Winter is almost over, forever. And I am in mourning. No more dragons of ice and fire! No more direwolves! To console myself I read an almost-wordless picture book by Matthew Cordell titled Wolf in the Snow. It’s about about winter and wolves and a brave little girl.
Like most of my great finds, it was on the returns cart at the library. I fell in love with it, and when I went online to order it for a family member who lives in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, I saw it won the 2018 Caldecott Medal. I guess my library hadn’t gotten around to affixing the sticker.
The story starts five pages before the title page. That quirk made me pay more attention to the front matter. The dedication reads, “For my brave girl, Romy.” The Acknowledgements say, “Special thanks to Kira Cassidy of the Yellowstone Wolf Project for taking the time to answer in depth my questions about wolves and wolf behavior.”
I have a lot of family who live not far from the Wyoming entrance to Yellowstone National Park. My uncle was a marine biologist for Wyoming Game & Fish, and every visit with him was an education in ecology, the poetic connectedness of earth.
But it’s one thing to admire wolves in a park. It’s another thing to be a little girl, lost in the snow, who encounters a wolf pup and, eventually, a wolf pack.
The girl has no name. The wolves have no name. The family dog has no name, and neither do the parents. But even without such important words, we have everything we need with the illustrations.
The wolves have a snarl and a swagger about them — it’s what keeps them alive. But the wolf pup looks vulnerable, like a slightly wild puppy. As we see the pack interact with its junior member, we see these creatures in a more complicated light.
This almost-wordless picture book includes twelve words, some of which are repeated: “school” (posted on a sign), “huff,” “whine,” “sink,” “howl,” “growl,” “screech,” “Rrrr,” “sniff,” “lick,” “bark,” and “?…” (which works as a complete sentence). We need this dynamic dozen. Through font size and exclamation marks, these words convey volume — a key consideration because sound travels differently across a snow-covered plain.
When the girl in the red coat spies the lone wolf pup crying “whine whine,” she makes a “huff huff” sound, either from sweating or from crying. (Frankly, either alternative makes sense.) She hears the pack’s “hoooooooooooooowwwllll” and decides to return the pup. It’s a scary journey, in which she encounters other animals who defend their territory.
There are two two-page spreads dedicated to the girl’s meeting with the mama wolf. In one, she’s holding the pup, who has his mouth open, as if he’s calling out, while the mama wolf approaches the child, head and tail down. You’ve heard of mama bear? Meet mama wolf, no less fierce.
The next spread is two close-ups: one, of our brave girl, her eyes as wide as they can possible be, the wolf pup howling in her arms. In the other, the mama wolf’s yellow eyes stare into our souls.
As the girl returns the wolf pup, we get a suggestion of more wordless words, just a couple of scraggly lines, like noise erupting out of her entire body. The girl then collapses onto her hands and knees in the snow, exhaling a puff of air, dripping while more snow drips around her.
I won’t spoil the rest of the book, but it has a most happy ending. Barks and licks and howls and well-placed flashlights tell the rest of the story. The final illustration mirrors the first.
This month Tweetspeak Poetry is doing a 30 Day Challenge for Poetic Earth Month, combining our love for National Poetry Month with our love for Earth Month. This story reminds us that we all live together on this earth — wolves and girls in red coats and dogs and parents. This land is your land, this land is my land, and this land is wild and wonderful.
Next time I’m in Yellowstone, I’ll listen a little more closely as I huff along. And I will wear my red coat because even in summer, there can still be snow in the north.
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“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro