Lauren Wolk’s debut children’s book is a likely Newbery contender and a poignant historical novel set in rural Pennsylvania during World War II.
Told in poetic, satisfying prose, Wolf Hollow is a coming-of-age story that shows narrator Annabelle dealing with the arrival of Betty, a new girl at school. Betty is cruel to animals and younger kids. She was sent to the countryside to live with her grandparents, after her mom deemed her “incorrigible.”
Annabelle doesn’t know what “incorrigible” means, or how far Betty is willing to take her cruelty. But she finds out soon enough, and must grapple with the evil present in the world—and the fact that, sometimes, there are no easy answers for how to make things right.
Here are a couple things writers can learn from Wolk’s sad, lovely story of growing up.
1. Used right, setting details—from the large to the small—add texture to story and character.
Both World Wars loom large in this novel, with reclusive World War I veteran Toby suffering his memories in silence, and the current global conflict, World War II, fostering prejudice against local Germans and a general sense of fear. In Annabelle’s small country town, families plant victory gardens, pray for their sons, and wait for good news from afar.
Annabelle’s family farms. Throughout the story, Wolk keeps her story close to the land, to the tastes and smells of nature, the rhythms and routines of daily household chores. The descriptions add a beauty and a texture to the story, as well as an authentic window into life in this time and place—still innocent and simple, even in the shadow of war:
“They didn’t look like much, those beets. Tough skins clotted with dirt, hairy with fine roots, hard as stones. But inside were sweet rubies, eager to be warmed into softness.”
Wolk also shows Annabelle using the natural order of things to comprehend what’s happening around her. When she can find no explanation for Betty’s cruelness, Annabelle turns to nature to try to understand. This gives readers a new insight into Annabelle’s character—and into Betty’s:
“Even a wolf has reasons for what it does. Even a snake makes sense when it eats a robin’s egg.”
Like Wolk, writers must strive to explore their setting through their characters’ eyes: the things their protagonist notices, the way their narrator perceives the world. In this way, the setting becomes more than a backdrop for the story action. It becomes a way to deepen readers’ understanding of the plot, characters, and theme—and craft a richer story overall.
2. The everyday and the universal meet to create the perfect conflict for a coming-of-age novel.
At the story’s opening, the war and the fear are scary, but distant. Annabelle feels safe in her warm, comfortable home; in her cozy one-room schoolhouse; with her brothers, her parents, and the abiding sense that somehow, everything will be all right.
With the arrival of Betty, that sense of security begins to unravel. The fears start small: will Betty hit Annabelle with a stick? Scare one of her little brothers? Make school less carefree than it was before? But soon, Annabelle is confronted with the reality that not all suffering has a purpose. That the hatred born on faraway shores might have consequences in her hometown. And that Betty might be capable of much more damage than it seems.
As Betty’s transgressions grow crueler and more serious, World War I veteran Toby is embroiled in her schemes. Annabelle learns more about Toby’s experiences in the war as she struggles to set things right. Wolk skillfully weaves together Annabelle’s small, day-to-day conflicts with Betty, and large ones about war and suffering and what is right and wrong. The story progresses, and Annabelle begins to realize the world isn’t always safe. She learns there’s a real, tangible possibility things might not turn out okay. And that she—not her parents or her teacher or any other adult—might have to be the one to set things right.
In this way, Wolk captures that in-between-ness, that strange, exciting, frightening feeling of growing up and knowing things will never be the same again:
“For a while, being included in these conversations had made me feel tall. Now I was ready to be eleven again and back up in bed like my brothers.”
There’s a lesson for all writers here, particularly those who write middle grade. When crafting a coming-of-age story, an author must search for the place where the quotidian conflict meets the deep, universal one, and plant the seeds of the novel there. Many middle graders are learning that the world is a scary, dangerous place. But they’re also learning they might be capable of more than they ever imagined. Writers must work to evoke this tender moment in readers’ lives—so those readers can be as brave as Annabelle when it’s their turn to stand up for what’s right.
Want to chat about Wolf Hollow or other great MG and YA titles? Find me on Twitter @beckererine.