This has been a challenging book to review. I’ve read it several times and I have included it in my stack of to-reviews for our Suspense/Whodunit theme this May-June, but I find that there may be so many things I could share about the book, I may not know where to begin. I also thought that this would be the perfect book to include for this week’s Book Talk Tuesday (it IS Tuesday in this part of the world) originally being hosted by The Lemme Library but currently being hosted by Mrs G over at Smithville Elementary Library. If you have the time, do scoot on over and visit Mrs. G’s collection of links about book reviews for today.
Darkness that [threatens to] Engulf and Unsurpassed Courage found Within. – I learned about this book from last year’s Asian Festival of Children’s Content when one of the speakers John McKenzie, Senior Lecturer from New Zealand shared a bit of what he knows about postmodern picture books. As he was sharing the exquisite illustrations found within the pages, he mentioned that this book could very well be written by a dyslexic child – what with the spelling errors, the way that the text is written, and so on.
When I had the chance to read the actual book, I feel that it may go beyond dyslexia and that the entire visual/textual narrative is rife with so many symbolism, concealed meanings, and overriding layered anxieties that may be triggered by real (or imagined) “woolvs.”
The book begins with a warning, a sense of inevitable doom, and resignation. As if Ben is simply waiting for the end. It portrays a kind-of-dystopian vibe that actually reminded me a little bit of Will Smith’s I am Legend.
There are woolvs in the sitee. Oh, yes! In the streets, in the parks, in the allees. In shops, in rustee playgrownds. in howses rite next dor. And soon they will kum. they will kum for me and for yoo and for yor bruthers and sisters. yor muthers and fathers, your arnts and unkils. yor grandfathers and grandmuthers. No won is spared.
There is that distinct sense of darkness that threatens to engulf, but does not overwhelm the reader – rather it makes you look at young Ben, stare at his vigilant, shifty eyes that look either up/down, left/right, peering from behind a curtain, furtively glancing from below a flight of stairs. The reader senses a tired, resigned gaze that knows something is coming… from behind the door, the painted skies, the sounds heard from the alleys.
Haunting Illustrations. One of the definite strengths of the book lies in the haunting quality of the images. In the review done by Charlotte Richardson in March 2008 for Paper Tigers, she noted that:
“Only for well-established writers and illustrators like Wild and Spudvilas do publishers risk such nervy work.”
It is not only ‘nervy’ – it is also pulsating with rawness that would not fail to touch the inner core of the reader who can not help but respond to such .. truth, no matter how frightening. While there seems to be that overarching darkness, we see a glimpse of sunshine, warmth, and friendship in the presence of Missus Radinski:
Missus Radinski’s veree kind, but she won’t lissen abowt the woolvs.
“Yoo need to get owt more,” she sez. “Go bak to skool, take up a hobbee.”
She dusn’t unnerstand abowt the woolvs. She thinks I’m torking abowt those luvlee wyld creechis, running in the woods. That’s not wot I meens.
Not at all!
Again the reader is left wondering if Ben is talking about actual wolves, or are they a metaphor for creatures far more sinister – or if it even matters at all. There are occasions when a perceived reality may be more potent than the actual/physical one. This became even more evident when Ben’s heart jumped a notch upon seeing blue sky with white clouds:
Suddenly I’m owt of my room. Owt of the bilding. I’m running akross the street. I’m tuching the sky, hugging the sky.
He realized however, that this is not a “reel sky” – but a painted one – hot summer blue paint to mimic the summers of long ago. What is real are the woolvish shadows over it. He was fortunate to have Missus Radinski save him from the crawling shadows… the trembling Missus Radinski, with her hair unbrushed, barefoot and trembling, who now believes in the ‘woolvs.’
The Woolvs in a Young Man’s Life. I recalled during Liz Rosenberg’s talk on the AFCC (which I posted here), she mentioned that books that lead you to a dark place should also be able to hold your hand and guide you from out of that seemingly-never-ending tunnel of shadows into the light.
In this book, young Ben goes beyond that and actually entices the reader to “joyn me” as he manages to gather up the courage to find the missing Missus Radinski (assumed to have been caught by the ‘woolvs’).
I thinks of her at the mersee of the woolvs. I thinks abowt that time she ran owt to reskew me. She was so veree afrade, but still she kame. still she kame.
One is also led to think about the ‘woolvs’ in a young child’s life: the inner struggles that they encounter each day and their capacities to overcome. This post may actually be timely in the wake of the #YA Saves Lives movement on Twitter that was semi-organized in response to the “Darkness Too Visible” post made by an article in The Wall Street Journal, and the comprehensive post written by Cheryl Rainfield, author of Scars in response to WSJ.
Truth be told, I am glad for picture books like Woolvs in the Sitee with its achingly real torment – and sensing this young boy’s attempts to make such overwhelming agony smaller than he is, as he struggles to find meaning. While we may attempt to shield our children from darkness – perhaps we should give them tools to help them overcome it, and trust that they will come out of sordid experiences – whole, and with a sense of dignity for transcending hurts and pains. In the words of Ben:
My hart is jakhammering, but I will no longer let the woolvs forse me to scrooch.
I will no longer let them stop me from making the streets my rivers and the parks my vallees.
Links and Teacher Resources. This book has won several recognition including the Children’s Book Council Honour Book award in 2007 and the Aurealis Award also in the same year. I was also able to find this downloadable pdf file – an extensive teacher’s notes prepared by penguin.com.
Awardwinning Duo and Illustrator. Margaret Wild was born in South Africa in 1948
but moved to Australia in 1973 (source here). She has a string of publications to her name, most of which have gained worldwide recognition. Yet despite this, she is described to be highly reclusive and does not even have her own website. =)
Award-winning illustrator Anne Spudvilas, thankfully, has her own website. Aside from being a children’s book illustrator and a painter, she also has another interesting job: a courtroom artist for the Melbourne media (source here)! How exciting. I also discovered from her website that her very first picture book The Race was awarded the Crichton Award for Illustration and CBCA (Children’s Book Council of Australia) Honour Book. Her paintings and charcoal sketches … breathtakingly astounding.
Video Clip of the Book. I am glad I was able to find this lovely youtube link that would give you a feel of what Woolvs in the Sitee is like. Definitely not for the faint-hearted. The mystery remains even after you have closed the book, making you wonder…
Enjoy the videoclip.