinks wolves, despite being threatening, morally corrupt, gullible, impudent, and very hungry for little children are so perfect for meeting in picture books.

Playing by the book: Help! The Wolf is Coming, I am The Wolf and Here I Come!, I am So Strong, I am so Handsome, Wolf and Dog…. what does your catalogue tell us about how you feel about wolves?

Julia Marshall, Gecko Press Publisher: Wolves can be so many different things in a book. The image of a pack of gray, slinky, shadowy wolves is terrifying, isnt it? But what our wolves have in common is that they are all a bit funny. They are busy trying to be frightening, though they are not at all. They are a bit bombastic, a little silly, and it is easy to get the better of them. And mostly they are very frightened themselves, poor things.

Playing by the book: What do you think young children love so much about these wolf characters?

Julia Marshall: I think children love to experience the frisson of fear, safely confined to the pages of the book (In I am The Wolf and Here I Come! on the back cover it says “Snap the book shut to keep the wolf inside”. And when I read it to a child I say: “And isn’t it nice that he has to stay there, all night!”). It is a bit like tickling – sort of nice-not-nice at the same time. But of course one should not take a wolf at face value. A wolf is a wolf, after all, and always a little unpredictable, and it is as well to know that.

Playing by the book: What other children’s books (in particular, picture books) with wolves in do you love?

Julia Marshall: I love Emily Gravett’s Wolves – it has my favourite picture book cover also. Old stories like Little Red Riding Hood and Romulus and Remus are very strong for me too. My favourite French wolf is Loulou by Grégoire Solotareff and I would love for that to be a Gecko Press book.

Playing by the book: Have you any more wolf books on the way?

Julia Marshall: We do! We have a new non-fiction book coming early next year about Wolf and Dog, which includes things about mummies and dinosaurs. It is a great book! I like its mixture of fiction and non-fiction and the humour that is at the heart of it.

Playing by the book: Ooh, great! That sounds right up our street. We’ll be keeping an eye out for it!

Inspired by Help! The Wolf is Coming! my girls and I set about creating our own interactive books with instructions for the readers to make magic happen. We each started with a blank board book: You can buy blank board books ready-made, your can make your own from pressed (ie non corrugated) cardboard, or you can recycle old board books by covering the pages with full sheet adhesive labels which you trim to size, which is what we did.

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First we talked about different ways we can physically interact with books and what consequences that could have for their illustrations. Then we mapped out our interactions on a story board and then drew them into our board books.

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Front covers and titles followed and now I can proudly present to you:

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Here’s an excerpt from my 7 year old’s book:

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I’m not going to give away the end of this exciting story, but let’s just say it doesn’t turn out well for Evil Emperor Penguin (yes, if you’re a fan of this fabulous comic you might recognise the lead character 🙂 )

Whilst making our books we listened to:

  • Wolf by First Aid Kit
  • Hungry Like the Wolf by Duran Duran in homage to my teenage years (“What Mum, you liked this when you were a kid? NO WAY!?!”)
  • Howlin’ Wolf by Smokestack Lightnin’, cause you gotta educate the kids.

  • Alongside reading Help! The Wolf is Coming! you could look up other wolfy books to enjoy together. Here are some of my favourite:

    wolves

    My thanks go to @AHintofMystery, ‏@jonesgarethp, ‏@chaletfan, @librarymice, ‏@ruthmarybennett, ‏@AitchLove, @KatyjaMoran, @kdbrundell, and @KrisDHumphrey for a stimulating discussion on Twitter around wolves in books for children, especially exploring the notion that wolves in picture books are often depicted as threats (as in many of the picture books above), whilst in books for older children are often depicted as allies (for example in Michelle Paver’s Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, or Katherine Rundell’s forthcoming The Wolf Wilder). Whilst there are exceptions to this generality, we discussed why there might be different relationships with wolves depending on the age of the readership: Wolves as a metaphor for growing sexual awareness – which has (mostly) no place in picture books and is therefore presented as bad thing, but as readers get older it becomes less threatening, wolves as a cipher for independence, growth and maturity, and / or our relationship with wolves shifting as we grow up, as we become bolder and more interested in (or at least less threatened by) unpredictability. No doubt there’s much more that could be unpicked here, but it was a really enjoyable conversation and I’m really grateful to everyone who chimed in.

    Disclosure: I received a free review copy of Help! The Wolf is Coming! from the publisher.

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    13 Responses

    1. This looks great. I have found these sorts of books (breaking the fourth wall sort that is rather than specifically wolfy! ) SO useful when working with reluctant readers or those uncertain about bookish pleasures. Including an actual, rather nervous hunt round the library for an escaped crocodile after finishing ‘Open Very Carefully’.

      • Definitely agree with you Polly on this type of book being great for reluctant readers. The playful aspect is a great lure in.

    2. I must get a copy of this book – it looks marvellous! Particularly good too for sharing with a class.
      Sam recently posted..Performing stories – a different way to look at structure and narrative

      • Hi Sam, I’m sure you could use it well in a class, but I think it works really well one on one, because of the need to hold the book and turn it this way and that – it would be great if the kid could do that, rather than someone at the front of a class (in my personal opinion).

    3. Really interesting Zoe! I love wolves and always pause upon a book containing one. In fact my favourite story of all is The Firebird – where the traditional sense of fear and danger towards a wolf is replaced with benevolence: The wolf is the good guy, almost a fairy god-wolf (!) and it’s so good to have story where these noble and much maligned animals are shown as a positive character…

      • Ah yes James, and hasn’t the Firebird given rise to some fabulously illustrated versions? It’s hard just to pick one. Do you have a favourite?

    4. Love the sound of the quirkiness of this book – and what it inspired in your children. The book reminds me of ‘Shhh!’, a book about running away from a giant which similarly encourages you to be ‘physical’ it
      Claire Potter recently posted..If children were the head of of the household …

      • Thanks Claire, yes Shhh! could work well along side this, for sure.

    5. Deborah

      I might get this book for my sister Rebecca. we’re both now in our early 50s, but still love & appreciate children’s books, and when we were little, Rebecca loved Catherine Storr’s books Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf, and Polly and the Wolf Again

    6. I love the sound of this – it reminds me of a book my kids enjoyed, Shhh by Sally Grindley, about giants (who are a bit like wolves in children’s stories, I think). And your children have created something very special.

      You also made me think of another Antipodean book, the Australian picture book Woolvs in the Sitee by Margaret Wild and Anne Spudvilas that is a disturbing tour de force for older readers…

      On an entirely different note, I’ve enjoyed reading your post because I’m currently putting together my Cub pack’s display of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ for our church’s fairy-tale-themed Flower Festival and I am not a flower arranger! Give me a book any time!
      Marjorie (MWD) recently posted..Review: Bulbuli’s Bamboo by Mita Bordoloi and Proiti Roy

    7. Ooooh…this is available in English?! Lovely! The kids at my kinderladen love this book so very much!

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