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I don't review books I don't like!

*****= An all-time favorite
****  = Outstanding
***    = Above average
**      = Enjoyable
*        = Good, with reservations


****The Wolves in the Walls

by Neil Gaiman

illustrated by Dave McKean

Reviewed November 24, 2003.
HarperCollins Publishers, 2003.  56 pages.
A Sonderbooks’ Stand-out of 2003:  #6, Children's Fantasy

Here’s a dark, rather scary tale about facing fears and triumphing over them.

Lucy hears noises in the walls of her family’s old house.  Her mother thinks it’s mice.  Her father thinks it’s rats.  Her brother thinks it’s bats.  They’re sure that Lucy’s wrong, that it can’t be wolves.  Everybody knows that when the wolves come out of the walls, then it’s all over.

Well, the wolves do come out of the walls.  They take over Lucy’s house, and her family must flee to the garden.  After Lucy goes back to recover her pig puppet, she discovers that there’s plenty of room for them in the walls.  So the family goes to live in the walls, much to the fear of the wolves.  For the wolves know that if the people come out of the walls, it’s all over.  And indeed it is.  For the wolves.

The illustrations of this book are magnificent and amazing, making the entire book a work of art.  They include photos mingled with drawing and capture exactly the right mood throughout.  Interestingly, the wolves are cartoon, although their eyes, peering out of the walls, are photorealistic

The book has a mythic feel.  The family’s matter-of-fact treatment of the wolves as entirely real gives the story a powerful impact.  There are also delightful silly touches throughout that are taken perfectly seriously, such as the Queen of Melanesia, who had dropped by to help with the gardening.

This book is a bit of a problem for a librarian.  Where do you shelve it?  It’s in the format of a longish picture book.  However, you wouldn’t want to shelve it with the picture books, since you wouldn’t want it to fall into the hands of, say, a three-year-old, and give him nightmares.

In trying to decide what age will thoroughly enjoy this book rather than be frightened by it, I think the key is that the child needs to be old enough to know and firmly understand that wolves can’t really live in the walls of houses, say at four or five.  (Use your own judgment with your own child!)  Once a child is old enough to understand that basic fact, the scariness (and underlying silliness?) of the story will give him a delightful shiver and make him enjoy it all the more.

On a side note, my 9-year-old son and I enjoyed the fact that Lucy’s father is a professional tuba player, since my husband is as well.  My son noticed that the illustrator even had the character holding and playing the tuba authentically, unlike many illustrations of tuba players.  I found the picture of Lucy’s father fleeing the house with his tuba on one arm and his child on the other surprisingly reminiscent of a night twelve years ago when we had a fire in the next-door apartment.  (The tuba had cost $6000 at purchase and appreciates in value, so I fully supported his protectiveness.)

Unfortunately, the author lost some of this verisimilitude when he had the father trade in his second-best tuba at the end for a sousaphone, which he had always wanted.  Sousaphones are marching band instruments, are what many tuba players learn on, and are disdained by concert musicians.  (Besides, when Lucy’s father runs out of the house with his best tuba, the picture is actually of a sousaphone.)  I must admit that I doubt that this seemed inauthentic for very many other people.  It was refreshing that at least the tuba playing was presented as a father’s ordinary job and not as a big joke.

Reviews of other books by Neil Gaiman:
Fortunately, the Milk
The Graveyard Book
Odd and the Frost Giants
The Sleeper and the Spindle
Hansel & Gretel
Norse Mythology
Art Matters

Copyright © 2003 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

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