Big Bad Wolves in YA Fiction

Recently, I wrote a post about Red Riding Hood—two versions of the story, and how the story gets used in popular culture. If you like folktale novelizations, Sarah Blakley Cartwright has a novel about Red Riding Hood.
But Little Red isn’t the only one who gets—or deserves—attention. Two Canadian authors—Robert Paul Weston and Thomas Wharton—have worked to re-invent the character of the big bad wolf. The wolf, of course, is the predatory villain of the folktale, and as far as I can tell, Charles Perrault’s story is the only one in which the wolf isn’t out-smarted or killed.
Weston’s Dust cityand Wharton’s The Shadow of Malabronintroduce the character of the wolf in interesting ways. In each of these books, the wolf is a sympathetic character—Henry Whelp from Dust city is a troubled teen, serving time in a juvenile delinquent centre, and trying to come to terms with his father, who sits in prison for murdering an old woman and her granddaughter; whereas Shade from The Shadow of Malabronis an otherworldly wolf that Will, the book’s main character, meets in a library, and who agrees to accompany Will on his quest.
Both henry and Shade offer ways of rereading the big bad wolf, not just as sympathetic characters, but as heroic ones. Henry is determined to follow his father’s hunches about the nature of fairydust, a narcotic available to the hominids and Animalia of the city. Dust City is an urban fantasy, full of recognizable folktale characters reinvented for Weston’s gritty city scape—Detective White, the tough, independently minded cop whose interest is justice, and Skinner, the evil crime boss, who literally has the golden touch.
Here’s a passage from Henry as he jumps on a train, escaping from Detective White:
I land on something soft. A great heap of blue fairydustmined, refined, and on its way to pharmacies all across the city. Only now it’s got an added ingredient: a big bad wolf. … I climb up on the sheet of metal and peek out through the ragged me-shaped hole.
“A bullet cracks off the train. Detective White has started shooting after all. I duck back and then, stupidly, peek out once more. But she doesn’t fire this time. She stands below, getting smaller as the train rumbles north.”
The Shadow of Malabronis the first in the Perilous Realmseries, and it’s fantasy in the Tolkienian style. Shade becomes Will’s friend and companion, and they set out with a company from the city of Fable to seek Will’s story and help him return home—if they can avoid Lotan, the servant of the Night King, who is determined to consume all stories in the Perilous Realm.
Shade’s story:
“I followed the tracks they left, to their camp,” he said at last. “I tore and killed many, and those that were left ran off, but they had pierced me with their iron in many places. I wandered, a fever burning in me. I could not hunt, could not eat. I came at last to a forest where I smelled a new scent, one that was unknown to me. The scent of folk like you. I did not know if it meant danger or not. I crept up to their dwellings, in a clearing in the woods, to see if this unknown scent meant danger. There were people there, working, talking, laughing together. I had never heard laughter. It sounded strange to me, and I think I would have liked it, but all I could feel was pain, and hate. And then I saw a child. A girl in a red cloak with a hood, going off into the forest by herself. She was carrying a basket covered in a cloth. I followed her. I was hungry, and I wanted to kill. The girl walked quickly, but I ran ahead of her and stood in her path. She was frightened, but she was brave, too. And she did not hate. I could see that in her eyes. She was not like the ghool.
“I turned and I ran. I ran without knowing where I was going, and then I came to a house that stood by itself in the forest. Good smells came from that house. Good things to eat. I could not stop myself this time. The door was open and I went in. There was an old woman there. She screamed and ran away. I let her go, and ate what food I could find. But it was too late. I felt the fever growing in me, from the iron of the ghool. I knew that no food would help me now. There was a bed in one corner. I climbed into it.
“I don’t know how long I lay there. After some time I heard a sound. The girl in the red cloak was standing in the doorway. She came towards the bed, but in the dark of the house she did not see me. She called out a greeting.  She thought I was the old woman. I stood up in the bed, ready to flee. My limbs were shaking and there was a rasp in my throat. The girl saw me then. She screamed. I leapt over her and bounded out of the door. I ran, with what was left of my strength. And when I could not run, I crawled. I heard the sounds of the girl’s folk following me. Their shouts, their anger. They were hunting for me, to kill me.”
There you have it. Two big bad wolves who aren’t so bad anymore. I highly recommend both these books, as much for how they represent folktales and folktale characters, as they offer two strikingly different versions of the wolf from the folktale. Resurrecting such villains into heroes says something about the nature of story, but more about the persistent power of folktales to continually shape our imaginations.

A Return to Red Riding Hood

Red Riding Hood is one of those characters that most people recognize. But many don’t realize how many versions of this story exist, and they think of it as a story that’s mostly for kids. It isn’t—not really.
The version with which most people are familiar is the Grimms’ “Little Red Cap.” It’s the version my students know, and the one that has Little Red eaten by the wolf and saved by the woodsman. Interestingly, “Little Red Cap” is actually two stories in one: the first in which Red is eaten by the wolf, and the second in which she and her granny trick the wolf into climbing down the chimney into a pot of boiling water. On the other hand, my students are always surprised when reading Charles Perrault’s version of the story, in which Red takes off her clothes and climbs into bed with the wolf. Granted, Perrault has something specific in mind with his story, but the scene comes no less as a shock.
The story gets adapted and retold endlessly in popular culture. From Disney’s 1943 short, Red Hot riding Hood, to the live action version from Fairy Tale Theatre, hosted by Shelley Duvall, to the Chanel No. 5commercial with Estella Warren, and Red’s appearance in Disney’s Into the Woods from 2015. And this says nothing about the many variants of the story in print, and the 2011 horror film by the same name. You can find my version of the story here.
What, then, is the fascination with this story? Bruno Bettelheim claims Red Riding Hood is a story about sexual readiness, while other scholars claim it’s a story about rape. Whatever the reason, the story speaks to primal fears and primal appetites—a far cry from that glass-slippered heroine who has as much a place within popular culture as her dark twin.
So you don’t have to go looking for it, I’m including here the moral from Perrault’s version of the tale. And yes, he includes a moral, just so we are sure to understand Little Red’s fate.
Children, especially pretty, nicely brought-up young ladies, ought never to talk to strangers; if they are foolish enough to do so, they should not be surprised if some greedy wolf consumes them, elegant red riding hoods and all. Now, there are real wolves, with hairy pelts and enormous teeth; but also wolves who seem perfectly charming, sweet-natured and obliging, who pursue young girls in the street and pay them the most flattering attentions. Unfortunately, these smooth-tongued, smooth-pelted wolves are the most dangerous beasts of all.”