Worth the Candle
Does everyone who falls in love with children's literature pick a totem? We think so--certainly we know many children who at one time devour absolutely all the stories to be found about pigs. Or elephants. Or chickens. (They then turn into adults who collect figurines or Pez dispensers--not that there's anything wrong with that.)
Few of these children settle on sheep, which perhaps reflects healthy individuation (because who wants to be just one of the flock) or perhaps musical discernment (because "Mary Had a Little Lamb" is the most insipid tune of childhood.) But for those who have drunk the Woolite, sheep are favorites exactly because their image is so poor. We've felt sheepish or been fleeced, and so we are drawn to the sheep stories in which dim-witted stereotypes can be suborned. You don't have to be ewe-ish to love a book in which the muttonheads triumph.
Betsy Who Cried Wolf is Gail Carson Levine's spin on the cry-wolf fable. Betsy is a conscientious 8-year-old happy to be embarking on her career as a shepherd. She would never confabulate about the presence of a wolf, but the wolf she spots is good at hiding. So the townspeople think she is fibbing and inappropriately seeking attention. It's just lucky that she finds a way to befriend the wolf--and recognize that he's a sheepdog in wolf's clothing.
All this makes for a delightful story, but what really makes us love Betsy Who Cried Wolf are the illustrations by Scott Nash (who's known for his second-generation illustrations of Flat Stanley). Betsy, who has red bangs, a green hoodie and Tyrolean flair, is clearly a child who should be seen, heard and believed. The wolf, skinny as a runway model and almost as stylish in his orange wool muffler, often assumes the posture of a choir boy. Best of all is Betsy's flock, who function as a sort of Greek chorus of ungulates, They walk upright and crack wise (in hand-lettered, cartoon-like word balloons) and gesticulate with their front hooves. His lambs are like first-graders at recess. They run with balled-up fists, and they approach their pasture's dangerous cliff as if it were a climbing wall. And they make precocious observations like the one that ends the book: "A story with too many morals is like a book that won't end."