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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: bully books, Most Recent at Top [Help]
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1. Review of the Day: Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

WolfHollowWolf Hollow
By Lauren Wolk
Dutton Children’s Books (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
ISBN: 978-1101994825
Ages 10 and up
On shelves now.

I am not what you might call a very brave reader. This is probably why I primarily consume children’s literature. I might puff myself up with a defense that lists the many fine aspects of this particular type of writing and believe it too, but sometimes when you catch me in a weak moment I might confess that another reason I like reading books for kids is that the content is so very “safe” in comparison to books for adults. Disturbing elements are kept at a minimum. There’s always a undercurrent of hope running through the book, promising that maybe we don’t live in a cold, cruel, calculating universe that cares for us not one jot. Even so, that doesn’t mean that I don’t sometimes have difficulty with books written for, oh say, 10-year-olds. I do. I’m not proud of it, but I do. So when I flipped to the back of Wolf Hollow mid-way through reading it, I want to tell you that I did so not because I wanted to spoil the ending for myself but because I honestly couldn’t turn another page until I knew precisely how everything was going to fall out. In her debut children’s book, Lauren Wolk dives head first into difficult material. A compelling author, the book is making the assumption that child readers will want to see what happens to its characters, even when the foreshadowing is so thick you’d need a knife to cut through it. Even when the ending may not be the happy one everyone expects. And you know what? The book might be right.

It is fair to say that if Betty Glengarry hadn’t moved to western Pennsylvania in the autumn of 1943 then Annabelle would not have needed to become a liar later. Betty looks the part of the blond, blue-eyed innocent, but that exterior hides a nasty spirit. Within days of her arrival she’s threatened Annabelle and said in no uncertain terms that unless she’s brought something special she’ll take it out on the girl’s little brothers. Annabelle is saved from Betty’s threats by Toby, a war veteran with issues of his own. That’s when Betty begins a more concentrated campaign of pain. Rocks are thrown. Accusations made. There’s an incident that comes close to beheading someone. And then, when things look particularly bad, Annabelle disappears. And so does Toby. Now Annabelle finds herself trying to figure out what is right, what is wrong, and whether lies can ever lead people to the truth.

Right off the bat I’m going to tell you that this is a spoiler-rific review. I’ve puzzled it over but I can’t for the life of me figure out how I’d be able to discuss what Wolk’s doing here without giving away large chunks o’ plot. So if you’re the kind of reader who prefers to be surprised, walk on.

All gone? Okay. Let’s get to it.

First and foremost, let’s talk about why this book was rough going for me. I understand that “Wolf Hollow” is going to be categorized and tagged as a “bully book” for years to come, and I get that. But Betty, the villain of the piece, isn’t your average mean girl. I hesitate to use the word “sadistic” but there’s this cold undercurrent to her that makes for a particularly chilling read. Now the interesting thing is that Annabelle has a stronger spine than, say, I would in her situation. Like any good baddie, Betty identifies the girl’s weak spot pretty quickly (Annabelle’s younger brothers) and exploits it as soon as she is able. Even so, Annabelle does a good job of holding her own. It’s when Betty escalates the threat (and I do mean escalates) that you begin to wonder why the younger girl is so adamant to keep her parents in the dark about everything. If there is any weak spot in the novel, it’s a weak spot that a lot of books for middle grade titles share. Like any good author, Wolk can’t have Annabelle tattle to her parents because otherwise the book’s momentum would take a nose dive. Fortunately this situation doesn’t last very long and when Annabelle does at last confide in her very loving parents Betty adds manipulation to her bag of tricks. It got to the point where I honestly had to flip to the back of the book to see what would happen to everyone and that is a move I NEVER do. But there’s something about Betty, man. I think it might have something to do with how good she is at playing to folks’ preexisting prejudices.

Originally author Lauren Wolk wrote this as a novel for adults. When it was adapted into a book for kids she didn’t dumb it down or change the language in a significant manner. This accounts for some of the lines you’ll encounter in the story that bear a stronger import than some books for kids. Upon finding the footsteps of Betty in the turf, Annabelle remarks that they “were deep and sharp and suggested that she was more freighted than she could possibly be.” Of Toby, “He smelled a lot like the woods in thaw or a dog that’s been out in the rain. Strong, but not really dirty.” Maybe best of all, when Annabelle must help her mother create a salve for Betty’s poison ivy, “Together, we began a brew to soothe the hurt I’d prayed for.”

I shall restrain myself from describing to you fully how elated I was when I realized the correlation between Betty down in the well and the wolves that were trapped in the hollow so very long ago. Betty is a wolf. A duplicitous, scheming, nasty girl with a sadistic streak a mile wide. The kind of girl who would be more than willing to slit the throat of an innocent boy for sport. She’s a lone wolf, though she does find a mate/co-conspirator of sorts. Early in the book, Wolk foreshadows all of this. In a conversation with her grandfather, Annabelle asks if, when you raised it right, a wolf could become a dog. “A wolf is not a dog and never will be . . . no matter how you raise it.” Of course you might call Toby a lone wolf as well. He doesn’t seek out the company of other people and, like a wolf, he’s shot down for looking like a threat.

What Wolk manages to do is play with the reader’s desire for righteous justice. Sure Annabelle feels conflicted about Betty’s fate in the will but will young readers? There is no doubt in my mind that young readers in bookclubs everywhere will have a hard time feeling as bad for the antagonist’s fate as Annabelle does. Even at death’s door, the girl manages the twist the knife into Toby one last time. I can easily see kids in bookclub’s saying, “Sure, it must be awful to be impaled in a well for days on end . . . . buuuut . . . .” Wolk may have done too good a job delving deep into Betty’s dark side. It almost becomes a question of grace. We’re not even talking about forgiveness here. Can you just feel bad about what’s happened to the girl, even if it hasn’t changed her personality and even if she’s still awful? Wolk might have discussed after Betty’s death the details of her family situation, but she chooses not to. She isn’t making it easy for us. Betty lives and dies a terrible human being, yet oddly we’re the ones left with the consequences of that.

In talking with other people about the book, some have commented about what it a relief it was that Betty didn’t turn into a sweet little angel after her accident. This is true, but there is also no time. There will never be any redemption for Betty Glengarry. We don’t learn any specific details about her unhappy home life or what it was that turned her into the pint-sized monster she is. And her death comes in that quiet, unexpected way that so many deaths do come to us. Out of the blue and with a whisper. For all that she spent time in the well, she lies until her very last breath about how she got there. It’s like the novel Atonement with its young liar, but without the actual atoning.

Wolk says she wrote this book and based much of it on her own family’s stories. Her memories provided a great deal of the information because, as she says, even the simplest life on a Pennsylvanian farm can yield stories, all thanks to a child’s perspective. There will be people who compare it to To Kill a Mockingbird but to my mind it bears more in common with The Crucible. So much of the book examines how we judge as a society and how that judgment can grow out of hand (the fact that both this book and Miller’s play pivot on the false testimony of young girls is not insignificant). Now I’ll tell you the real reason I flipped to the back of the book early. With Wolf Hollow Wolk threatens child readers with injustice. As you read, there is a very great chance that Betty’s lies will carry the day and that she’ll never be held accountable for her actions. It doesn’t work out that way, though the ending isn’t what you’d call triumphant for Annabelle either. It’s all complicated, but it was that unknowing midway through the book that made me need to see where everything was going. In this book there are pieces to pick apart about lying, truth, the greater good, minority vs. majority opinions, the price of honesty and more. For that reason, I think it very likely it’ll find itself in good standing for a long time to come. A book unafraid to be uneasy.

On shelves now.

Source: Thanks to Penguin Random House for passing on the galley.


0 Comments on Review of the Day: Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk as of 5/6/2016 1:45:00 AM
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2. The Case for Re-Illustration: William’s Doll by Charlotte Zolotow

I had just the loveliest dinner the other night with some high-falutin’ folks in the children’s literary biz.  Fine conversation and finer memories were tossed all about.  Yet I credit the devil on my right shoulder for suggesting to me the relative wisdom of my bringing up a long-standing belief that had been percolating in the back of my brain.  I believe I must have said something along the lines of this.

Betsy:  You know what would be great?  If Harper Collins had William’s Doll by Charlotte Zolotow re-illustrated.

To my companions’ credit they did not subsequently pelt me with dinner rolls, though there were a palpable sense of shock in the air.  At long last one turned to me and asked with great calm and presence of mind, “Has there ever been a successful re-illustration of a classic picture book?”

Well.  Um.  That is to say . . . . er.

Stumped!  I haven’t been that stumped since Peter Glassman asked me which Newbery Award winner illustrated a Newbery Award winning book by another author (answer at the end of this post).  I floundered about, then mentioned that I had never quite taken to the W.W. Denslow illustrations for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (another horror for some of you, I am sure, for another day).  “Oh no,”  she replied.  “Not a work of fiction.  A picture book.”

For a good ten minutes I sat there as the conversation drifted to other topics.  Eventually I was able to come up with at least one book (my crazed cry of “Never Tease a Weasel!!!” may have caused serious damage to the soup course) before admitting that when it comes to well-known classics, no.  I’ve never seen a successful re-illustration.

Which is not to say it couldn’t happen!  And if it absolutely 100% did have to happen (more on that presently) then it should happen to Charlotte Zolotow’s best known book.  William’s Doll. Copyright 1972.

Some background.

How many of you would count yourselves as members of the Free to Be You and Me generation?  If so, you may remember this old video from back in the day.  I sure as heck do.

It was based on Zolotow’s picture book and I distinctly remember seeing this as a kid and finding it extraordinarily interesting.  This may have had something to do with the fact that the original book sported a very different look.

Bowl haircut?  Check.  Neckerchief?  Check.  Bellbottoms?  Check.  Saddle shoes?  Check and check.  Yes, it seems that even when kids might have sported this look, I was more inclined to be interested in the kid wearing the sneakers, jeans and baseball cap in the Marlo Thomas production than the one featured in an honest-to-gosh book.

Now the illustrations for William’s Doll were done by the great William Pene du Bois, a man probably remembered best today for his Newbery Award winner Twenty-One Balloons (a wonderful video of THAT particular title can be seen here).  No one is going to contest that the man was a master artist.  And if this book were some timeless relic of the past I would have no trouble with the art. But here’s the thing: The book is not a relic.  It is timely.  So timely, in fact, that if you happen to scan through the comments on the above YouTube video (do so at your own risk here) you will note the overwhelming need for this book that continues even today.

Another factor?  We haven’t even entered into 2013 officially and yet I think I’ve read about 14 different bully-related books.  And not one, NOT ONE of those books has the sheer guts of this title.  If you don’t know the story, here’s the long and short: William is a boy who wants a doll.  His older brother and dad pretty much tease him mercilessly about this or try to get him into manly sports and train related things.  Then his grandma goes and gets him one and then explains to dear old dad that the doll has a practical application. After all, someday William will be a dad of his own and he’ll need to know how to care for a baby.  Now admittedly I always felt like this explanation (and the cover image of William doing an aforementioned manly sport) felt a bit like overcompensation.  I mean, why can’t a boy just want a doll because it’s a doll?  Does he absolutely have to have a reason?  But hey, you go with what you’ve got.  And what you’ve got is a book that even today is regularly assigned to kids to read by their schools and yet is losing a lot of its impact because of the art.

You see, here is William:

And he doesn’t look like any kid out there today.  Here is his older brother:

Because if you think old William here looks a little dated, those preppy tennis whites are outta sight. Dude totally doesn’t have a leg to stand on here.

So my thinking is that if someone were to re-illustrate the book today with images of kids as they look today, yes it may date in time but until it does the book may be able to get back some of its impact.  Then the ultimate book about a kid bullied for being who he is could be re-discovered by schools and parents all over this great green world.

You might say to me, “Well, sure.  So let’s say we re-illustrate this book.  What next?  Do you want to redo A Snowy Day?  How about finding someone besides Sendak to redo Where the Wild Things Are?  How about Goodnight bloody Moon?!?”  The difference as I see it is that I don’t feel the images in this particular book are, to be frank, William Pene du Bois at his best.  They’re fine. They have their defenders.  But no one has ever assigned this book because the art was so nice.  It’s a book with a message that doesn’t feel didactic (to me anyway) and that should have been given to someone like Mercer Mayer.  Someone who could have given it a shot in the arm.  It’s not like I’m talking about redoing something like Oliver Button Is a Sissy.  I mean THAT is a book that feels fresh every time you read it.  Tomie de Paola is visually incapable of aging.

A deeper issue at work here is the question of use.  I see this as a book that could speak directly to children today if they felt like it was the story of themselves or a fellow classmate.  But that is how I see the book being used.  I’m not talking about how the book can currently be enjoyed on its own merits.  Must every picture book out there with even a tangential connection to bullying now be used as a tool in some way?  Nope.  But the fact of the matter is that this book is already being used, being used all the time, and I want its impact to hit home.  What if you changed William’s race too?  What if you had him living in an apartment or in the country?  The possibilities are endless.  If I were teaching a class on picture book illustration you can bet I’d assign this book as some kind of an assignment.

For all that, it has stayed in print all these years.  Now imagine it came out for the first time today.  In an era where princess stuff is pushed on girls from every angle, and where you can walk into a Toys R Us and find a “Girls” and “Boys” section (marked as such) this book deserves a second life.

Have at it, kids.  Tear me asunder.  Or read James Preller’s fantastic post on the book from two years ago, including much of the text and interior images.  He even links to this in-depth explanation of how Ms. Zolotow was inspired to write the book.

Answer to the Above Stumper: It was Ellen Raskin.  She illustrated the cover to Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time before eventually winning her own Newbery for The Westing Game.

6 Comments on The Case for Re-Illustration: William’s Doll by Charlotte Zolotow, last added: 11/3/2012
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