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Wolf in the Snow

I’ve had my eye on Matthew Cordell’s Wolf in the Snow for months. Well, me and everyone else in the picture-book universe (including Betsy Bird, in this extremely articulate review. Please read it). Everything about the book says, This is something special — and that’s not a word I throw around lightly. It was published way back in early January, and for me it hasn’t been overshadowed by newer, shinier picture books. It still feels as strong and as fresh and as deep as it did last winter. That’s a very good sign.

How does one sum up Wolf in the Snow? It’s a story about two young things, a human girl and a wolf pup, overtaken by a blizzard on the prairie. The girl saves the wolf pup, and then the wolf pup and its grateful pack saves the girl. The girl is rendered as a stylized figure, almost cartoony; the wolf pup and its pack in a realistic style. It’s a traditional picture book in many ways, and close to wordless, but the text functions as it does in comics, capturing sounds (“huff huff”; “whine whine”) and actions (“sink! SNIFF! lick lick”), with the size and placement and heft of the typography playing big roles. It’s an archetypal home-adventure-home story, with unusual players. And oh yes — the girl is wearing a red-hooded jacket, and she takes a journey through a wood, and there’s that wolf…all of which sounds familiar to those of us raised on European folktales.

So there’s a lot going on — but page by page, it’s very simple. At least, Cordell makes it look simple. All the elements combine to draw viewers into the girl’s there-and-back-again adventure, one fraught with danger and peril. And although it’s clear from the start that this is the girl’s story (see the opening and closing cozy through-the-cabin-window family portraits), Cordell gives equal time to the wolves. Whether it’s double-page spreads or small vignettes, Cordell alternates exactly between the girl’s world and the wolves’ world — until girl and wolf pup meet and their stories merge.

The circularity of the story is echoed in the illustrations — and so is the theme of balance. There are many circle vignettes set against white space. And in many of the noncircular illustrations, there are circles. See how the wolves circle the girl when she’s fallen in the snow. See how the human family forms a loose circle when first seen through the cabin window and then a tight, tight circle at the end after the girl’s rescue, in the closing illustration of home.

All those circles are balanced by triangles: the shape of the school; the humans in their parkas, who are pretty much just different colored triangles with arms and legs; the cones of light thrown by the parents’ flashlights. I love the spread where girl and adult wolf size each other up. Inside the left-hand circle is the girl, the point of her hood forming the point of the triangle at the top; inside the right-hand circle is the face of the wolf, with his snout forming the point of the triangle at the bottom. Again, balance.

It’s fascinating that Cordell presents the wolves realistically and the humans as more cartoonish. Is it to lessen the fear picture book readers might have for the girl as she encounters the adult wolf? (And she definitely has a healthy respect for the adult wolf as she returns the pup; her body language transmits alarm and then relief as she sags forward once the adult wolf, with pup by the scruff, has turned away.) What would have been the effect if Cordell had taken the opposite approach: i.e., portrayed the humans hyper-realistically and the wolves as cartoonish? I’d love to hear others’ thoughts.

A few more random points:

  • Definitely look under the paper jacket, both front and back covers. They are a treat and with their use of panels reinforce the comics-style text inside.
  • Note how concisely and efficiently Cordell establishes the world of the story before the title page.
  • Note how controlled and effective the pacing is, with action rising to big moments, such as the meeting of girl and pup and then girl and adult wolf.
  • Note how expressive the girl’s face is, even swaddled in a scarf so that only her eyes are showing.
  • And (this may be petty, but I’m beyond apologizing for it) note the strong female presence here. It’s a girl who does the initial brave rescuing; and if you look closely you can work out which parent reaches the girl first, to rescue her.

I’ve now read this book — pored over it — dozens of times, and with each rereading I’m more impressed with it. I encourage you all, if you haven’t already done so, to take your time with this one. And then write in and comment. I’m just one voice, and this book deserves the benefit of the hive mind.

Martha V. Parravano About Martha V. Parravano

Martha V. Parravano is book review editor of The Horn Book, Inc., and co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog.

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Comments

  1. Susan Dailey says:

    Thanks for the fabulous review and the link to Betsy Bird’s. Between the two, you’ve covered so many special things about this book. After reading Betsy’s review, I looked up Cordell’s name. I didn’t realize that he’d done “Hello, Hello,” which I loved!

    A couple spreads really struck me. The one where the girl trudged across the expanse of snow toward the howling. What a sense of being alone and lost–just a small red shape in all that white. And the spread where the girl and adult wolf look directly at the reader is unexpected and powerful! The first time I saw the wolves moving from right to left I was a little surprised because typically picture book movement is from left to right, but this was such a great decision. You knew the girl and the wolves were moving inevitably towards each other.

  2. What a great write-up, and Susan, I also love HELLO! HELLO!

    I love the tension Cordell builds in these page turns and how he builds such sympathy for both creatures (human and wolf). So much is conveyed in the body language (as already noted by Martha). A wonderful book.

  3. Jack London, eat your heart out.

    The book is a staggering picture book masterpiece. There are reasons why Betsy Bird and some others have established this early year treasure as the odds-on favorite to grab the gold. I heartily concur on the pacing, expressiveness, striking use of the red, and of course what may well be the most sensory depiction of a raging blizzard ever committed to a children’s book. I likewise concur with Martha on the matter of the inside cover, which wonderfully encapsulates the experience. The wolves themselves have also earned back panel showcase. I pretty much adore all of Cordell’s work with “Special Delivery” (his noted initial collaboration with Phillip C. Stead) and “The Knowing Book” (his equally sublime teaming with Rebecca Kai Dotlich) particular favorites, but with “Wolf in the Snow” this incredibly affable and humble artist has in the baseball vernacular hit a grand slam. I would have to think this perilous wintry trek will rightly takes it place among the most memorable and accomplished seasonal works, and it’s fearless heroine is as spunkly as William Steig’s Irene. Your final question is a great one. I do think Cordell’s choice of realism, though confined to the wolves has managed to overcome the cartoonish personifications. If he would have gone in the other direction, I don’t feel it would have been as effective. The narrative unleashes consternation and building tension, and an ideal way to visually express it is by scratboard illustration, Cordell’s signature style.

    Your discussion of balance and circularity is inspired.

    I love the close-up of wide-eyed girl and wolf in separate full front vignettes.

    How wonderful to have a story of “what goes around, comes around” in such positive exhilarating terms. I applauded when one of the Boston-Horn Book Honor Awards for picture books was given to “Wolf in the Snow” and am delighted it is presently being spoken up in serious terms for either the Caldecott or one of the honors. In another remarkably competitive year it is really standing tall. Fabulous review here in every sense!

    Really love the effective use of onomatopoeia and that oversized red hooded jacket!

  4. I love some of the little details in the book. When the storm takes place the trees bend in the wind. When the girl is laying in the snow there are marks to show the motion of shivering. The round picture where the girl and the wolf are looking at each other makes me think of looking through an eye or a lens. Your wonderful review points out so many other things that I admired about the book. This does seem to be one of the best of the year.

  5. So glad to see this book get some attention, I agree that it’s exemplary in many many ways. However, having spent a year researching wolves intensively, I’m going to disagree that this is a realistic depiction of wolves.

    Wolves don’t hunt with pups in tow. Ever. They leave pups in the den with a pup-sitter for exactly this reason. There’s no way a pup could keep up. The only time they’d travel with pups so young is if they are being driven off their home ground by a rival pack or by fire or by human encroachment. Traveling in deep snow, they go single file. The strongest pack members break a path for the weaker members with the pup-sitter taking up rear guard. They simply don’t leave their pups behind. If you see a pup all alone, it’s whole pack is dead.
    And even more problematically, wolves hate people. Now that so many of them are collared there is ample evidence to show the enormous lengths wolves go to avoid us. It is true that they don’t hunt or eat people, but not because they like us or feel some sort of dog-like connection to humans. We exterminated them from the wild with unparalleled cruelty and they remember.

    So obviously if you stuck to actual wolf biology there would be no story at all. And I like the story as it is. There’s a sweet reciprocity to it. It’s marvelously expressive and invites all sort of reader/listener interaction. My quibble is with calling the wolves realistic. They are fairy tale wolves and if they reclaim some dignity from the big bad wolves of former days, that’s fine with me too. But let’s not equate this tale with actual wolf behavior in the wild.

  6. Martha V. Parravano Martha V. Parravano says:

    Roseanne, thank you for providing this perspective on the book. I didn’t mean to say, however, that the portrayal of the wolves’ behavior was realistic. I only meant to contrast the two different art styles used for the wolves and the humans. The humans don’t look like actual humans — they are stylized; cartoony — while the wolves are drawn in detail, with faces that (to me, anyway) look like actual wolf faces and bodies that look like actual wolf bodies. But I was not articulate enough and I’m glad to have this opportunity to restate my point and clear up any confusion. Let me know if I still haven’t got it right!

  7. Susan Dailey says:

    Rosanne, I found your comments fascinating! I was pretty sure the review wasn’t talking about wolf behavior, but art style. Martha, I’m glad you cleared that up.

    However, do you think the fact that the wolves’ behavior was so “out of character” that it could be a “fatal flaw” for the committee? Or would it take a huge mistake in the illustration choices to knock a book out of the running?

  8. Martha V. Parravano Martha V. Parravano says:

    Of course I can’t speak for the committee 😉 But to me, the Red Riding Hood allusions place this in “work of imagination” territory — i.e., here’s a different way the interaction between red-hooded girl and wolf might play out, in a more positive story of compassion, coexistence, etc. So I’d hope the real-life behavior of wolves wouldn’t push this book off the table / be a fatal flaw for the committee. But again, that’s just me. Others?

  9. Not intending to disagree with you at all, Martha. I think the art depicting the wolves is quite realistic. One could quibble about size. But since we don’t know how old the girl in red is and grown wolves range from 70 -100 pounds, that seems a tiny matter. Nor do I think the fanciful depiction of wolf behavior disqualifies it for consideration. I meant them as more of a caution to teachers working with the book. Just because the wolves are depicted with much artistic realism, don’t assume the behavior is similarly realistic.

    I like this book a lot and for many of the same reasons you do. I would hope they’d treat it like any other folk or fairytale.

  10. “So I’d hope the real-life behavior of wolves wouldn’t push this book off the table / be a fatal flaw for the committee. But again, that’s just me. Others?”

    I completely agree that it shouldn’t and in all likelihood won’t. And my reasons largely conform with your own. I know of course that this was not an issue either with the Boston-Horn Book committee. ‘Wolf’ is such a remarkable achievement, though I know this review and so many others have stated as much. 🙂

  11. Martha, I just came across a new post from Mr. Cordell at his blog. It is quite a revealing one, as he explains the advent of the book through an early illustration that took off. Most relevant to this post though is his delineation of wolf behavior through his apparently painstaking research, especially the reference point to the Yellowstone Wolf Project. I thought it would be a good idea to link it here:

    http://matthewcordell.blogspot.com/2017/10/wolf-in-snow.html

  12. Martha V. Parravano Martha V. Parravano says:

    Sam, thanks so much for this! It certainly reveals a great deal of research on his part — and I was particularly interested in his rationale for the two different art styles: to reflect the the “stark line” driven between wolf and human, and to engage readers’ emotions more deeply. It certainly worked for me 🙂 Again, thank you for sharing.

  13. Thank you Martha! 🙂

  14. Susan Dailey says:

    Sam, Thanks so much for the link to Matthew Cordell’s blog post. It was enlightening and made me appreciate the book even more! After reading it and the comments above, I agree that the wolf behavior in the story is highly unlikely to be a problem for the committee.

  15. Susan so thrilled to hear that!! 🙂

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