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The Children and the Wolves

The Children and the Wolves by Adam Rapp
Candlewick, February 2012
Reviewed from a final copy

I’ve never read an Adam Rapp book before, so I volunteered for this one. Volunteered! I said, sure, I will read it. Oh, you guys. I mean, I thought I was prepared. I tried to be ready. And this book was exactly what I thought it would be, so…I guess that means I was as ready and prepared as I could be? Maybe? I might also be a little broken inside, though.

So: Bounce, Orange, and Wiggins are three middle schoolers who meet in detention. Bounce is the ring leader who provides drugs from her rich, successful, and usually absent parents. Her latest plan: to kidnap a four year old (whom they call the Frog), chain her in the basement, and go door-to-door raising money for her rescue. The Frog spends her time in the basement playing a video game that gives the novel its title. Orange is happy to go along with any idea Bounce has — and she has more of them as the book goes on. Wiggins is uncomfortable with their actions, but isn’t quite sure what to do. 

This is exactly what you would expect from Adam Rapp: dark, disturbing, memorable, horrific, and beautifully written. Told in only 152 pages, there’s not a wasted word or image. Rapp tells the story in the voices of the four characters. Bounce is highly verbal, extremely sarcastic, bitingly angry. Orange and Wiggins sound a bit similar at first: muddled, defensive, hungry for attention and love. As Wiggins grows more disturbed through the course of the novel, however, his unease manifests in his increasingly damaged voice. Frog’s fragmented but poetic chapters are haunting, although the game descriptions seem a little too difficult for a four year old to play. (However, I consider that a minor criticism; it fits so well thematically and adds such an effective mirror to this already horrific story that I can’t imagine the book without it.) While this is a book that hurts to read, it’s also beautifully written.

I have to give props for the completely unlikeable characters Rapp has created. They are…well, they are vile. But it’s also not really that simple. They are also fiercely loyal to each other (Orange and Wiggins are; Bounce is something else again). The three teenagers don’t have anyone else looking out for them. Their teachers don’t even seem to see them (or are unable to help them). Their parents are trapped in their own  stories and have no energy or ability to help. Bounce thinks of Orange and Wiggins as her own pet projects; she calls herself their “big momma River Guard” and prides herself on how maternal she is. Orange is grateful for the attention, drugs, and sexual favors Bounce offers. Wiggins is prepared to go along with terrible things because he truly has nothing else. It’s just not possible to write Orange and Wiggins off as characters; they do terrible things, yes, but they are also in terrible, tragic situations.

Bounce is a bit harder to grasp as a character. She is a terrifying emptiness, really. She lives in a big house that is essentially empty. She has no problem taking care of her “two wildebeests” and, it seems at the end, will have no problem leaving them for a posh private school. Her admissions essay chapter where she describes herself is so chilling and brutal and beautiful that I am not sure I could stop quoting it in this review once I start. But here; I’ll try:

“This girl pushes nature to an uncomfortable limit because she is not satisfied with what she is shown in school, on TV, on the Internet…She wants to know the shapes and odors of the world…She wants to know the way meat moves through the packaging house. The way the animal body contains liquids and solids. The way muscle attaches to tendons. Ligaments. She wants to know these things from the smells she acquires on her hands.”

The plan that Bounce hatches — to kidnap the Frog and get money — is nebulous, bizarre. Bounce could, presumably, just get the money from her parents. Or sell the pills they leave around the house. The details we see don’t make any sense, the logic of the plan doesn’t quite add up, and that makes it all the more frightening.

I am undecided about the ending. It’s stark and beautiful…and it also just stops. Well. It’s not an arbitrary ending, but there’s enough still up in the air or unclear that it feels unsatisfying. On the other hand, I’m not really sure where else this story could possibly have gone, and what else I expected from it. It manages to feel both unsatisfying and authentic. (Is that even a thing?)

You guys, I am running out of new ways to say “horrifying” in this review, and so I’m leaving it to the comments. I think this is a strong book and a likely contender, although I’m not convinced that the ending quite works. I also am not ready to revisit it any time soon. Perhaps you can bring some clarity to the discussion.

About Sarah Couri

Sarah Couri is a librarian at Grace Church School's High School Division, and has served on a number of YALSA committees, including Quick Picks, Great Graphic Novels, and (most pertinently!) the 2011 Printz Committee. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, GCS, YALSA, or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @scouri or e-mail her at scouri35 at gmail dot com.


  1. Thanks for this – I think you’ve captured the essence quite well.

    It was a really rough read for me. Haunting and, well, horrifying. Might be the scariest book I’ve ever read!

  2. My mom and I talked about this book a few weeks ago ( and we both agreed that one real objective flaw in the book is the portrayal of Frog who does not come across as a convincing 4 year old in the least (I say this as the father of a 4 year, and the uncle of a 3 year old and a 6 year old). I thought it was a big problem.

    That being said, I was pretty impressed with this book. I kind of hate Adam Rapp for making me read his nihilism, but there is no doubt in my mind that he is really freaking good at it. I found all three main characters to be incredibly well drawn (the black humor of Bounce’s character was disconcertingly funny), especially Wiggins’s slow move towards some semblance of a conscience.

    • Sarah Couri says:

      Mark, thanks! I wondered about Frog. Four year olds seem so sophisticated to me that I didn’t really question it (my 18 month old is fascinated — fascinated! — by four year old Caillou when we allow screen time. I think part of the appeal for him is that Caillou can just do so much!).

  3. I just couldn’t forgive Rapp for allowing a kid named Orange to wear georgetown shorts. How ever unlikable their actions were in the first 100 pages nothing made me cringe more or want to throw the book across the room as much as realizing I’d been reading the inner thoughts of someone who would willingly wear hoya colors. His name was Orange!!! Why would Rapp do this. It wasn’t based in Washington DC there’s no reason for this detail, other than to make the character even more repulsive (as if kidnapping a 4 year old wasn’t bad enough). UGH

  4. I read this Friday night and I was glad it’s so short simply because it’s so unpleasant. I think someone could convince me to support this one, but I would probably not champion it myself because I’m so unsure of my reaction. Am I not seeing the qualities of the writing clearly because I disliked the characters so? Or am I overrating it in an effort to compensate for my discomfort? I can see some of the themes Rapp is working with – anti-consumerism, violence in our entertainment culture, what happens to the kids (from both ends of the financial/social spectrum) who fall through the cracks? What I can’t decide is how effectively Rapp presents those themes. If I were on the committee, I’d have to reread this one a couple times to clarify my feelings, but I’d probably wait for someone else to support it before doing so because there are just so very many books to read.

  5. I think Mark nailed it with “I kind of hate Adam Rapp for making me read his nihilism, but there is no doubt in my mind that he is really freaking good at it.”

  6. My problem with this book is that I hated it. I hated the plot the characters and only at that ending did I find anything of a reward for reading it. That said, as I think about it, I also think that the friendship of Bounce, Orange and Wiggins never seemed real. I never saw their humanity or could get why they were on a team. And, yeah, that 4 year old is not believeable.

    BUT– and it’s where I come back to time and again on this title– do I nitpick it to death because I hated reading it? Or did the nitpicks that pulled me out of the book cause me to hate it?

  7. I liked this one! I wanted to know more about Frog though, and what happened when she was returned. But I guess the book wasn’t about that. I was totally pissed at Bounce.

  8. This is one of several books I carry around in my willow basket* and press on potential readers. It isn’t for everyone. As several respondents have noted, it is bleak–scalding and bleak. I found it a completely immersive reading experience, and it is Rapp’s control of language that made it so. I would describe the operation of this book as mythopoetic, and I argue that the “flaws” of voice in 3-yr-old Frog and her too-early lost tooth are not flaws at all but serving mythopoesis. It reminded me of both “The Book of Everything” by Kuijer and “Nothing” by Teller. There were times when both of those books shook the dust of realism off their feathers, and that is what I think Rapp did as well.

    (*Other books in my basket are “Monstrous Beauty,” “Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl,” and “Deceit.” I’m not a librarian; I’m a crazy woman with a basket.)

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