The Wolves in the Walls (by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean)

picturebookpicksLet me say right up front that this is not a book for very young children. It’s not for a lot of 5-and-6-year-olds. Frankly, there are some adults who won’t be into it. It’s super weird and scary. So why is it here? Well, let me tell you what’s good about it, and then talk about the scariness.

First off, you’ve rarely seen anything like Dave McKean’s illustrations. He uses painting and collage sculpture and line drawing and computer graphics all mixed together in this intricate and bizarre way. The illustrations are menacing and beautiful at the same time. Which kind of goes for the story as well. There’s a young girl, Lucy, and she thinks there are wolves living in the walls in her house, and no one believes her, and then the wolves come out and chase the humans out of their house, and then Lucy leads her family in a revolt to take back their house. Totally weird, and yet stirring and positive. I like that it centers on a character who is strong and confident and brave and a girl—there aren’t enough kickass girl characters in children’s literature. I also like that the story, and the pictures, are genuinely scary! Kids have fears, and not a lot of media approaches it head-on for kids. But kids need to see the full range of their experiences and emotions reflected in the stories they take in. That’s how they learn that their experiences and emotions are normal, and they’re not alone.

So how do you read this book with young children and not have them be scared out of their wits? Well, first of all, know your audience, and don’t read it if the kid is gonna be too scared. But more importantly, give it some context! A few years ago, in a classroom of 3-and-4-year-olds, we did a month-long curriculum around scary stories, lead by the children’s interest and enthusiasm. We started off with There’s a Nightmare in my Closet, and when we saw that they were excited about the scary aspects of it we worked our way through the Sendak oeuvre, and ended up with Wolves. Throughout the project we talked with them about what you can do to feel better when you’re scared; what the differences are between books and real life; and how it’s sometimes fun to feel a little scared. We also had a high tolerance for stopping books midway whenever kids asked, and allowing them to absorb books in small chunks. When we approached the material carefully, every single kid in that group of eighteen ended up loving scary stories and begging for more, because it became such a positive, affirming, community-building experience. And you can do that too, whether you’re working with a classroom or you’re one-on-one with your own child. (For more info on approaching this stuff, contact me through my consultancy.)

Anyway, even though this book isn’t for everyone, it’s totally badass. Children’s literature doesn’t have to be bland—it can and should (sometimes) push boundaries. Like any other art form.

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