It’s seems strange to say that different countries produce different flavors of children’s literature, but it’s true. The Dutch books feel one way, the Japanese another. And the French books… well, where else could we have gotten the setting of Madeline or the writing of Nicholas? Recently I haven’t seen many French works of children’s literature. They don’t get published this side of the pond as often as they might, but once in a while one or two slip through. Most recently, in has slipped an understated but infinitely charming little series starring two wolves with childlike neuroses. Big Wolf and Little Wolf comes straight from the sunny shores of France and for those parents looking for a new sibling book, this may be one of the less common alternatives out there. One of the sweeter too.
Big Wolf lives under a tree alone, and he likes it that way. That is, until Little Wolf arrives. Small and blue and unassuming, Big Wolf does not turn away the little fellow but he does watch him. When it’s cold at night, he offers a small corner of his blanket. When he exercises, he allows Little Wolf to exercise with him. And as he grows more comfortable with the small fellow, he grows fond of him. So it’s as much a shock to him as to anyone when Little Wolf leaves and Big Wolf is left feeling abandoned. Fortunately, all works out well in the end, the two wolves realizing that they need one another, even if it’s not immediately obvious.
In a lot of ways this is one great big metaphor for getting a new sibling. There’s someone new, they’re smaller than you, and they seem to want to do everything you do. So you tolerate their presence for a time, but if they were actually to go away permanently you’d feel just terrible. You can’t help but love how insecure Big Wolf is too. He’s constantly afraid that Little Wolf is going to best him in some way. That he might be bigger, or a better climber, or be superior in any way, shape, or form. The fact that Little Wolf simply could not be more unthreatening never seems to occur to the larger fellow. He’s so desperate to be superior, that when Little Wolf takes off, the emotional vacuum he leaves behind catches the big guy entirely out of the blue. One does have to wonder what Little Wolf is getting out of this relationship, but if the book’s a sibling metaphor anyway then Little Wolf is just content to bask in the presence of his big hero.
There’s a bit of hyperbole to the language at times. Big Wolf, seeing that Little Wolf is gone, “felt uneasy for the first time in his life.” Seems a bit much at first, but the book is like that from the start. After all, the first two sentences read, “Big Wolf lived alone under his tree at the top of a hill. It had always been that way.” And for kids, the way something is is the way something has ALWAYS been. The heart of the book seems to have arrived in English unscathed. Claudia Bedrick is the translator and it would be interesting to compare the original French to what she has written here. She seems to do a good job, reprinting lines like, “For the first time he said to himself that a little one, indeed a very little one, had taken up space in his heart. A lot of space.” It’s difficult to write an emotion of that sort without becoming schmaltzy, and I don’t necessarily think that Brun-Cosme has done a bad job of it. But it would still be interesting to compare it to the original phrase.
Tallec’s illustrations are a strange but rather delightful mix of mediums. If you’ll notice, Big Wolf is drawn with what appears to be colored pencils or graphite over a paint wash. You get glimpses of the backgrounds of scenes through his fur sometimes. Also, the occasional swish of paint will run up his body on the outside, depending on the scene, but generally there is a free hand to his design. Little Wolf, on the other hand, is rendered in thick blue paints. Both wolves express most of their emotions through their eyes. Mouths will appear on occasion, but they’re usually just cursory slashes across the face. Eyes are entirely different. When Big Wolf shares a corner of his leaf blanket with Little Wolf, one eye is closed and another cocked open, curious. In another scene we get a close-up of Big Wolf’s face as he shields his eyes in an attempt to see into the distance for Little Wolf. Those same eyes are wide and white and desperate. Or there is the scene before that when he sits next to the tree. Big Wolf’s body curves in a sideways U of pain and disbelief. Dejection is apparent in his shape, and the slightest curve of his eyebrows. This could almost be a silent book without words and it would still make a fair amount of sense, thanks to Tallec’s grasp of universal emotions and images.
Will kids dig it? Some will. It’s a lovely story, and it’s hard not to grow attached to the characters and their expressive little eyeballs. I doubt there’s a child out there who will grasp the fact that this is about learning to love small interlopers. Instead, they’ll just understand this to be a tale of suspicion, love, loss, and family. Worth a gander, and sweet in all the right ways. A keeper.
On shelves now.
Source: Review copy sent from publisher.
Notes on the Cover: I find this entirely enchanting. Nothing could sum the book up better. On the one hand you have Big Wolf walking along, seeming not to notice Little Wolf behind him. But one hand has strayed back and is offering Little Wolf an apple. Big Wolf’s eyes are focused forward, but he’s betraying his interest in the well being of Little Wolf with a movement that’s so casual it’s calculated.
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