Wolf Story

Children's stories are filled with Wicked Wolves and Big Bad Wolves, all with rapacious appetites, preferably for little girls but for any child in a pinch, perhaps with a pinch of salt. But has any wolf ever had so rapacious an appetite as a child has for a story?  Especially a story with wolves in it. There's Red Riding Hood's wolf, of course, and Peter and his wolf. There are wolves at Willoughby Chase. There are the Three Little Pigs with their wolf. There used to be a little boy who cried wolf. There's even the Wolf of Gubbio, once big and bad but made un-wicked by the animals' best friend, St. Francis. There are both dangers and payoffs for children who identify with wolves -- think what awaits Sendak's Max in his wolf suit or what Margaret Shannon's Roselupin does with her knitting in The Red Wolf. And as we get older there is also the lonely grief, as Mowgli finds, in not being a wolf after all.

On long car trips I used to entertain my youngest sister -- and myself -- by starring her in various Red Riding Hood–inspired adventures where she would pit her intelligence, with invariable success, against my most outrageously accented Monsieur le Loup. Unbeknownst to my younger self, I was participating in the noble tradition of parodic Big Bad Wolf literature. Catherine Storr's Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf has become such a family favorite that our wolf-eared copy has disappeared. Not long ago we giggled over the wolf in Little Bo Peep's Library Book by Cressida Cowell (she of How to Train Your Dragon fame) -- his cookbook, "Basic Little Girl Cookery," includes such recipes as Mary Mary à la Mer, Muffet and Blackbird Pie, Petite Fille avec Curl, and, for unlucky days, Vegetarian Hotpot. Perhaps Colin McNaughton's Mr. Wolf, perennially unsuccessful in his predations on Preston Pig, already has a copy. Eugene Trivias has given us the redemptive Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig.

These books are all wonderful wallows in wolfiness, but for the parent faced with a child consumed with the desire to hear the same story for the zillionth time, especially if it's a story with a wolf in it, joy has come with the reprinting of William McCleery's 1947 classic Wolf Story. Five-year-old Michael is adamant that he wants his father to tell him another story about Waldo the wolf, even though Waldo has been in every story since Christmas. And no matter how plaintively Michael's father, a true Everyparent, cries out, "Haven't we had enough stories about terribly fierce wolves?" we find ourselves with another Wolf Story.

McCleery's wonderful riff on telling yet another story about wolves captures the affectionate tussling of off-the-cuff storytelling. Michael's father is the godlike parent-creator whose words have the power to bring a whole shaggy world into being. He can try to turn the story into a boring and quiet direction to put Michael to sleep, and sometimes it even works. But Michael, at five years old, has tasted the heady delights of being the unsleepy power behind that godlike throne. More powerful than the words that create are the words that boss the creator into creating in the first place. For Michael has learned "You can make anything happen in a story." Thus he imperiously nudges his father, "Make it that there is a hole in the fence," or "Make it that [Waldo] gets up and runs away" ("this way we can have more story!"), and above all "Make it long."

"I don't want to make it too scary," said Michael's father.

"Yes!" cried the boys. "Make it too scary!  Horribly, horribly scary."

Oh, the power -- and exhaustion -- of the storytelling parent.

I've loved this book for a long time, and it's good enough for a grown-up to read in silent pleasure, but it really springs to life when it's read out loud. I retested it this summer on my four-and-a half-year-old daughter, who loves being told stories over and over and over again, especially in the car, just like Michael. She found Wolf Story "hilaaaaarious." She cackled at her favorite bits:  when Michael, getting ready for his bedtime serial about Waldo, the fiercest wolf in the world, kicks his shoe under the bed and puts his underpants in the wastebasket; when Michael's father, continuing the saga of Waldo, "the fiercest and most boring wolf in the whole world," has a spot of difficulty with his box kite at Jones Beach; when Rainbow the hen is dubious about Waldo's politesse: "I hope you weren't planning to eat me in your fingers." And if you get her started on Jimmy Tractorwheel, the boy who comes to Rainbow's rescue with a baseball bat, she'll roll off the bed in gleeful hysterics and never get to sleep.

The author of this sport, William McCleery, was a playwright who had a son named Michael. So it's not surprising that the dialogue still spools out recognizably and that he's canny in hitting the theatrical highs and lows of the five-year-old sense of humor. But there's plain old unostentatious good writing too. Sometimes the descriptive power comes from the character of Michael's father as he tells the story about Waldo, Rainbow, and Jimmy Tractorwheel: "The next night was as dark as the inside of a black velvet pocketbook." At other times wry observation, good timing, and the opportunity for some superb sound effects come from the narrator guy telling us that story about Michael and his father:

As each thin old wave slid down the sandy slope away from the beach it ran smack into a fat new wave coming toward the beach. The fat new wave would trip over the thin old wave, trip and stumble and tumble and flop right on its face with an angry RRROARRR. Ssswishhh . . . RROARRR!  Ssswishhh . . . RRROARR!

Right beside the two boys, Michael's father was making a similar noise, going Aahhhh . . . poooooooo! . . . aahhh . . . poooooo! . . . . It would have put the boys to sleep if it had not been naptime.

Without making a big deal of it, Wolf Story might remind us of both the naturalness and the oddity of storytelling. Michael wants Waldo not to be caught so there'll be more story for Waldo to be caught at the end of. My four-and-a half-year-old knows perfectly well that Rainbow the hen is just made up -- for goodness' sake, the story showed her Michael and his father making Rainbow up! But she can simultaneously feel pleased that the completely fictional Rainbow is in danger -- because of course nothing bad can really happen to a fictional character -- and at the same time scream for Rainbow to make her escape just in case something does. Laughing and crying over made-up characters we know are made up, getting a kick out of it, and coming back for more is just one of those weird things humans do. And you can't start them too young.

July 24: On this day in 1725 John Newton, the slave trader-preacher who wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace," was born.

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