Whispers of the Wolf – by Pauline Tso
(Guest post by Pauline Ts’o, author of picture book Whispers of the Wolf.)
It was cold, very cold. But blue-white stars shimmered in the black January night as dozens of bonfires and luminarias circled the pueblo’s central plaza. Their warm glow lit the waiting people, the earthen adobe walls, the towering, ancient cottonwood tree, and tossed out long, flickering shadows.
I was in northern New Mexico for the Pueblo of San Ildefonso’s Feast Day. The feasting would start tomorrow with elk and posole stew, red beef chili, corn, fry bread, and warm bread and cookies from the horno. Tonight, we were waiting.
What was that? A hoot, then another, and another. Two “callers” emerged from the darkness, followed by buffalo dancers, deer dancers, and antelope dancers, each with steps that mimicked those of the real animals. Another dancer followed, sweeping the earth with pine branches, whisking their footprints away into the night.
Whispers of the Wolf was inspired by moments like these, plus a love of animals, a problem at work, and a writing class. In the late 1980s, I was taking a picture book writing class from Barbara Bottner (“Bootsy Barker Bites”), and her second writing assignment was to take a problem we were currently facing and give it the voice of a child.
At the time, I was starting a company with five partners, and I was very, very busy. It became obvious to me that another partner should take over one particular task of mine in order for the company to grow stronger. But it was hard, as I was doing that task pretty well and was nervous about what would happen if I did let someone else do it.
Well, I thought, maybe I should write about this “letting go” thing. But how to give it the voice of a child? Letting go of an animal adopted from the wild seemed like a good metaphor, something that kids would understand.
And because I had fallen in love with the Four Corners region after visiting for years, the pueblos felt like a natural setting. I knew there were a number of books which were retellings of Native American traditional stories, but a mere few featured realistic characters, people who were not of legendary status, but more like the actual people I had met on my trips. Perhaps this was something different I could contribute.
So, away I went and wrote a story about a hawk that a Pueblo boy, Two Birds, finds, raises, and frees. Only, oops, there was another book out there like that. Revise.
Deer – no. Buffalo – no. Turkey – definitely no.
Bear – maybe… Coyote – too many other associations.
Wolf – aha! Turns out, turkeys and dogs were the only domesticated animals among the ancestors of the Pueblo people. Because of its closeness to dogs, a child like Two Birds would naturally want a wolf pup as a companion. I was already aware that wolves cannot be tamed, so letting it go would have been inevitable.
There was a happy fit between the truthfulness underlying Two Bird’s story and my own story. The difficulties of raising something newborn, the attention that happens when one acquires something “cool,” the discovering of one’s voice, and the struggles of letting go all mirrored my own experiences. When a story is grounded that firmly, it has a better chance of surviving the many years it can take to reach readers.
Yes, in the end, I did let go. In my case, that task came back to me, on its own, about a year later, having wandered the world a bit and spent its curiosity.
Did the wolf return to Two Birds? A question, I think, best left to the reader.
Author Pauline Ts’o is an author, illustrator, photographer, and co-founder of Rhythm and Hues Studios, a computer animation and visual effects company. Rhythm and Hues Studios has won multiple Academy Awards (Life of Pi, Babe, and The Golden Compass—Best Visual Effects). Pauline’s production credits as a digital artist and lighting/art supervisor include Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. In addition to Whispers of the Wolf, which weaves together a story of tradition, self-esteem, and respect for all life, she has also written a picture book in rhyme, Mortimer Mole (Went for a Stroll!).
For educators, Pauline has create this page of Curriculum Tie-ins for Whisper of the Wolf, including Common Core and Arizona and New Mexico state content standards.