Every October 4, Catholics around the world celebrate the Feast of St. Francis, which honors the life of the 12th century friar who founded the Franciscan Order and became the patron saint of animals and the environment. Mark Van Steenwyk’s A Wolf at the Gate, illustrated by Joel Hedstrom and published by the progressive small press Reach & Teach, retells St. Francis’s encounter with a wolf in Gubbio from the point of view of the wolf. In doing so, Van Steenwyk privileges a non-human perspective while showing the costs of greed and the importance of mercy and second chances.
When a wolf with blood-red fur is born, the pack knows that she is of royal lineage and will one day become a leader. Her parents tell her stories to guide her – tales of life before the humans came with their deadly weapons, and tales of animals that used their strength and cleverness to steal from others rather than make life better for everyone. At first, Sister Wolf is a good leader, but when humans attack the pack and encroach on the wolves’ lands, she chooses vengeance and violence. The other wolves challenge her leadership, defeat her, and move away, leaving her alone to die. But the Beggar King – the future saint – finds her, restores her to health, and continues teaching where her parents left off. He introduces her to the village and she becomes its protector. Yet the village itself is under attack, and Sister Wolf must face and overcome her desire for revenge to keep violence from overtaking the village and the forest.
Rooted in history, myth, and fantasy, A Wolf at the Gate is an important book for our time and one that will appeal to middle grade readers. It builds on children’s attachment to animals, providing a bridge between the anthropomorphized animals of picture books and human-centered fiction for older readers. In doing so, it allows children to see the effect of environmental degradation on the creatures that have no choice in our decisions but are affected by them. While A Wolf at the Gate features a Catholic saint, it is also a book for a wide variety of faith traditions as well as nonbelievers, for the values of peace, generosity, and mercy highlighted in the story are universal ones. Hedstrom’s colorful illustrations, three in each chapter, contrast the bright red She Wolf with the green of the forest and the simple brown garb of the Beggar King. The illustrations, simple text, and multilayered concepts make this book a good choice for reluctant readers.