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11. Wolves – Central European wildlife depicted in nonfiction picturebooks

Beate Laudenberg (1961) is associate professor of German literature and didactics at Paedagogische Hochschule of Karlsruhe (GER), Current research project Leistung macht Schule (2018-22), latest book Leistungsstarke und Begabte (2019, co-ed. C. Spiegel).

This chapter will analyse how the wolf is represented in nonfiction picturebooks, especially in series. The study of the verbal and visual artwork will focus on the following issue: How does the reappearance of the real wolf influence its representation in picturebooks? As several Central European countries are affected by the changing of wildlife a comparison of translated wolf biographies will indicate the linguistic and cultural particularities of the construction and validation of knowledge.

Keywords: reappearance of the wolf, presentation of predators, Little Red Riding Hood syndrome, translation of wolf biographies

The Wolf in Children’s Picturebooks

Since the end of the last century, the wolf has been on the rise in Europe and is populating countries where people were previously not familiar with wild animals formerly coexisting in their habitat. While the wolf is actively being reestablished in many parts of the world, it has spread by itself in Central Europe due to the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall. Since the 1990s wolves have expanded from the Baltic into Central European countries (Chapron et al., 2014, p. 1517). As a result of the wolf’s extermination in Central Europe in the 19th century, our experiences are based on books, especially folktales which have formed our image of the wolf. The end of the last century is also a turning point of ‘picturing the wolf in children’s literature’ (Mitts-Smith, 2010). Influenced by the return of the real wolf, many authors, primarily those of picturebooks, create a new fictional wolf, often as the main character in picturebook series. Their post-modern verbal and visual strategies have been pointed out (Laudenberg, 2010) and children’s reactions to them have also been examined (Ghosh, 2015). In contrast to the research on fictional stories, scholarship on nonfiction picturebooks is regarded as being “scarce and scattered” (von Merveldt, 2018, p. 241). Indeed, informational picturebooks about an animal should provide facts about its biology and behaviour, its appearance and communication, and its reproduction and habitat, but in doing so they “select, organize, and interpret facts and figures using verbal and visual codes” (von Merveldt, 2018, p. 232). Up to the end of the 20th century, Central European readers looking for facts about wolves got information about an animal they wouldn’t come across in their extra-textual world. The reappearance of the wolf – while many animal species are endangered – is a challenge for the visualisation of nonfiction picturebooks.

The Wolf as a Predator

The wolf remained alive only in a few Iberian and Italian regions and the subject on wolves was included in the Bern Convention on the preservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats established by the Council of Europe in 1979. Since the wolf’s reemergence in Central European countries, the member states have to take measures for its protection. Nevertheless, the return of the wolf provokes emotional discussions. Several conversation groups and scientists have been trying to educate the public to avoid clashes between humans and wolves, because the “wolf probably has the worst public image of any large animal on the planet” according to the Scottish ecologist and natural history photographer, Alan Watson Featherstone (Carrell, 2007). Indeed, many people are afraid of this wild animal. Their fear isn’t based on experiences but on media, first and foremost on books and films about myths. Debra Mitts-Smith (2010) who examines the depiction of the wolf in children’s literature, concludes:

From hunting to attacking and devouring, these images reflect not only the most dangerous aspect of the imaginary and the real wolf but one of the most basic ways in which we categorize the wolf: he is a predator. (Mitts-Smith, 2010, p. 25)

So, I’ll start by taking a look at nonfiction picturebooks about predators. Whilst the wolf was completely wiped out of Great Britain, France, the Benelux, Germany and Denmark it still remained in the Balkans and in Eastern and far Northern areas of Europe. When predators are depicted in nonfiction books in these regions, we’ll tend to only see animals living there. For example, on the covers of the Swedish Rovdjursboken (Book of predators; Falk & Eng, 2008) and Rovdjur (Predator; Roos, 2009) the grey wolf is indeed one of the four animals portrayed. Apart from the bear, the lynx, the wolverine and the wolf, the book Norges tøffeste rovdyr (the greatest predators of Norway; Rovstad, 2014) also depicts two birds (the golden eagle and the eagle owl). The book’s cover shows predators – with their mouths closed – looking nearly straight at the reader and only the Norwegian example presents the wolf howling.

If children in Central Europe choose a nonfiction book about predators, they will see animals pictured on the covers who don’t even exist in their own countries: for example a tiger (Beaumont, 1998), a crocodile (Santoro, 20081) or a leopard (Steghaus-Kovac, 2012), all with their mouths wide open. They are presented in a similar manner: carnivores depicted as meat-eaters characterised by impressive jaws. Even though the second edition of the French example (Beaumont, 2003) changed the animal on the cover and depicted a lion family with their mouths closed, the posture of the male is impressive and the idea of strength, speed, and keen senses for hunting is also reflected by the animals (sabre-tooth, cheetah, lynx, tiger) depicted along the top of the cover.

Before I go on to focus on picturebooks about the wolf, I want to show one further example, by taking a glance inside the book at how it describes the wolf: The book is part of the series “frag mich was” (ask me something; Hauenschild, 2005), edited by Loewe, a German publisher of children’s books. It’s not given the title “predators” but “wild animals”. This series only seems to invite children to ask one question at a time about each animal because Lydia Hauenschild, the author, only poses one key question in each of the 17 chapters. In the first chapter, a scientist is pictured in the headline answering the question “where do wild animals live?” by giving a definition of wildlife: animals that grow independently of people, even in our own fruit orchard, and we can see hedgehogs, a frog, and other animals on the picture. But as we associate wild with danger and speed – as defined by the author – the book only pays attention to these types of animal, among them the wolf.

The cover depicts animals which don’t live in Europe, but are well known as zoo animals: two elephants with a baby elephant in the center of the cover and along its top one giraffe, one rhinoceros, one hippopotamus, and two wolves. The last one is the same picture that we find on the doublespread about wolves (Hauenschild, 2005, pp. 38–39): two wolves shown at the end of a struggle, one in a dominating position above the other, one lying on its back on the floor. Although the headline “How do wolves communicate?” focuses solely on communication, the reader also gets basic information about the wolf: pack life and hierarchy, reproduction, hunting and camouflage on this doublespread. While the camouflage is only shown in the picture, but not actually mentioned in the text, the wolf’s habitat is not mentioned at all. The safari outfit of the scientist depicted twice on the top of the left page suggests that all the animals presented in this book don’t exist in Europe. On this page (Fig. 11.1), the man is communicating with his dog in a similar way to the two wolves, suggesting a similarity between wolf and dog. The domestication of the wolf may be associated with this as the text in the middle of the left page tells us that the wolf was the progenitor of all current dog breeds and that therefore its body language can be observed in the behaviour of every domestic dog.2 Howling, as the characteristic trait of the wolf, is pointed out in an information box lying amid the text and picture sections (Hauenschild, 2005, p. 39). This helps children trying to answer the question “Why do wolves howl?” in the “test your knowledge” page at the end of the book.

Figure 11.1

Wild Tiere (2005), by Lydia Hauenchild, Loewe.

Reproduced with permission.

It’s probably their focus on imparting knowledge that prevents the anthologies on predators or wild animals from making reference to myths and fiction about the wolf. As we will see, wolf biographies don’t omit them. Information picturebooks about the wolf deal with its bad reputation, and the so-called Little Red Riding Hood syndrome is to be found in nearly every book. In the following I will use a representative selection of nonfictional picturebooks about the wolf to show how its image has changed with its reappearance. Books that have been translated into several European languages are preferred because a comparison of the translations may indicate the linguistic and cultural particularities of the construction and validation of knowledge.

The Wolf Portrayed by Facts and Folklore

My first example also pursues the same strategy as the text mentioned above (Hauenschild, 2005) by putting questions into the mouths of its young readers: Loup, qui es-tu? (Wolf, who are you?) is the title of this nonfiction picturebook, written and illustrated by Laura Bour and published in France in 1986, before the wolf regained its Central European territories. The question and its communicative strategy are even visualised by a speech bubble on the title page. Before beginning to read the text, we can already see several typical characteristics depicting the wolf: a howling wolf in a winter night sky with half-moon (a second wolf behind it staring at the reader and in the distance a small town with a church) – inside the cover, on the doublespread we see a variation of this cover scene again; now it’s a pack in a winter night with full moon approaching a remote house. In the 1980s/1990s this couldn’t be regarded as a real scene: there were no wolf or wolf packs, not in France or any of its neighbouring countries (perhaps with the exception of Spain and Italy). It must therefore depict a fictional or a historical scene. Both fiction and history are embedded in the visual and the verbal code. While the picture on the cover evokes the fairytale of Little Red Riding Hood (Fig. 11.2), the book starts off with the fear of a wolf’s invasion by picturing a wolf smashing a window and the text starts off by asking the reader: “As-tu déjà eu peur de rencontrer un loup?” (Have you ever been afraid of meeting a wolf?). The second question on this page works like the title question: the reader shall ask him/herself “Pourquoi cette peur?” (Why are we afraid?; Bour, 1986, p. 2). The text explains why people have been afraid from the Middle Ages onwards: the narrator emphasises that people knew very little about this predator. At the same time this is the justification to write this nonfiction picturebook: to give a lot of information in twelve doublespreads. In comparison to other wolf biographies, it gives a detailed description of the history of man’s handling of the wolf over several centuries up to present day (protection from, hunting of the wolf and the ecological consequences of its extinction).

Figure 11.2

Loup, qui es-tu, by Laura Bour, edition 1996 and 2004, Gallimard.3

The end of the book is exceptional as well because there are three doublespreads corresponding with the beginning, framing the information and reiterating the fear by depicting the myths (in France especially “la fameuse Bête du Gevaudan” – the infamous beast of Gevaudan), legends and tales which are then reinforced by the illustrations. Addressing the child, the narrator concludes: “Now you know that all these myths just aren’t true […] Wouldn’t you like to hear a wolf howling in the countryside?” (Bour, 1986, pp. 29–304). The last illustration following this rhetorical question is the one of Little Red Riding Hood on the book cover. There is also a rapport between the last sentence and the final scene, because the last doublespread quotes some proverbs related to the wolf, the last one evoking the twilight: “Aimes-tu te promener entre chien et loup? C’est l’heure où la nuit tombe” (Bour, 1986, p. 325).

If we consider the translations of Bours’ book, the German version doesn’t follow the original text as closely as the others do. Instead of giving German proverbs promoting linguistic and historical sensitivity,6 it provides a short extract from a German anthology of sayings involving animals from all over the world (Die schönsten Tiersagen der Welt, 1978). Instead of setting the story straight about the history and fiction of the wolf as the “bad guy”, the grandmother in this story promises to kill the wolf after she threatens to give her disobedient grandson to the wolf. The wolf, who is listening outside the house, returns to the forest concluding that one cannot count on man. Children must conclude that the wolf would have eaten the child if his grandmother had given him to the wolf. This confirms the statement given on the preceding doublespread: instead of saying that all the myths are untrue, the German version points out that an animal is neither good nor bad but acts by following its natural instinct. If the wolf were to return, people would have a better understanding of the life of this legendary animal and they wouldn’t fear it anymore.7 The German title Keine Angst vorm bösen Wolf (Don’t be afraid of the [big] bad wolf) is not honoured here at all. It is very unfortunate that the book fails to achieve its educational objective although it has already seen four editions by Ravensburger (Bour, 1987, 1990, 1991, 1995).

Apart from the title, the Dutch translation (1988) closely follows the French text. Its question Bang voor de boze wolf? (Afraid of the [big] bad wolf?) refers – as does the German version – to the picture of Little Red Riding Hood and characterises the wolf as bad. What’s more it evokes a popular children’s game which is linked to the well-known song that became widespread in 1933 as a result of the Disney cartoon Three Little Pigs. In contrast to the German title, the question is answered at the end of the book with no: if people have information about wolves, they won’t fear them any longer.8 But is this really convincing if the real wolf is compared with the epic wolf character? The change of the cover of the later French edition (Bour, 2004) may indicate that it is not the case; less so than ever, since the wolf is on the rise in Central Europe. In Spain where the wolf never was completely extinct, a translation was only published in 2007 adapting the third French edition with a new cover without the picture of Little Red Riding Hood (Bour, 2004). Instead of the reference to the fictional character, the child’s inquisitiveness is intensified by a big red question mark at the left side and three questions at the bottom of the cover page (Fig. 11.2). The first of them is a new one: “Pourrais-tu encore rencontrer un loup dans un coin d’un bois?” (Could you still encounter a wolf in the forest?) – because, indeed, it is now possible to encounter a wolf in the woods. That may be the reason why the same French editor, Gallimard Jeunesse, published another picturebook about the wolf, written and illustrated by the same author (Bour, 1994). This edition is typical for nonfiction books about wolves since the end of the last century: a simple title (Le loup) and a hand-drawn portrait of the animal on the cover page. The reference to legends and fairytales can still be found inside the book, but has been reduced to one doublespread. This book, translated into the other Romance languages and into English, is still available. In spite of its success, it has not yet been translated into Dutch or German.

The trend towards face-to-face portrayal is accompanied by the use of photographs which are then updated when a new edition or a translation is released. Whilst the first edition of Christian Havard’s picturebook Le loup: brigand des bois (1994) shows a photograph of a wolf running in the forest on the cover which fits the subtitle, the second (1999) and further editions present a photo of its head. The third edition (2003) does away the subtitle, as does the German translation (Der Wolf, 2000/2009/2020). The English edition translates it into The Wolf, night howler (2006) and the Spanish one into El Lobo ¡vaya fauna! (2001, What wildlife!).

These paratextual variations show the different attitudes of the authors or the editors and their influence on the reader (Genette, 1987). Translated editions vary the photographs and the subtitle but not the kind of portrait or the reference to legends. In this picturebook it’s Little Red Riding Hood once again. In 2019 the German Kosmos editor published a book whose title addresses the child: Komm, ich zeige dir die Wölfe (Come on, I’ll show you the wolves; Ernsten, 2019). Although the only reference to the fairytale is a shape of Little Red Riding Hood with the wolf on the page of contents, its advertising presents the alternative “Böser Wolf oder Kuscheltier?” ([big] bad Wolf or cuddly toy?) and promises: “Dieses besondere Sachbuch zeigt, wie Wölfe wirklich sind” (This extraordinary nonfiction book depicts wolves as they really are; www.kosmos.de/).

Indeed, the question about the cuddly toy is interesting: compared to the bear, who was also annihilated in Central Europe, children usually don’t play with a stuffed wolf. They weren’t even able to do so because the German manufacturer Margarete-Steiff for example, which was founded in 1880, only started producing cuddly wolves since 2012. The two types of wolf Steiff sells are designed very realistically. Other stuffed wolves have either childlike or doglike looks or they represent a fictional character as in the case of a French cuddly wolf with a very long nose and mouth, a new kind of a wolf character established by the British illustrator and author Tony Ross in the 1980s and developed as a series character by the French illustrator and author Geoffroy de Pennart in the 1990s (Laudenberg, 2013, pp. 23–24). At the end of his cultural history of the wolf, Michel Pastoureau remarks on the appearance of a stuffed wolf in 2009 based on the fictional character of a popular French picturebook from the author Orianne Lallemand: “It’s a clear sign of an undeniable reevaluation of the wolf, formerly absent because of its negative image, which has finally found its place [in the animal world of toys]” (Pastoureau, 2018, p. 1519).

Appropriate Ways of Depicting the Wolf?

The wolf has finally found its place in the traditional category of nonfiction picturebooks about animals. Its reappearance has afforded more and better research which has been supported by the increased value attributed to biodiversity. The covers of the three editions of the German “Was ist Was”-series about wolves may summarise the changes in how the wolf has been portrayed. While the cover of its first edition, written by the wolf expert Eric Zimen (1997), shows different drawings of eight wolves (three bodies and five heads), the second edition), published in 2010, seven years after Zimen’s death, halves the number of wolves shown (three bodies and one head). A new edition, managed by Till Meyer, was published in 2013 under the extended title Wölfe. Im Revier der grauen Jäger (2013; Wolves. In the territory of the grey hunters). Despite the title, the number of wolves has been reduced to just one with its photo-portrait as the frontispiece: we see the wolf picking up a track in the snow (Fig. 11.3). The wolf’s previous image as that of predator is replaced by a focus on its hunting. Even informational books visually and verbally deal with the wolf’s reputation in folklore e.g., the “Was ist Was”-series has chosen an unusual way by placing a photograph of the famous bronze figure of the Capitoline Wolf suckling Romulus and Remus in the lower left corner of the first edition. However, this reference to myth on the cover has been removed from the second edition onwards. It remains as the only illustration alluding to myths and fairytales inside Zimen’s book (Zimen, 1997/2010, p. 44)10. Meyer (2013) extends the references by devoting two doublespreads, one to the “Mythos vom guten Wolf” (pp. 10–11; legend of the good wolf), one to the “Geschichte vom bösen Wolf” (pp. 12–13; tale of the [big] bad wolf). Juxtaposing the two diverging properties seems to be typical of German wolf biographies. More than one is entitled Guter Wolf (Good wolf; Fischer-Nagel, 2013) cutting across the boundary of scientific information.

Figure 11.3

Wölfe (1997, 2010),11 by Eric Zimen and Wölfe: im Revier der grauen Jäger (2013), by Till Meyer, Tessloff.

Reproduced with permission.

Whilst the pictures in Zimen’s edition only serve as illustrations, the last edition relies on a balance between visual and verbal information. But it is still far away from the pictorial turn regarded as “the reason why informational picturebooks are presently among the most innovative and groundbreaking books for children being published” (von Merveldt, 2018, p. 233).

Perhaps it’s the huge discrepancy between the wolf’s worst public image and an ecological and scientific point of view which has prevented the arrival of innovative wolf biographies on the European book market. The Ways of the Wolf published in 2017 in London, written by Smriti Prasadam-Halls and illustrated by Jonathan Woodward, is an outstanding example of giving information within visual aesthetics. No wonder that it has won the English Best Non-fiction Picture Book Award and was shortlisted for the SLA Awards in 2018. Up to now it has been translated into French (Le loup, 2017; The Wolf) and German (Auf den Spuren der Wölfe, 2018; Following the wolf’s track) without noteworthy changes. In contrast to drawings or photographs, Woodward’s cut-out paper and collage illustrations reflect multiple perspectives. Even the cover plays with what was previously highlighted i.e. a face-to-face portrayal of the wolf by presenting only the silhouette of a wolf’s head and within it a wolf pack in a snowy landscape (Fig. 11.4).

Figure 11.4

The Ways of the Wolf (2017), by Prasadam-Halls, Éditions du Seuil.

Reproduced with permission.

Prasadam-Halls alludes to most of the well-known wolf fictions in the text, but only Kipling’s Mowgli with his wolf is depicted. This chapter, with the two faces of the wolf, concludes: “When it comes to storytelling, we are drawn to wolves – whether portrayed as good or bad – above all other creatures” (Prasadam-Halls, 2017, p. 39). The last two pages of the book go much further than any of the previous volumes do by incorporating “Misleading Myths” (Prasadam-Halls, 2017, p. 46) with conversation advice. It asks the readers if they want to help wolves and provides tips on how to do just that. In terms of the amount of information provided, the smallest (Bour, 1986: 11x0,8x18 cm) and the largest (Prasadam-Halls, 2017: 25x1,3x32 cm) of my examples are actually very similar, but the latter is by far the most innovative. Perhaps “the beauty of Jean Craighead George’s writing”, pointed out by Ted Kesler (2012, p. 338) will encourage yet another innovative step towards more poetic, nonfiction picturebooks about the wolf.


Beaumont, É. (1998/2003). Les fauves. Pour les faire connaître aux enfants de 5 à 8 ans (G. P. Faleschini, Illus.). Paris: Fleurus.

Bour, L. (1986). Loup, qui es-tu? Paris: Gallimard (1996, 2004).

Bour, L. (1987). Keine Angst vorm bösen Wolf (J. Witznick, Trans.). Ravensburg: Ravensburger Buchverlag (1990, 1991, 1995).

Bour, L. (1988). Bang voor de boze wolf? (A. Starmans, Trans). Tilburg: Zwijsen.

Bour, L. (2007). Lobo ¿quién eres? (M. González Durán, Trans.). Madrid: Santillana Altea.

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Chapron G., Kaczenksy, P., Linnell, J. D. C., Arx, M. von, Huber, D., Andrén, H., … Boitani, L., (2014). Recovery of large carnivores in Europe’s modern human-dominated landscapes. Science, Vol. 346, Dec. 2014 Issue 6216, pp. 1517–1519.

Ernsten, S. (2019). Komm, ich zeige dir die Wölfe. Stuttgart: Franckh Kosmos.

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1There’s no doubt that predators are dangerous but it’s only the title of the Danish translation (2009) which emphasises this with the adjective dangerous: Farlige rovdyr (cf. German translation: Raubtiere, English translation: Predators).
2The German text reads as follows: “Der Wolf ist der Vorfahr aller heutigen Hunderassen. Man kann seine Körpersprache deshalb bei jedem Haushund beobachten” (Hauenschild, 2005, p. 38).
3The 2004 cover is available at https://pictures.abebooks.com/isbn/9782070558483-us.jpg.
4The French text reads as follows: “Maintenant tu sais bien que tout cela est faux! […] N’aimerais-tu pas, à la campagne, entendre au loin le chant des loups?”.
5As there is no linguistic equivalent, this proverb literally reads: Would you like to go for a walk between dog and wolf? This is the hour of twilight.
6The seven French proverbs can’t be translated but easily replaced by German proverbs applying wolf, e.g. hungrig wie ein Wolf, ein Wolf im Schafspelz or mit den Wölfen heulen (i.e. ravenous as a wolf, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, howling with the wolves).
7The German text reads as follows: “Ein Tier handelt nicht ‘gut’ oder ‘böse’, sondern immer nur nach seiner Natur […] dann werden die Menschen die Lebensweise dieser sagenumworbenen Tiere besser verstehen und sich nicht mehr vor ihnen fürchten” (Bour, 1987, pp. 29–30).
8The Dutch text reads as follows: “Maar eerst moeten alle mensen de wolf leren kennen. Niemand mag meer bang voor wolven zijn” (Bour, 1988, p. 33).
9The French text reads as follows: “le loup, autrefois absent parce que trop négatif, y [au bestiaire des jouets] a enfin trouvé sa place, ce qui est le signe d’une indéniable revalorization”.
10There is one additional picture depicting Hitler as a wolf (Zimen, 1997/2010, p. 44). The absolutely exceptional illustration with a short explanation was removed from the new edition.
11The 2010 cover is available at https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/I/51ua9JcKkHL._SX313_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg.

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