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Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
The Sheep in Wolf's Clothing
The Sheep in Wolf's Clothing
by Helen Lester, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger
Walter Lorraine Books/Houghton Mifflin,(September 2007)
Ewetopia was not comfortable in her own wool.
She always needed to hide in an outfit, and spent a fortune on her clothes.
But no one paid any attention.
She attempted to dazzle the rams.
But Rambunctious, Ramshackle, and Ramplestiltskin barely blinked.
She even tried to shock the other ewes.
But Ewecalyptus, Ewetensil, and Heyewe hardly noticed.
This lack of attention annoyed Ewetopia like a bad itch.
Then one day she received an invitation to the Woolyone's Costume Ball.
Yes! Here was her chance.
She'd have the finest costume in Pastureland and outshine them all. Every fluffy one. Ha!
--The Sheep in Wolf's Clothing by Helen Lester, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger, p. 1-3.
Ewetopia, a young sheep, doesn't feel comfortable in her body, and wants attention and to be liked (as so many of us do), but starts out trying to obtain this through clothes. Regardless of what she wears, she doesn't get attention, so when she receives an invitation to the Woolyone's Costume Ball, she's determined to find the perfect costume. Fifty-eight costumes later, she's found it--a wolf costume. But when she goes to the ball, she doesn't get the kind of reception she expects. Instead, a handsome stranger dressed as a sheep appears--and by the time Ewetopia's figured out that he's a wolf in disguise, he's ripped off his costume and captured three of her friends. It's up to Ewetopia to save the day, and save the day she does, by using the wolf's mistaken assumption that she's his mother to tell him that he has to do a ton of chores. When the wolf pitches a tantrum and tires himself out, leaving without the captured sheep, everyone celebrates, and Ewetopia basks in the attention that she received through being herself and doing what was right.
This great writer-illustrator team (think Porcupine Named Fluffy--one of my all-time favorites--and Tacky the Penguin, Hooway for Wodney Wat, Something Might Happen) has created another funny, entertaining book with depth and heart.
Lester uses a lot of fun and funny word play throughout the story, incorporating words that mean sheep or relate to sheep into other words, names, or expressions such as Ewetopia, Ewereka, Woolyone, Pastureland, wooly-brained thoughts, and more. Even the title is a funny reversal on a common expression. The word play at the climax is a delight, where the wolf mixes up "ewe" and "you". Young readers, especially, will enjoy this confusion of meanings, and the wolf's defeat. Some of the word play will appeal mainly to older readers who can read the text and see some of the ewe-additions, and at times the word play feels slightly overdone or doesn't work as well.
The first introduction to this fun word play is through the main character's name--Ewetopia--and that she's not comfortable in her own wool. But the list of sheep-related names on the following page are cumbersome, and almost slow the story to a halt. Then Lester pushes us back into the story with strong writing and metaphor, such as "This lack of attention annoyed Ewetopia like a bad itch," and the plot moving toward tension and change, such as the invitation to the costume ball.
Lester skillfully does not tell the reader everything, especially some of the details that already appear in the illustrations, such as the exact costume that Ewetopia chooses (a wolf's costume), or who the handsome stranger really is (a wolf). This helps make the story more appealing and alive, as unnecessary details aren't repeated.
There's a lot of text, but the story moves forward steadily. Lester creates a forward movement and tension through: Ewetopia having a goal (wanting attention and to be liked) and not achieving it right away; the reader wanting to see what Ewetopia will do to achieve her goal; the deliberate pause of information in some scenes (such as when Ewetopia tries on 57 costumes, before finding out what the 58th costume is); conflict (where the other sheep ignore and ridicule her); and danger (when the wolf appears). Tension is also strongly increased by the reader knowing long before the sheep exactly who the handsome stranger is just by looking at him; by Ewetopia slowly figuring out who the stranger is while the other sheep are so enamored with the stranger; and by the reader wondering what Ewetopia will do to save the day.
Lester makes it easy for the reader to identify with Ewetopia right from the start, as she is uncomfortable with her body, creating reader sympathy (and well as empathy, as many readers will identify with this), wants attention (who doesn't?) and doesn't initially receive it (as many of us have experienced, especially children). Ewetopia tries so hard to get attention and approval, and has determination and tenaciousness, which help make her likable. Later, Ewetopia is ignored, snubbed, and insulted by others, again creating reader sympathy. Ewetopia is also the only one who puts together who the wolf is, which helps the reader root for her, and she acts to save the others, becoming a hero. The reader will especially root for Ewetopia when she does the right thing--tries to save her fellow sheep, even when that potentially puts her in danger. Lester appropriately does not name the wolf, only the sheep, allowing greater reader identification with the sheep, and especially Ewetopia.
The climax has both tension and humor. Ewetopia defeats the wolf using only words and the suggestion that he do chores; she never uses violence, which is lovely. Young readers may identify with the wolf not wanting to do his chores, and may find it especially enjoyable or funny that he tires himself out by having an enormous temper tantrum. While I could believe that the wolf might not be able to see that Ewetopia's costume was not real when he had to peer through his own costume, it was hard to believe that once his costume was off, he couldn't tell the difference between a sheep in a costume and his own mother. That did not work for me, and pulled me out of the story. And while it was lovely that the crowd of sheep celebrated Ewetopia in the end, they repeated a catchy phrase that Ewetopia had thought but not actually said out loud: "What kind of creep would dine on a sheep?" as if she had actually said it. At times the text felt too long, but overall it worked well.
The ending is uplifting, although it would be more powerful and to-the-point if there wasn't another list of long sheep names, but instead got straight to the heart of the story. Still, it was uplifting that Ewetopia got what she wanted so badly--attention, others celebrating her and actually dancing with her instead of ignoring her, and ultimately her feeling good in her own body--AND that she got those things through not hiding, and through taking positive action. There's a neat double layer in Ewetopia hiding through her clothing (but wanting attention and not getting it), then hiding in the wolf's clothing, then shucking the wolf's costume to reveal herself to the enemy--the wolf--and all her friends, acting brave and revealing both her true self and her appearance.
Sheep In Wolf's Clothing contains many strong, positive, yet subtle messages: There's a subtle message to focus less on your appearance or clothing, and more on your actions and who you are as a person, suggesting that if you do so, you may feel more comfortable in your body, or at least not obsess about it. There's also a subtle message that you're more likely to get positive attention if you can be who you are, and not hide. And there's the suggestion that physical attractiveness is not as important as who you are (the handsome wolf is the villain, here).
Munsinger's watercolor-and-pencil illustrations are delightful, as always--appealing, cute (but not too cute), uplifting, and funny, with a strong style that is recognizable. The sheep are an endearing mixture of realistically drawn cartoon sheep, and sheep with human mannerisms, body language, and clothing. There is strong body language and facial expressions; it's clear when Ewetopia is feeling awkward, discouraged, tired, and happy, and there are some familiar mannerisms in the gossiping sheep. This helps make the story more enjoyable and powerful.
Key colors are repeated throughout the illustrations, visually tying them together, such as the pastel pink found in the sheeps' noses and ears, Ewetopia's top, balloons, many of the backgrounds, and more strongly in the wolf costume and other costumes.
Full spreads emphasize some of the most important scenes in the book, such as Ewetopia's appearance at the ball where everyone shuns her, the wolf's first appearance, the wolf capturing the three sheep, the wolf's temper tantrum that leads to his defeat, and the sheep all gathering around Ewetopia, smiling her and looking like they're praising her. This underscores the importance of these scenes.
Munsinger's illustrations stay true to the emotional tone of the text; she and Lester work well together. The illustrations and text feel almost seamless. The wolf, when he first appears, is appropriately the center of attention of both the sheep and the illustration; he almost seems to be glowing with a faint yellow light around him. The humor in the way the sheep are drawn and their choice of costumes also matches Lester's tone; some of the costumes seem particularly funny, such as a sheep dressing as a rabbit, a ladybug, and Elvis. More humor comes in through the illustrations of the wolf imagining having to do his chores, with the wolf sitting in a tub full of bubbles, his ears drooping, only his disgruntled face peeking out, and the wolf's head barely appearing above the desk where piles and piles of books are stacked for his homework. Quirky costumes, balloons, and light, almost pastel colors all give the illustrations a lightness, as does the white or faint pastel washes of the backgrounds. There is little or no background detail, aside from small details like balloons or streamers, but it doesn't seem to be needed. Characters are grounded in their surroundings by shadow beneath their feet and their connection with other characters.
The wolf does not appear threatening or very scary; even when he snatches up the sheep, he snatches them by their clothing, and not their bodies. He also has gaps between his teeth, which helps, and his body language, once presented with Ewetopia's chores, looks like that of a young child having a temper tantrum. This helps keep the book light and non-threatening.
There is great symbolism in some of Munsinger's illustrations, such as Ewetopia's discarded wolf costume strewn on the floor in parts, and the sheep walking over and around it as they celebrate the wolf's defeat. There is also symbolism in the last three illustrations, as Ewetopia is wearing regular clothes that become visible once she discards her costume, yet is still the center of attention. This works well, reinforcing the message to just be yourself.
The great tension and pause of information in Lester's text from costume 57 to 58 could have been increased and made even stronger by showing the wolf costume on a separate spread, not just on a separate page. But overall, the movement is good.
This is an enjoyable, funny tale with a strong positive message--to be yourself, to stand up for yourself and others, and to do what is right. It has especially important messages for girls, to care less about appearances and more about who you are and what you do. Recommended.
-Added July 11, 2007
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