‘Wolf Won’t Bite!’ and ‘Virginia Wolf’
From “Wolf Won’t Bite!”
By PAMELA PAUL
Published: March 21, 2012
WOLF WON’T BITE!
Written and illustrated by Emily Gravett
32 pp. Simon & Schuster. $16.99. (Picture book; ages 2 to 6)
By Kyo Maclear
Illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault
32 pp. Kids Can Press. $16.95. (Picture book; ages 5 to 1
In “Wolf Won’t Bite!” Emily Gravett (the author of last year’s “Blue Chameleon” and of “The Odd Egg,” a 2009 New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book) carries the wolf’s torment to its logical (or illogical) limit. With zero explanation, three feisty little pigs, one dressed as a ringmaster, one in a tutu and a third dressed as a carny strongman, coerce a long-suffering gray wolf into performing circus tricks but assure their audience, “Wolf won’t bite.”
“I can make him dance a jig but ... Wolf won’t bite!” the tutu’ed pig declares as her strongman and ringmaster companions sound off on a tuba and an accordion. “I can miss him every time,” the blindfolded strongman brags as he throws knives at the frightened wolf. It is only when the three pigs foist themselves head-first into his gaping jaws that the wolf is unendurably tempted — who can blame him? — to take a bite.
Gravett’s story advances without rhyme or reason, and the pigs, who appear on a wide-open white background, resemble Ian Falconer’s Olivia a pig’s hair too much, but young readers won’t mind. This is a story that upends the established good guys/baddie paradigm, and there’s always fun in that.
Operating on a much deeper and darker level, “Virginia Wolf,” an ambitious story about girlish blues, sisterly differences and the healing power of art, will do wonders for Woolf-besotted former English majors. But the story, about Virginia and her sister, Vanessa, who paints a fantastical world called Bloomsberry, will work equally well for children who hardly know the difference between the United States and the United Kingdom.
Kyo Maclear, a Canadian author, tells the story from Vanessa’s perspective. “One day my sister Virginia woke up feeling wolfish,” she notes. “She made wolf sounds and did strange things.” What follows are Virginia’s endless complaints and Vanessa’s efforts to cheer and assuage her. “The whole house sank. Up became down. Bright became dim,” is how Vanessa describes an imagined episode from Woolf’s depressed youth.
Isabelle Arsenault, who won a Times Best Illustrated award last year for her work on “Migrant,” by Maxine Trottier, imaginatively and deliciously depicts a child’s inner world by altering her outward appearance. Here, Virginia is seen in bed with wolf’s ears peeking out against the pillowcase. Her dark mood is shown in a stream of silhouetted girlish paraphernalia — upended teddy bears, books, a stool and flowers — strewn across a blue page along with topsy-turvy wolf-girl Virginia.
And then, gloriously, Virginia’s dream world of “Bloomsberry” — “a perfect place” with “frosted cakes and beautiful flowers and excellent trees to climb and absolutely no doldrums” — appears as a cornucopia of delicate swirls and imagined treats that emerge from the wolf girl’s heart.
The story blooms in full color when Vanessa decides to paint this Bloomsberry retreat and the two girls enter that artistic realm. Virginia tells stories. “The whole house lifted,” Vanessa says. “Gloom became glad.” And the figure of Virginia finally emerges from her dark silhouette, her wolf ears transformed into a pretty blue bowtie atop her head.