Gaiman, Neil. illus. by Dave McKeon. The Wolves in the Walls. Harper Collins, 2005. ISBN 978-0380810956 52 pp. $
Lucy is convinced there are wolves living in the walls of her home, but the rest of her family members are too wrapped in their own lives to take her seriously–until the wolves come stampeding out and take over the house, forcing the family to hide out in an uncomfortable shed. Brave Lucy, ever the voice of reason, suggests returning to sleep in the walls, which of course… scares the wolves away.
Gaiman and McKean of Sandman (DC Comics, 1990) fame team up to create a picture book that slips into comic book panel style frames as an effective narrative device. Text and graphics combine in a tongue-in-cheek nightmarish style that is more cleverly humorous than genuinely frightening. The writing is clever and occasionally rollickingly repetitive. The illustrations spiral out-of-control, becoming chaotically wild in the same way that Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (Harper & Row, 1963) does – the wolves at one point take over the book and practically leap off the page, but their expressions range from cheerful to terrified, rather than terrifying, and because they are rendered in sketchy pen and ink rather than realistic illustration, they are more cartoonish than frightening.
There are many subtexts that can read into this deceptively simple story: children’s fears are often valid; children may be able to solve problems that adults cannot; sometimes we worry so much about how others will perceive us that we forget they are just as uncertain/scared as we are; our most secret fears, when exposed, are often not as bad as we dreaded; naming fears diminishes them. All of these are positive messages for children. While some adults may find this book “too scary,” it should be remembered that situations that allow children to take charge are empowering, and subversive stories where the children are right and the grown-ups are wrong are historically popular, and even become classics.
Child psychologist Bruno Bettleheim explains in his classic The Uses of Enchantment (Knopf, 1976) that fear has many purposes in children’s literature, most notably to establish rules of conduct and to recognize the complex nature of children’s imaginations and emotions. By not exposing children to stories with monsters in them, the parent is ignoring the monster part inside the child, and denying the child knowledge and control over his inner demons. A little fear can be a healthy and developmentally appropriate thing. This is a picture book for elementary school readers and up that has a place in public and school libraries.