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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Wolf Hollow

***SPOILER WARNING***

This review and subsequent comments are sure to spoil the ending of this book as well as various plot points throughout.  If you don’t like spoilers and haven’t read it yet, read it and then come back and join the discussion.

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“The year I turned twelve, I learned how to lie.”

This book was love at first sentence for me.   We already have character,  suspense, and a hint of plot.  The prologue compelled me to read on.  It also felt relatable, immediately, to some of the current political situation here in the states and how a young person might be feeling about this world around us.  The story is grounded deeply in setting and time, but holds relevance to today’s young people dealing with bullies, with truth, with tyranny, with injustice and with fear on both a national stage and in their schools and communities.    Lies sometimes succeed.  Truth sometimes fails.  This is a lesson we are all learning.

Wolk’s writing is near perfection.  Short, powerful, and simple spare sentences.  Lovely poetic turn of phrase.  Always saying just what needs to be said – no more and no less.  Providing all the detail needed, without losing her audience in unnecessary description.

One of the strengths of this book is the narrator’s voice.  The story is told in past-tense as Annabelle looks back at this time in her life.  Although the narration has an adult feel to it – nostalgic, analytical – it still maintains enough of the 12-year-old Annabelle for a young audience to connect.  The author shows great respect for this audience by trusting them to understand without being talked down to in spite of the gravity of theme and plot and complexity of morality.  What a gift.

The narration includes powerful foreshadowing.  The title tells us that the name Wolf Hollow is important and the book nearly opens with the description of how the town got its name and a grandfather’s assessment that “A wolf is not a dog and never will be,” “no matter how you raise it.”  Then enters Betty, a wolf if ever there was one.  It is clear that Betty is beyond a bully and is something more sinister, less forgivable, and maybe, in a way, less morally complex.  We don’t know anything about her past or what led her to where she is, but we do know that death is of no concern to her, and we learn this early on when she kills a quail in her bare hands.  Is she evil?  Is she disturbed?  Is she the product of a hard childhood?  These questions aren’t answered.  But at the end of the book she, like the wolves the hollow is named after, is dead in a pit.

There is no relief in this book.  No break in the razor sharp suspense and no levity.  Some may see this as a flaw, but I see this as an incredibly brave and powerful choice.  It is a choice to take the reader on a dark journey with a dark ending that leaves as many questions as it does answers.   It trusts the reader to be thoughtful and capable.

I know that I would love to see this book with a sticker.

 

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Sharon McKellar About Sharon McKellar

Sharon McKellar is the Community Relations Librarian for the Oakland Public Library in California. She has served on the Rainbow List Committee, the Notable Children's Recordings Committee as well as the 2015 Caldecott Committee. You can reach her at sharon@mckellar.org.

Comments

  1. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    I liked this one very much, too! I listened to it on audiobook, and look forward to reading the print edition. In case you couldn’t tell by the 5 banner ads on the Heavy Medal page, this one is a serious contender. 😉

    • Sharon McKellar Sharon McKellar says:

      I had to turn off my ad blocker to see what you meant, and oh boy!

    • I gather advertisers can request the page they want to appear on?

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        I would assume. It’s interesting, though, since Penguin has some other strong contenders this year in THE BEST MAN and THE INQUISITOR’S TALE (which is published by Dutton, the same imprint). I do agree with them that WOLF HOLLOW is their strongest contender, but it’s still interesting to see the putting-all-the-marketing-eggs-in-one-basket strategy. I notice the ads changed this morning to THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON, a book I liked very much. Time to talk about that one!

      • Leonard Kim says:

        If memory serves correctly, prior to WOLF HOLLOW, both THE BEST MAN and THE INQUISITOR’S TALE had runs in the ad space here.

        I loved THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON, top 3 novel and top 5 overall choice for me.

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        Ah, I think I must not have noticed it then, meaning I’ve noticed them before but didn’t notice that occasionally all the ads were for the same book . . .

  2. Love at first sentence is the perfect description, Sharon.

    Exquisite writing, a beautifully rendered setting, a clearly delineated (and difficult theme), inviting characterization, and a knock-out, ambiguous ending – all those unanswered questions!

    Voice, tone, pace, plot: it’s all here. To call this book a powerhouse is, in my estimation, an understatement. It gives readers so much to think about and it does so without talking down to them. Although the violence is a bit brutal (the eye sequence just about did me in), it works so well in the context of the theme and the message Wolk is delivering. Plus, I didn’t think any character could be more vicious than Ada’s mom in last year’s WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE, but boy… Betty is one of the most sinister characters I’ve ever encountered in lit!

    Although I have many other favorites this year, I wouldn’t at all be disappointed if this one wins the big gold.

    And I know it doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things, but my Mock Newbery kids are loving this one big time. I have a feeling it’ll go all the way.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      I think feedback from children will be important for this book, so I am glad to hear this. I agree with everyone who thinks this one of the strongest books of the year, perhaps the strongest, but am not sure how it holds up in the “presentation for children” department. I worry that “trust” and “respect” for the audience suggests difficulties that may not help its chances. (And since we are frequently referring back to The Hired Girl discussion, I note that arguments to “trust” the reader didn’t really seem to fly with those arguing against it.)

      I frequently discuss books with my town’s childrens’ book store owner, and I’m just going to quote our e-mail correspondence about WOLF HOLLOW. She agreed this was a “remarkable” book and wrote, ” I think children will want to read it, although I confess I’ll have a hard time handing it to many, but I will try.”

      Trying to be as critical as we could, she wrote: “Annabelle’s mix of giving in and standing up is a good mix: she’s credible, except it was hard for me to believe she couldn’t go to her family a little sooner. That Toby had to die was too clear from early on; I guess somehow that would be my complaint. Another might be allowing us to have no feeling at all for Betty…Aunt Lily is another flaw for me; she’s too much of a caricature. But those are small complaints.”

      I responded, “I think I felt something for Betty – that the poison ivy happened fairly early on suggested to me that she was a person and not an inexorable plot device; bad things do happen to her, and I was a little surprised but appreciative that the author did kill her off. Decisions like that made me, unlike you, hold out hope that Wolk wouldn’t sacrifice Toby. [NB. I agree Toby’s death is arguably too obvious a route for a book of this complexity]. Also, I think Betty’s relationship with the boy whose name I don’t remember felt genuine – and he clung loyally to her, even as Annabelle extracted the confession from him. That too gave her some humanity, even though they were partners in awfulness.

      I wasn’t too put out by when Annabelle did or didn’t go to her parents (something Bird also pointed out) and I credit Wolk for having her do it eventually (otherwise it really would have been too unbelievable.) There was one part when my [credulity] was strained that almost took me out of the book – when Annabelle finds Toby returned unaware to his place after Betty goes missing. I actually couldn’t understand what she was thinking when she proceeded to put him in hiding. Didn’t make sense to me.

      Aunt Lily – her last minute change of heart about Toby seemed a little forced to me. I thought her infatuation with cleaned-up Toby did far more to make her less of a caricature – it was unexpected but plausible to me and fleshed her out a little, even if it was a silly touch. [NB. I would point to this as a touch of “levity” in this book]”

      • You know, Leonard, Aunt Lily’s transformation was a little ragged for me, too, but I agree with your “levity” comment.

        Last year, we talked a lot about the rosey ending of THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE. I don’t think we resolved much about it, but my own impression is that *I* needed the happy ending – even if it was pat, even if it was contrived, even if it did seem forced. I personally needed Ada and Jamie to be okay, so I could forgive the deus ex machina.

        My resolve for WOLF HOLLOW was similar. When I finished, I thought, “Gee, the title of this book should really be Everyone You Love or Hate Will Die and Death Will Swallow Us All No Matter What, So Get Used To It. (I think WOLF HOLLOW just really rolled off the tongue better). Anyway, with so much weight – so much pressing, pressing weight, the symbolism of wolves/Betty As Wolf is heavy stuff – something good has to come from all of it, even if it’s just a tiny sliver of good – like Lily changing her mind on a dime. Annabelle needs that kind of clarity.

        Is it perhaps too convenient? Maybe. But I think all good children’s books offer a glimmer of hope. And that’s Annabelle’s hope: that if Aunt Lily can change, maybe – just maybe – people like Betty can change, too. (Or she, Annabelle, can change.)

  3. Michael Clark says:

    The is an exceptional book and the emotional journey it takes you on had me crying my eyes out by the end. It did a great job of capturing the landscape of Western Pennsylvania and the spareness which reverberated in the text fit the story to a “T”.

  4. Didn’t think anything could top the beautiful writing in PAX this year, then I read WOLF HOLLOW.

    I was fully absorbed, as an adult. However, my gut reaction was that this was a book for adults, with a child narrator. I’m going to give it a go as a read aloud to my fifth graders. I’m curious to see what they have to say.

    As for specifics, there isn’t much I don’t love about this book, but if I’m getting picky, there was something uncomfortable to me about Annabelle and Toby’s relationship. I believe her mother hinted to it at one point as well, so maybe this was *supposed* to be uncomfortable (‘respect for children’s understandings’). After she cuts his hair and disguises him, I felt that his transformation to Jordan was too sudden. Strange in a way. But I guess, it is Toby. That’s why I wrote it off.

    So many details added so many layers of complexity to the book. I loved the revelation about Toby’s guns, for example.

    As for Betty, I agree with Joe. I haven’t read anyone more sinister. Even on her death bed, literally, she still is lying, going all in. Awfully difficult to have any sympathy for her. Even with poison ivy. Is that good for kids? Will that impact ‘respect for children’s understandings?’

    • I think that’s a good point, Mr. H, in your last paragraph, but I also think moral ambiguity is really something children see around them every day. We (adults) tell them to be kind to each other and then nominate presidential candidates who denigrate other people, lie, etc. They may see injustices in their own households: favoritism toward a sibling, broken promises, etc. while being told to be fair and honest themselves.

      Perhaps I’m projecting a bit here, but I believe it may be good for children to see this moral ambiguity in character development. If characters weren’t complex, that doesn’t reflect the real world. This is one of the things I loved about last year’s GOODBYE STRANGER: characters did things – awful things – and didn’t really suffer consequences. Similarly, characters did things – minor things – and suffer mightily. There’s no sharp line that’s drawn between the two, and that’s really important for kids to see. Grimm’s fairy tales teach us the same thing.

      A moral ambiguity parallel this year could be drawn to GHOST. Ghost steals shoes, and his punishment is a chiding from his coach (and a brief “you don’t get to run with the team period”) and the kindness of a clerk who, perhaps, recognizes the desperation in Ghost. So his punishment is a little self-loathing and a coach who winds up buying the shoes. Is this real life? Perhaps for some. But others might never get caught, suffer no consequences, or get thrown into juvie. I think Reynolds’ punishment for Ghost itself presents moral ambiguity – an option for children to make the judgment call themselves (which I would argue is the best kind of literature).

      Similarly, Betty is rotten to the end. Some people are like that. No matter what happens to them – even in the throes of death – there is no redemption, no enlightenment, no learning. They’re just horrid people through and through. Perhaps children see these qualities in people they know: a violent, alcoholic parent; a teacher who is merciless to even the kindest student; a class bully. Therefore, I do think Wolk hits the “respect for children’s understanding” because children are constantly trying to understand the world around them: the lovely, the transcendent, the wretched, the unfair, the ambiguous.

      I had totally forgotten about the haircutting/transformation into Jordan. That was a little weird and icky. I’ll have to think about it some more, but I do agree that it does play into the whole The Toby Situation Is Just Really Complicated On So Many Fronts.

  5. Just happened to come in to school this AM and see a student (4th grader) with this book. He’s about a 1/5 and is liking it. By and large to date his reading material has largely been GNs so I was intrigued by this selection. He said he’d been interested in it. Told him adults wondered what kids’ response would be so I’ll ask him to write his when he is done.

    I’m thinking it is very much suited for a child audience even as it resonates for adults as well. As we have discussed here before, kids read at whatever emotional developmental level they are at. While, of course, the real committee can’t do this, it makes me think a bit of Moon over Manifest in terms of setting, characterizations, and elegant writing.

  6. So glad to hear children’s reactions to WOLF HOLLOW – I loved it but hated to see it be one of those Newberys that children don’t enjoy. I have this one as one of my top 5, so far….

  7. Hannah Mermelstein says:

    FWIW, I’ve mentioned to some of my students who have read Wolf Hollow that adults overwhelmingly love it but are uncertain whether kids will, and they have all said, “What?! It’s so good!” (These are 5th and 6th graders.)

    • Sharon McKellar Sharon McKellar says:

      Thanks for that, Hannah. I know some people are questioning that, but it seems obvious to me that there is absolutely a child audience for this book.

  8. I agree with most of the commentators above. The only criticism, which I think some have hinted it above, is that for me Toby was more of a literary contrivance than a character. I had trouble seeing him as a person. However, this was not enough to spoil the book.
    Interestingly, for me this book was kind of a throwback to the kind of children’s books which were popular when I was growing up in the 70s, when there were often themes in which a child’s world intersected with the adult world in a way which involved killing or death. (These books were often set on farms, too.) A Day No Pigs Would Die, for example.

  9. I also fell in love with WOLF HOLLOW. It is truly one of the most memorable and exciting books I’ve read in a long time – not just for the plot, but also, as Sharon mentioned, for the symbolism behind the title. I read the first chapter of WOLF HOLLOW to several fifth grade classes last spring and they were enthralled. As others have mentioned, children can relate instantly to dealing with bullies. When I spoke to some of my classes about how exciting the writing was for me – that the first chapter introduces something which will undoubtedly become a metaphor for something later in the story (which was then immediately solidified in the beginning of the second chapter, when Betty blocks Annabelle’s path out of Wolf Hollow), they became really excited about it too. In fact, one of my voracious fifth grade readers borrowed it to read that afternoon and returned it the next day, after having stayed up late finishing it. She was just as excited about it as I was, for the same reasons, and she proceeded to draw several more connections between Betty and the wolves of Wolf Hollow that I hadn’t even seen. Since beginning my Newbery Club in August I’ve had several fifth graders who loved the book, particularly for its intensity. I got the impression from them that they really appreciated reading something that respected their ability to handle difficult subjects. That being said, I have also had a couple of fourth graders read the book who cited the intensity as the very reason they did NOT like the book. In equal measure, I think they felt somewhat betrayed by the difficult subjects. I think, as with any book, this is the absolute perfect read for many, but not the right fit for many others. I don’t think that should take it out of consideration for the Newbery Medal or an honor recognition, unless the committee as a majority feels that every winner needs to be appropriate for younger readers. Today, when my Newbery club discussed what makes a book distinguished, we referenced a Helen Exley quote; “Books can be dangerous. The best ones should be labeled ‘This could change your life.'” Several of my club members have talked about WOLF HOLLOW as a book that changed their perception of books. The very things Sharon mentioned above, that “Lies sometimes succeed. Truth sometimes fails,” were things they inherently knew, but had not really seen in books they’d read before. I think beyond the sheer beauty of the writing, beyond the tension and perfect pacing of the plot, and beyond the threads of symbolism and imagery around the meaning of the title woven throughout, WOLF HOLLOW excels at showing respect for the audience for which it is intended. It is not intended for all children, but for those that know what it’s about, feel drawn to it, and fall in love with it as so many of us have, it’s a rare treasure, and well worthy of medal recognition.

    • How very well-spoken, Susan! I, too, loved this one, for it’s handling of a difficult subject in beautifully written pages. I like the fact that it expects something of its readers — and I would love to see this book with a sticker!

  10. I know this will probably be discussed as part of the site’s shortlist discussion, but I didn’t want to wait until then to bring this up…

    I may have stumbled upon a continuity issue within the timeline and plot of WOLF HOLLOW. I wonder if anyone else has noticed it, or given thought to it, or can set me straight in case I missed something.

    On page 40, when Annabelle is bringing Toby some food, he hands her a spool of film to develop. This is BEFORE the incident with Ruth and the rock. On page 84, Annabelle asks Aunt Lily if she’s sent in Toby’s film. To my knowledge, not much time has passed in the story in the prior 40 pages so she is referring to the roll of film Toby handed her on page 40. This is AFTER the incident with Ruth and the rock.

    Then, on page 122, Aunt Lily hands over a set of pictures that came in the mail for Toby. One of the pictures is of the schoolhouse and Mr. Ansel and Ruth lying in the road. This is a significant moment because it is the only evidence outside of Betty’s story that places Toby on that hill and makes him suspect number one.

    My question is, I think we are led to believe that this roll of film is THE roll of film he hands Annabelle in the beginning of the story on page 40. Even if it’s not, it has to be. Toby and Annabelle have not interacted much in the story since that moment. Not much time has passed.

    So my question is, how could a picture of Ruth lying in the road be on the roll of film Toby hands Annabelle, when that event hadn’t happened yet?

    Is this a gaff on Wolk’s part? Or are we to assume that more time has passed and Toby brings Annabelle film all the time? Because really, that’s not how it reads.

    Thoughts?

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      Fatal flaw! 😉

      • Haha!

        It doesn’t really change my feelings toward the quality of the writing in the book, but in a way, it does kind of taint an otherwise distinguished delineation of plot. If it is in fact, an error, it’s kind of a big one in my opinion. This moment sets a lot of things in motion in the story.

        As I said, it’s highly possible I missed something, but I don’t think I am 😉 I’m curious if anyone else noticed this. Or if we are just to assume that the family is always mailing in film for Toby and sometime between the Ruth incident (pg. 65) and page 80, he’s handed in film off the page. I’m not sure I buy that. Not a lot of time passes. The way Annabelle asks Aunt Lily if she’s mailed it makes me think she’s referring to the roll he hands her on page 40… How does the committee talk through errors like thsi? Do they matter?

    • Sharon McKellar Sharon McKellar says:

      I didn’t notice the error at the time, but when I re-read I’m going to pay close attention to this. Real committee, if they notice such a thing (or, for example, read about it here) will almost certainly bring it up and discuss it. Then it just becomes a question of whether or not that kind of an error makes the book less distinguished (I’d argue yes) and if so, does it make it enough less distinguished to lower its place among the year’s best (I’d maybe argue no, but I’m not sure yet).

      Each committee might handle those questions differently and the discussion will go differently depending on who is in the room. If Wolf Hollow gets a medal it definitely doesn’t mean this wasn’t discussed, it might just mean it was discussed and the committee still found the book to be the most distinguished of the year.

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