Children’s librarians spend, I’d say, at least 2% of their lives reading pictures books (it’d be longer, but those puppies are blessedly short). And I suspect that reading that many of them does something to your brain. You notice patterns. You pick up on weirdnesses. And sometimes, once in a great big while, you crack. There is a kind of picture book out there (and I’m looking at YOU, Miss Spider) where a creature goes against its god-given normal instincts and goes from predator to silly happy friend. Even if you can’t recall one off the top of your head I’m sure that you’ve seen those books where some poor carnivorous wretch is left bereft and alone because everyone assumes that they are going to eat them. Then, by the end of the story, the creature somehow proves itself to be a sweet and happy fellow; everything is sunshine and roses, la-di-da-di-da. Read enough of these and you find that you’ve been unconsciously tearing out the follicles on your head, one by one, in an effort to distract yourself from the pain of dealing with the book. Fortunately, there is a balm for your swollen noggin, and even better it’s British. Footprints in the Snow by Mei Matsuoka manages to balance out the sweet with the knowing and in doing so comes up with a book faithful to the predator and honest with the prey.
Wolf’s enjoying a nice snowy day inside, eating his milk and cookies, reading his books about wolves. Yet as he reads Wolf realizes something. Wolves in books have been getting a pretty bum rap. If they’re not frightening boys who cry wolf then they’re dressing up as grannies or swallowing live pigs. Determined to take matters into his own hands (paws, whatever) he declares, “I think it’s time somebody wrote a story about a NICE wolf.” So begins the story of (what else?) Mr. Nice Wolf. In this tale, Mr. Nice Wolf sees some tracks in the snow and decides to investigate. His queries about the owner of the feet meet with fear from various animals that doubt his intent in finding “a new friend”. And when at last he finally sees the footprints’ owner… let’s just say the instincts of Mr. Nice Wolf and his author can’t compete with good intentions at the end of the day.
The easy comparison here is with Jon Scieszka’s award winning The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs, which isn’t entirely fair. I mean, yes in both books the wolves want to set the record straight on how they’re viewed in literature. And yes, in both cases the wolves pretty much come off looking the worse for wear because of their efforts. But Matsuoka’s story has a very different tone than Scieszka’s. Not a better tone or a worse tone. Just a different one. A subdued, chuckle-into-your-hot-cocoa one.
Really, one of the things I enjoyed about this book was that it didn’t go 180 degrees in the opposite direction of those saccharine-laden everybody-loves-everybody books. How easily it could have ended up as some nasty, sardonic, sarcastic, almost kid-inappropriate collection of bile. That happens to picture books a lot of the time too, and really it’s the best books that strike a perfect balance between the cute and the postmodern. Plus you need a book that a kid is going to enjoy without making the adult reader inclined to pitch the pages against the wall. Matsuoka’s text does this. There’s something restrained about the writing. Wolf has a very sensible approach to the dearth of nice wolves in picture books. I mean, why not write your own book if there’s a gap in the market? The fact that he ultimately fails in his endeavor just endears him to the reader even more (how can you dislike a guy who pounces on his rubber ducky in a fit of hunger?). In this book the sweetness of the character is perfectly balanced out by the carnivorousness of his nature. Fabulous.
The art, for its part, employs a kind of mixed media and paint combo. For example, the scarf of Mr. Nice Wolf appears to be painted newsprint. The kind where an occasional letter will peep through unannounced. There are a lot of wood grains and instances where the sentences will curve around and about the images in the frame. Matsuoka also plays around a bit with fonts, particularly during the part where the different wolf books are discussed, giving the word “greedy” a nice plump look while “nasty” shakes and quivers with internal wormy wriggles.
Now I am a sucker for any picture book that has loads of details because I know all to well the pain of the bored parent. If your child’s favorite book of all time is as dull as dishwater then the poor adult reader is going to expire of boredom eventually. If, on the other hand, there are all kinds of nifty little nooks and crannies in the book before you, everybody wins. Mei Matsuoka doesn’t just provide you with nooks and crannies, though. There are practically whole side stories at work on the fringes of this text. Note, for example, that the front and back endpapers continue the story. I’ve seen author/illustrator Emily Gravett do the same thing with these seemingly superfluous pages, making me wonder whether or not this is a British thing. Then on the first two-page spread that shows the story beginning you see Wolf sitting in his cozy home, eating some cookies, surrounded by books and mice. On his shelves sit the stuffed versions of the animals that crop up later in his story, and to one end of the room are the pages he will write upon. As for the story he writes, at first you might assume that Wolf’s written pages would fill our own, but this is clearly not the case. As you go along you can see his pen or paw at the corners of the page. When the duck (the owner of the footprints) is finally spotted, a reference book showing duck prints for comparison’s sake sits at the top of the desk. There are tons of details of this sort peeking out here and there. It’s just up to the reader to find them.
I showed the cover of this book to a colleague not long ago and they stared at it in consternation. “Why is there a dog on the cover? I thought you said it was about a wolf.” “It is a wolf,” I explained. “It’s a dog,” they countered, and that was such a ripping riposte that I couldn’t think of much else to say. To be honest with you it does sort of look a bit like a dog when you get right down to it. I’m not sure how an artist is supposed to distinguish between dogs and wolves when their style is as bold as Matsuoka’s. Actually, if you go into the book you will see that the wolf writing the story is a nice stormy gray color. It’s the wolf protagonist, Mr. Nice Wolf, that is brown and dog-like.
The book might pair beautifully with another particularly nice readaloud title My Lucky Day by Keiko Kasza (particularly since both end with a knock at the door). Of course, in Kasza’s story the predator ends up losing out on the encounter whereas the ending of Footprints in the Snow suggests that maybe Wolf will fare better in his footstep following than his fictional creation. A good readaloud is a rarity, so I am pleased to announce this to be one of the best I’ve read all year. Visually enticing and effective when read in front of large groups, there’s something for everyone in this tasty morsel. Give it a try.
On shelves October 28th.
Want to know more about the author/illustrator Mei Matsuoka? Well you can go here if you like, and let me say for one that I think that she is adorable! Look at those cute little pigtails! She has a very cool website layout as well. The book part resembles the front endpapers of Footprints. People looking for web inspiration would do well to check it out.