Seems Scary, But It’s Not

Wolfboy – written and illustrated by Andy Harkness
Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2021

If you’re not partial to terrifying young children, but you want to acknowledge their inevitable fears, Wolfboy is a wonderful choice.  Illustrated by photographing Andy Harkness’s original clay sculptures, the book tells the story of a fierce and frightening monster who is really just lonely, and perhaps hangry. The simplicity of the text and the drama of the pictures are both appealing and highly original.  They validate children’s feelings with humor and artistry.

The cover shows a weird and indeterminate creature, his name emblazoned in big red letters, except for the “O.” That one letter gives a visual clue to his problem and its ultimate solution. It is a full moon, later miniaturized as a “moonberry,” the perfect answer to his bad mood.  Since children are no strangers to arbitrary bad moods, or the crankiness resulting from hunger, they will follow the story, first with fear, then with delight.  In “A Note on the Art,” Harkness explains how each of his creatures “become real,” as he views them “from different angles.” Those angles, and the shifting perspective from page to page, envision Wolfboy as a dynamic figure.  In one scene he is dwarfed by his leafy surroundings, although a tiny rabbit leaning over a leaf is even smaller.

The hungrier and angrier he becomes, the more space he occupies on the page, finally becoming a huge open mouth about to ingest some innocent bunnies. There is no gratuitous cruelty here. In fact, Wolfboy’s fuming threats when the bunnies escape him is comical: “I don’t need you anyway, rabbits!” he pronounces, while bouncing across a two-page spread in a series of silly poses. 

When the rabbits finally seem within his reach, they are transformed into a giant pair of ears, a foot, and a disembodied fluffy tail as large as the moon itself.  Children’s perceptions of size are obviously different from those of adults; Harkness captures this idea without overemphasis.  His clay creations, and the way in which they exchange positions of size and power, truly reflect a child’s sense of the universe. When Wolfboy gets his moonberry pies, his whole mood changes, and he expresses his satisfaction in poetry:

Rabbits, I was just so HUNGRY
and HUFFY
and DROOLY
and GROWLY
and FUSSY

The final image of peaceful reassurance shows Wolfboy asleep, two nearly dangerous white teeth protruding from a closed mouth. He is surrounded by bunnies whose clay form resemble cookies. In an instant, they have changed from something edible into just friends.  There is no explanation required for this magical, and yet thoroughly believable, part of a child’s world.

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