Saturday, March 17, 2018

Darkness and beauty in middle grade fiction: Wolf Hollow, by Lauren Wolk


I sat for a while considering the right adjectives to describe Wolf Hollow, and I struggled. It's a dark story in many ways, pinpoint-focussed and stark. At the same time, though, it's gentle, filtered as it is through the eyes and heart of an innocent and hopeful protagonist whose experience is opened for the first time to the brokenness of the world.

Wolf Hollow is a coming-of-age story, but unlike the traditional bildungsroman, which often has the protagonist leaving behind his home and all that is familiar in order to step into adulthood, in this story Annabelle stays in rural Wolf Hollow, the place she knows and trusts. Instead, the journey comes to her in the form of a beautiful bully named Betty. Betty's campaign of cruelty upsets the safe cycle of days in Wolf Hollow, still in quiet shock following two world wars, and sets in motion a series of events that reveals secrets, uncovers dark prejudices, and forces Annabelle to grapple with the ugly realities of life in a fallen world.

The writing is exquisite and the characterisation rich and complex, articulated in the voice of an intelligent, compassionate child who has been raised in a community which, up to that point, has been a bulwark of security and goodness. Annabelle's parents and grandparents are wise, hard-working, and kind, and -- until Betty's arrival, at least -- Annabelle's chief aggressor has been her snippety and graceless Aunt Lily.


The artistry of Wolf Hollow, with its subtle imagery and surprising turns of phrase, makes it worthy of its status on the Newbery list. Lauren Wolk is a poet, and her ability to condense great depth and grace into just a few words is evident in this novel. But while Annabelle's sweet and strong, youthful voice takes the sharp edges off some intense scenes -- memories of war, PTSD, acts of genuinely cruel violence, graphic accidents, and hate speech -- the emotional intensity is undeniable. I wondered as I read: would I actually give this middle grade novel to a middle grade reader?

It was no surprise, then, to find that Wolk originally wrote this story with an adult audience in mind. This makes sense on many levels, and begs the question: why did publishers choose to market it as a kids' book? At the very least, I'd pitch this to a YA readership, as the teen years feel like an age better equipped to look closely at the issues it touches on. Some middle grade readers will be fine, but I'd advise parental guidance to make sure.

Regardless of its marketing and the question around appropriateness for young readers, however, this book is a work of art that tackles big topics through a small but fierce voice, and does so with an accomplished hand. I'll be thinking about it for a long time.

Wolf Hollow
Lauren Wolk
Published August 2016 by Corgi Children's
320 pages

Study questions:

I read Wolf Hollow in conversation with several friends who joined me at The Newbery Project, a little reading initiative I set up as a way to engage with more great children's literature. If you want to join us in our next readalong, head on over. Here are the questions we used in our discussion, which you may want to adapt for a family book club.

1. How many stars would you give this book, and why? Don't hold back!
2. What do you think of Annabelle as a protagonist?
3. Who was your favourite character?
4. Is there a particular moment in the story which stands out to you?
5. Wolf Hollow was originally written with an adult readership in mind. Does this feel accurate to you? Would you share it with a middle-grade reader? Does it deal with darkness in age-appropriate ways?
6. Although the books with several sad outcomes, do you think the tone is ultimately hopeful?
7. Describe Wolf Hollow using only emoji.