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.

Read the starred Horn Book Magazine review of Wolf in the Snow.

Martha V. Parravano
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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Sam Juliano

Susan so thrilled to hear that!! :)

Posted : Oct 09, 2017 01:37

Susan Dailey

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.

Posted : Oct 08, 2017 04:59

Sam Juliano

Thank you Martha! :)

Posted : Oct 08, 2017 03:56

Martha V. Parravano

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.

Posted : Oct 03, 2017 06:53

Sam Juliano

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

Posted : Oct 03, 2017 06:32

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