Wolves get a lot of bad PR in fairy tales: they menace grandmothers and little pigs, snack on sheep, and stalk cute kiddies who get lost in the woods. The five stories in There’s a Wolf at the Door may not do much to change our perception of wolves as the “bad guy” in “The Three Little Pigs” or “Little Red Riding Hood,” but at least we know who that wolf is—it’s the same wolf in every story, in case you were wondering—and what sort of fellow he is—a dandy, judging by his fondness for top hats and waistcoats.
There’s a Wolf at the Door
By Zoe Alley, Illustrations by R. W. Alley
Roaring Brook Press, 40 pp.
Ages 4 to 8
The husband-and-wife team of Zoe and R. W. Alley bring a whimsical touch to five well-known stories: “The Three Little Pigs,” “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing,” and “The Wolf and the Seven Little Goslings.” Though they are faithful to the versions we know best, courtesy of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson, they take a few liberties that will please kids and parents alike. Animal lovers will be happy to learn that Wolf survives all five stories, escaping the huntsman’s axe and the piglets’ cauldron, while parents will enjoy the gentle pop culture satire.
In “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” for example, Alley depicts the shepherd as a frustrated young actor, desperate for an audience. His flock functions as a kind of wooly Greek chorus, rolling their eyes at the shepherd’s naked pleas for attention and banding together to fend off Wolf’s advances. (Judging by their fondness for elaborate formations, I’m guessing the flock owns a copy of A Close Shave.) “Little Red Riding Hood” is portrayed in a similarly narcissistic fashion: in Alley’s telling, Riding Hood is obsessed with clothing and accessories to such a degree that she initially views the nattily-attired Wolf as a kindred spirit, not a hungry predator. Like the shepherd in “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” however, Riding Hood comes to see the error of her ways in the nick of time.
The book’s real selling point, however, is the artwork. R. W. Alley is best known for such picture books such as Paddington Bear in the Garden, Paddington’s Christmas Surprise, and Detective Dinosaur. Though Wolf is billed as a “graphic novel,” Alley’s signature style remains unchanged. The illustrations are a mixture of delicate pen-and-ink lines and soft watercolors, punctuated by a few bright pops of color. His animals are cute and appealing, with expressive faces that anthropomorphize them more completely than making them wear clothing or walk upright. The backgrounds, too, are nicely rendered, offering just enough detail to give the stories a sense of place without overwhelming the composition.
If I had any criticism of the project, it’s this: the format sometimes feels like a gimmick. The Alleys rely heavily on an omniscient narrator to explain what’s happening, never quite trusting the illustrations to carry the burden of the storytelling. That’s a shame, because R. W. Alley has excellent comic book instincts, knowing when to go in for a close-up, when to vary the size or shape of a panel, and when to deploy a sound effect for maximum dramatic or comedic effect. His layout flows beautifully, yet the word balloons and narrative interventions sometimes render the images redundant. The publisher’s decision to fill those word balloons with a sterile font doesn’t help matters, either; though I’m not a purist about hand lettering, Wolf is one instance where I think it would serve the illustrations better than conventional typesetting.
That said, I would still heartily recommend There’s a Wolf at the Door. Its oversized pages, appealing illustrations, and sophisticated humor make it a perfect book for parents and kids to read together.
Cover illustration © 2008 Roaring Brook Press.