Monday, March 21, 2022

Voices of Experience: Helping Children Find the Light

It isn’t easy to accept what we can’t understand. But one thing I know to be true is that light always follows the dark. ~The Wolf’s Curse

We all wish we could protect children from the harsh realities of life, but if it’s one thing the last two years have made clear, it’s that we can’t. What we can do is give kids a safe space to process and name their feelings, and books are often the perfect way to do that. Author Jessica Vitalis reinvents Grim Reaper mythology in her middle grade novel The Wolf’s Curse. The story is narrated by a snarky wolf searching for someone in a highly superstitious fishing village to take her (yes, her!) job. But underneath the fantastical worldbuilding is a story that is honest and accessible; rather than shying away from the difficult emotions experienced by those who are grieving, the author embraces them in a story that opens the door to conversations about grief, tradition, the afterlife, and most importantly, about hope and healing. The following excerpt is reprinted with the author's permission.

 Today, Gauge isn’t running free.

Somehow—impossibly—he is on his way to say goodbye. The boy can no sooner imagine life without his grandpapá than he can the end of his own life. His fists clench at the unfairness of it all. His grandpapá was the one person in the whole of the world who loved Gauge. Who kept him safe. Who helped him survive.

Instinctively, Gauge knows that if he thinks too much about it, he’ll fall into an abyss every bit as dangerous as the sheer drop beyond the cliff’s edge. He focuses on the Steward, on her small, even footsteps, on the swish of her dress against the ground.

The only other time he saw her was when she came into the shop to order a headboard. Peeking from the back, Gauge was impressed with her grand clothes and haughty air. After she left, the Carpenter explained that she was the village Steward, that she’d released Gauge’s mother after she set sail.

Although they often searched for lanterns lit by Gauge’s mother, the old man was reluctant to talk about his daughter’s life, much less about her Release. After the Steward’s visit, a longing ignited in Gauge to learn everything he could about the woman who set sail before his first full winter. He begged his grandpapá until one night, while sitting with their legs dangling over the cliffs, the old man told the boy how his mother loved him more than waves love the shore, more than birds love the wind, more than the sun loves the sky. He told Gauge how she’d taken sick, how she’d been claimed by death long before her time. He explained how the Steward released her.

But I don’t need to give you all the details, not when you’re about to see for yourself. See how the Wharves are guarded by tall iron gates? Inside, a handful of empty holes are kept ready. The four young men unload the old man’s vessel from the cart, rest it carefully on the ground, and scurry off to procure ropes and shovels from a lean-to in the corner.

Mistress Charbonneaux sets down her basket. After glancing over her shoulder, she rummages inside the basket and rises, holding a round mirror. She holds it over the Carpenter’s face, capturing his soul in its reflective surface.

If Gauge were paying attention, he might notice her pinched mouth, her hurried movements, her care in holding the mirror so that only the seashell-crusted back is visible. If he were paying attention, he might notice the foul smell of fear lingering in the air. Instead, he stares blankly at the old man’s stiff body, mesmerized by the sleeve of his grandpapá’s shirt fluttering in the wind.

“I hereby release you from Bouge-by-the-Sea,” Mistress Charbonneaux chants, her words more clipped than usual. “May you reach the Sea-in-the-Sky and sail into eternity.”

“Bon voyage,” Gauge murmurs.

Mistress Charbonneaux’s face strains with the effort of cracking the mirror. Her lips press together so tightly that they disappear. Finally, the glass breaks in two. She rests the pieces on the old man’s chest, then returns to her basket and rummages for the final items needed to seal the release of the Carpenter’s soul from his body. “Where in the starfish are my feathers?”

Gauge searches his mind, remembers his grandpapá telling him how feathers helped his mother fly up to the Sea-in-the-Sky. (Yes, I realize this makes little sense in light of the fact that the old man is about to be buried in a vessel built for floating on water, but I think we’ve established that the people of Gatineau aren’t particularly concerned about technicalities.)

As if on cue, a single raven flies overhead and squawks angrily. Mistress Charbonneaux freezes. A single black feather floats to the ground. She spins to Gauge.

“You!” The word is loaded with fury. With fear. It’s an accusation and a question all in one.

“What?” Gauge asks, confused. (Since his grand- papá was careful never to speak of anything related to me, the poor boy has no idea that the villagers believe ravens are a sign that I’m nearby.)

“You called the Wolf.”

Lines appear in the boy’s forehead as he attempts to make sense of the Steward’s words.

He couldn’t possibly have called me. He doesn’t even know how to call me. He’d be glad never to see me again. “No, I didn’t!”

“I knew it,” she hisses. “I knew you were trouble. Now look what you’ve done, putting all our lives on the line.”

Poor Gauge scans the Wharves.

Spotting not even the smallest sign of me, he’s more confused than ever.

“Let’s go.” The Steward grips her basket. The four boys behind her have already dropped the ropes and shovels and are wheeling the cart toward the exit.

“Wait, stop!” Gauge calls. He rips his scarf from his face as he jogs after them. “You have to finish the Release.”

They exit the gates without looking back, leaving Gauge alone save for the single raven circling overhead. The old man has no hope of soaring up to the Sea-in-the-Sky. Without help, he’ll be left to sink to the Bog, where the souls not light enough to reach the Sea-in-the-Sky end up. The boy knows little of the Bog save that it’s dark and frightening, ruled by Voyants obsessed with power, with terrorizing all in their realm.

He falls to his knees, remembering how gently his grandpapá held his head up and spooned warm broth into his mouth when he was sick. How tenderly the old man cleaned Gauge’s thumb when his folding knife slipped. How he stood up to Lord Mayor Vulpine’s Guard and refused to hand Gauge over.

The boy vows to finish the old man’s Release.

© 2022 by Jessica Vitalis

About the Author:
Jessica Vitalis is a Columbia MBA-wielding writer with a mission to write entertaining and thought-provoking middle grade literature. Drawing upon her childhood experiences with loss, poverty, and trauma, she often combines difficult topics with magic and fantastical settings. As an active volunteer in the kidlit community, she’s also passionate about using her privilege to lift up other voices. She founded Magic in the Middle, a series of free monthly recorded book talks, to help educators introduce young readers to new stories. She was recently named a 2021 Canada Council of the Arts Grant Recipient. An American expat, she now lives in Canada with her husband and two precocious daughters. She loves traveling, sailing and scuba diving, but when she’s at home, she can usually be found reading a book or changing the batteries in her heated socks. The Wolf’s Curse, published by Greenwillow/HarperCollins in 2021, will be followed by The Rabbit’s Gift on October 25, 2022. More information can be found at

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