Book of the Month: Wolf
Summer 1976. Six-year-old Hugo is playing with his father in the woods when he comes face to face with a wolf that only he can see. His life will never be the same again. Soon after, his dad’s tragic death leaves Hugo devastated and confused. His grieving family moves to a new home. Hugo’s new neighbour is the Wolfman – a dangerous recluse who eats kids (according to local children). Inspired by the movie The Time Machine, Hugo decides to build a contraption that will take him back to the days before his dad died. Problem is, the Wolfman has the parts Hugo needs to complete his time machine, and that means breaking into his sinister neighbour’s house…
Beautifully illustrated in monochrome pencil, Wolf is an unusual and touching graphic novel, for readers aged 12 years and above, about confronting childhood grief and overcoming the loss of a loved one.
Wolf follows one small boy’s poignant, sometimes funny, journey through loss and the stages of grief, finally reaching bittersweet acceptance and hope for the future. Ball tells Hugo’s story with extraordinary sensitivity, cleverly balancing what could have been a very bleak story with boisterous, edgy humour and keenly observed insights into family dynamics, as we’re allowed subtle glimpses of Hugo’s teenaged siblings and his mum struggling with their own grief.
Rachael Ball lost her own father when very young. She doesn’t try to minimise the devastating reality of Hugo’s loss. Instead of having him turn his grief inwards as the older characters have done, Ball shows us how Hugo enables his own recovery by continuing to express himself fully in whatever way his imagination dictates, even when he’s mocked for it by his brother and sister. Hugo also finds a way though his fear of the unknown (of a future without his dad) with the help of his vivid inner fantasy world and irrepressible curiosity. The mysterious wolf Hugo meets in the woods just before his father’s death could be an ill omen, but also a symbol of fear of the unknown. Just like Hugo’s original wolf, the Wolfman is feared because he represents the unknown. Just as Hugo’s innate curiosity overcomes his fear of the wolf in the woods (he offers it a sandwich), curiosity overcomes his fear of the Wolfman.
Wolf has moments of almost supernatural darkness, thanks to Ball’s masterfully atmospheric illustrations. Yet, just like Hugo, my curiosity kept compelling me to push on through the fear, to find out what happens next. I was rewarded with a bittersweet and quietly satisfying ending. Wolf is a stunning and unforgettable example of how to show the experience of grief, rather than ‘telling’ it.
[Caution: Some of the language, illustrations (including nudity) and themes may be considered unsuitable for children aged below 12 years.]
Wolf is a powerful resource for classroom discussions with teenagers around the difficult themes of death, loss, grief and change.
Thinking about the choices that the author made could help to develop pupils’ visual literacy skills through ‘reading’ the illustrations, finding meaning in the detail and studying the interplay between the text, the illustrations and the layouts of each page. On one page, Ball has drawn Hugo so that you can see right through the hole that’s appeared in his middle. Why did the illustrator draw Hugo this way at that moment in the story? What is the funny little hooded creature, seen carrying a suitcase, that moves into the new house with Hugo on the same removal van? It appears in various scenes with Hugo and members of his family, but is only visible to the readers. Why?
Challenge pupils to compare how Hugo’s teenage brother and sister might have dealt with their feelings after their dad’s death if the story had been set now rather than in the 1970s, before the internet, personal phones and social media were available.