by John Rocco
Hyperion Books for Children
This is a sly little take on the Aesop fable about the boy who cried “wolf!” But Rocco turns the tables here, making the wolf — not the boy — center stage. And he places the characters in a pastoral Chinese setting (”Under a canopy of wind-swept trees and cherry blossoms, the wolf sports a Chinese silk jacket of the type seen in old Fu Manchu movies, the boy wears a topknot, and the neighbors who complain about the boy’s false cries sport queues and silk caps,” Publishers Weekly’s review points out).
Rocco’s striking wolf is old, arthritic. He’s too worn out and slow to chase animals and catch and consume birds (his jacket is adorned with the traditional Chinese symbol for longevity), so he attempts to grow his own food in a garden. Alas and alack, this doesn’t go too well (too many weeds). Fumbling with his hysterically primitive hearing aid one day, he hears the titular character of the classic Aesop story crying “WOLF! WOLF!” He creaks his way up the mountain in all his confusion (”the old wolf didn’t have any friends on any mountain,” so he’s not quite sure who’s calling for him). A LOVELY double page spread, wordless, of the wolf crossing a footbridge in a gorgeous spot of the wood, rife with cherry blossoms, follows. Loveliness, loveliness, I tell ya. I know I use that word entirely too much, but Rocco smacks us upside the head with The Lovely. It’s a smorgasbord for the eyes. Sit down and take a bite. It’s almost breathtaking in spots.
Where was I? Yes, so he stumbles upon the clearing where the boy is sitting, overhears the conversation in which the boy tells exasperated villagers that there was indeed no wolf, and limps away to a stream. “‘Kids. Humph! Always playing tricks on old folks and old wolves.’ He groaned as he soaked his tired feet.” Hearing another cry, he hobbles back to the meadow once again, falling for the boy’s hoax, as the villagers did. He decides this time to try to snag a goat from the trickster boy himself. Sitting down to work out a plan, he falls asleep, only to awaken once again to the boy’s cries. He creeps towards the boy (there’s not a villager in sight), and the boy scrambles up a tree, yelling, “There is a wolf!” When the boy worries aloud that he’ll steal a goat, the wolf smiles mischievously, noting that the villagers will only believe the boy if he’s really missing one. And thus he successfully convinces the boy to bring him one (”‘On the other side of the mountain,’ the old wolf said, ‘you’ll find a small garden. Just tie it to the fence post there.’ And he started home”).
The next morning, why, there’s his goat! The wolf’s thrilled and about to gobble him up when he notices that the plump goat has consumed all the garden’s weeds, and the wolf’s garden is now thriving. The goat apologetically tells the wolf that he’s a picky eater when asked why he didn’t eat the wolf’s vegetables:
The wolf looked at the plump goat and then at all the juicy vegetables, and back at the goat again. He sighed.
“Don’t be sorry! You did my work for me. What’s one breakfast compared to delicious vegetables for the rest of my days?”
The wolf smiled as he untied the goat.
Much to the delight of vegetarians everywhere, thus the book ends. Actually it ends on this note: The wolf and goat walking off in the twilight, wolf telling him, “‘I could use a friend like you.’ (Plus, double-goat dumplings are overrated, anyway!)” . . .
What’s outstanding here, as mentioned enthusiastically above, are Rocco’s illustrations. There are all kinds of picture books out now with “cutting-edge” illustrations that possess a sleek, slick style; Rocco’s are no exception. No old-skool look here. You cannot deny for even a femtosecond when seeing this book that it’s brand stinkin’ new. It screams VISUAL STORYTELLING. It screams turn-of-the-new-century, digitally-touched storyboarding. It’s obvious to me that Rocco has worked before as an art director in film and television, for theme parks and museums, and on a major children’s film and that he’s punched a time clock in places like Digital Domain, Disney, and Dreamworks. But what sets Rocco’s work apart from some of these other glossy, polished looks is the emotional heart at work here in this title. The wolf is truly lovable, I dare say (poor guy just wants to retire, maybe play a bit of shuffleboard, relax near some water, maybe in Florida). And what Rocco does with light and shadow in this book (the dark violet hues of twilight pouring through those cherry blossoms — it’s luscious) . . . well, it’s worth poring over again and again. He also plays with his borders, often having the wolf himself or some amusing stray goats leaping over frames into the next page’s panel, thrusting the action forward. There’s also a lot of humor to speak of in the illustrations. This is the first book Rocco’s both written and illustrated, and he’s one to watch in my book.
And what fun for children to present them this title, an upside-down, inside-out look at how it feels for the character traditionally portrayed as a trickster to feel tricked himself. This is a welcome addition to your fractured tales category for any age. Yup, show it to even those high schoolers and use it as a launching-off point for their own creative fractured-tale writing assignments. Show it to those art students, and let them see what an illustrator can do with light and line and composition and how such subtle, understated humor can come from just the right spot of pencil shading.
Rocco’s site has its very own Wolf! Wolf! presence. If you want to see the staggering loveliness of the illustrations for yourself, visit this page of the site (just look at that grumpy old wolf, resting his feet in the stream). And at this site, Rocco talks about the genesis of the book:
Inspired by Kurosawa’s cinematic masterpiece “Rashomon” and Gregory Maguire’s novel “Wicked”, I decided to tell my story from another point of view. I realized that the most interesting character in this tale is the wolf. That quickly led to me developing a grumpy old wolf who has retired to the mountains of China. With arthritis setting in, the wolf’s days of hunting have passed and he has set himself to growing vegetables in a small garden. Why China you ask? Well for one, I lived in Asia for 18 months and I find that part of the world beautiful, both visually and culturally. Secondly, I felt that the cherry blossoms, the clothing and the landscape would make a wonderful contrast to the character of the wolf.
He further discusses how he developed the book, which illustrators inspired him (word to the N.C. shout-out), and how he created the illustrations (involving storyboarding, thumb nails, pencil drawings, and digital coloring). At his blog he also shares some new illustrations for Moonpowder, his forthcoming picture book title (Spring 2008).
I have so many more picture books to talk about, but here I’ve written a novella about this one. Too many books; not enough time to write about them. Until next time . . .