This week, my book, WOLF IN THE SNOW, will be receiving a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Award. Because of this, I’ve been thinking a lot about it again since the time it was published earlier this year. It’s been on my mind a lot again, with the writing of an acceptance speech and reflecting on what it was like several years ago, when I first decided to make the book—way back when it first showed up in my head and onto paper.
Up until WOLF, all of the books I’ve both written and illustrated have started with a story, which has started with a real thing that has happened in my life. My earliest author/illustrator picture books, TROUBLE GUM and ANOTHER BROTHER, were adapted from things that happened in my childhood. And my own children gifted me with the ideas for HELLO! HELLO!, WISH, and DREAM. WOLF IN THE SNOW was a completely different… animal. (I know… sorry.)
WOLF started not with a story, but with a picture I drew. It was not a picture drawn for a story or on any sort of assignment. It was just an image that popped into my head. One that I needed to commit to paper, and would then be done with. It was this:
Naturally, as one does in this day and age, I posted that picture to Facebook. Surprisingly, it got a pretty strong reaction. Most of which were comments like, “I hope this is for a book you’re working on!” It wasn’t, of course, but with that kind of encouragement, I began to wonder if it was something I could elaborate upon. I was inspired enough by the suspense and characters in the drawing to want to know more myself. But I’ve never been good at pulling a complete and well-made story from a single image. So, I was not excited about trying it again. And yet I did. Sort of.
I decided to first try and do some research. I’d drawn a wolf with little to no idea about what wolves were really like. Other than... I thought they were generally malevolent creatures. Wicked and selfish and hungry for anything that got in their way. My idea of wolves was, probably, mostly established by the likes of The 3 Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood. Once I started diving into documentaries and non-fiction texts about wolves, I realized that all of what I thought I knew was completely untrue.
For those who don’t know, wolves are not the bloodthirsty beasts that they’ve been portrayed to be in those old stories, and often continue to be presented as in some movies, TV, books today. They are quite noble and loving and true to family and pack, and simply want to survive and live and love. Much like us humans, really. They are highly complex and intelligent animals who hunt (animals like caribou, not people) for food and kill no more than is needed to survive. But because they’ve been painted as these killing machines, throughout history wolves have been decimated in population and hunted for sport. So much so, that they have evolved to completely fear any contact whatsoever with humans. They are as afraid of humans as we typically are of them.
Once I discovered this thing, this vast misperception run amok, I immediately saw a parallel to what’s happened with wolves and humans to what’s happening with humans and… other humans. Stereotype and prejudice between different races, religions, and sexual orientations. Stereotype and prejudice between man and woman. Stereotype and prejudice run amok. And suddenly, I had my story.
So, I wrote a story with words. A terrible story with words. Several versions of a terrible story with words. I showed this evolving book dummy to my talented author wife and to my Chicagoland author-illustrator group and to my other bookmaking friends in different places. My friends weighed in on it many times in different incarnations. (It was the first time I’d done any of this. I’d always been pretty protective and solitary about my writing.)
With constant tinkering, it began to get a little less terrible. Because of the story—a girl is lost in the wild, in isolation, then unites with a lost wolf pup—it naturally evolved into a wordless book. My first attempt at one of those. Eventually, after polishing and revising, it was becoming something presentable. Something I wasn’t too not-proud of.
All the while, I wanted to be respectful and true to the wolf and the wolf’s honest nature and behavior and biology. The story I was writing was becoming one of two parties getting past their own prejudices to help each other in a time of need. A story of growth, and empathy, and reciprocation. It was always intended to be fiction, and I was accepting that there could be moments I would need to bend truth-in-nature for the sake of the story. It is, after all, fiction. Not non-fiction. But I wanted the story I was writing to be as truthful and respectful to how wolves would act and react in real life as possible. So, I started having very specific questions and concerns about my story. Questions that couldn’t be answered by documentaries or books. After a bit more poking around, I found out about and reached out to the Yellowstone Wolf Project.
The Yellowstone Wolf Project is a team of scientists responsible for reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1995—around 70 years after they were completely wiped out from the park in the 1920’s. They have invested deeply in wolves and have been working with wolves for this great amount of time, so it would be an invaluable resource if I could get through to them. I had a somewhat long list of very specific questions that needed rather specific answers, so I wasn’t sure if they would ever write me back. But they did. I was so incredibly grateful not only to hear back, but to hear back from them with such in-depth knowledge, insight, and information about wolves and wolf behavior.
For example, I wondered specifically about a moment in the first part of my book. Early on, a pack is traveling with a pup and the pup is separated from the adult wolves in a blizzard. I wondered… would a pack be traveling out of the den with a pup of a certain age? Would they be traveling at a time that could result in a blizzard? Knowing how protective they are of their own, is it even possible that a pup could be separated from the adult wolves in a time of travel? I was delighted to receive this extremely comprehensive answer in return.
“Wolf pups generally stay around the den until they are about 12-14 weeks old. At that point the adults lead them to a "rendezvous" or “RV” area which is a lot like an above-ground den. The pups know to stay there and the adults know to bring the pups food to the area. Often the RVs are wet, marshy areas with good visibility and slightly higher ground for bedding. However, the move between the den and the RV can occur when the pups are as young as 6-7 weeks (and only about 10-12 pounds) and so the pups could easily get separated from the adults during such a move. The adults do not carry them at that age and so the pups have to keep up with the adults. We had one pack last year lead their nine 6-week-old pups more than 8 miles over one night--and that was the first week of June, a time of year we definitely still have blizzards.”
This continued exchange of questions and answers was extremely helpful to support the story I was already building. And furthermore, it would put me on the right track for other visual specifics I’d yet to figure out. I wanted the pup in my book to be old enough to travel, but small enough to be carried by the girl in the story. So, my visual reference and research from that point on, would all be for an 8-week-old pup. To get the right look and proportions and texture of fur for a pup at that age.
I thought it would be impossible to reach someone like the Yellowstone Wolf Project, and I was incredibly inspired to make contact and have a chance to correspond with someone who held this amount of knowledge on a subject I’d grown to care about so dearly.
Never would I ever have imagined I could dig in deep like this for research for a book I wanted to make. The research ended up driving and inspiring the story itself. It was a new approach in bookmaking and story building for me. One I hope I’ll jump back into for some other book(s) in the future. (Now that it doesn’t seem so far out of reach and intimidating.)
Once the book was at its better-than-ever best, it finally was submitted to my editor, Liz Szabla, at Feiwel and Friends. Honestly, I wasn’t quite sure it would be the right book for them, as my previous two books were pretty silly/absurd ones. But I was pleasantly surprised to discover right away that it was something they were interested in publishing. With a few minor tweaks to the storytelling, we were up and running.
Then came the final decisions in the making of the art. I’ve always kept pretty close to my very simplified, shorthand line drawing style. A sort of loose and expressive cartoon line. But I felt like this book needed something different. The tone was very much unlike anything I’d ever done. Because of the stark line driven between human and wolf (in a prejudiced mind), I felt like the people and wolves should be drawn and depicted very differently. It took a while to figure out just how differently that should be.
But in the end, I settled on drawing the human characters in my usual shorthand of line, and the wolves would be drawn much more realistically than I’d ever drawn a thing in any of my books. I felt that this would also drive up the readers’ emotions in the more suspenseful parts. In a way a more cartoon-like wolf certainly would not.
Wolf in the Snow has been a book-making experience like no other one I’d had before. It was equal parts invigorating and frustrating. There were moments I felt completely overwhelmed with things I might never know or find out. And those moments would often lead to redemption and understanding. I’ve been so moved to see the incredibly positive critical and general response unfold as it has this past year. Thank you, sincerely, to everyone’s support and to the Boston Globe-Horn Book award judges. See you in Boston this weekend!