There are some kids book that I’m ambivalent to the first time I see it and then grow to really like it. Swine Lake by James Marshall & Maurice Sendak is one of those books. I think probably the first time I borrowed it from the library I was disappointed it had nothing to do with Swan Lake. The second time I borrowed it I was more accepting that it was a story on its own, and I liked its vocabulary. Then as I read it a couple more times I was drawn to the ambiguity of it. It is a picture book about self-worth and needs.
The protagonist is a “lean and mangy” wolf looking for some food in a new part of town. Some squirrels call him a “poor old dog… on his last legs.” He admits to himself he’s not as swift as he used to be and doesn’t chase it. That is the introduction. The story then moves on to him discovering a pig theatre and though he enters meaning to make himself a meal there, he finds himself drawn into the show. There’s a wonderful line in parenthasis that “Had the ticket taker been more observant, he would have noticed the long claws and much that follows would have been avoided.” The line builds suspense, because we get to wonder what will follow, but I think it also reflects a deeper issue within the story. It is a story about people not being observant. It is a story about a wolf not being recognized and a story about a wolf wanting to be recognized.
The pigs are performing a ballet in which the pig bride is captured by a monster and almost stewed before being rescued by the pig-groom. The wolf finds that part particularily thrilling. It’s a great chance to talk about points of view. From the wolf’s point of view, who is the hero of the story? Can you summarize the story of the ballet the way a pig would and the way a wolf might?
One of my boys wondered if the wolf would understand why the monster (a character in the ballet) falls asleep after eating a nectarine. Would he understand that the nectarine had something special in or on it? We talked about how the program might explain the story. We also ended up talking about the different layers within the story. The actor of the monster knows what is happening and what to do. The character of the monster doesn’t know the nectarine will put him to sleep. The wolf may or may not know but the audience in general would understand. The readers of the story know.
I used the book and introduced my nine year old to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. What needs does the wolf’s action on his second trip to the theatre meet? (Hint: it isn’t food.) What does that mean? If the basic assumption is that the lower needs on the hierachy need to be met first, does it mean the wolf isn’t as hungry as he looks? Or perhaps is the hierarchy not always relevant? Are there times when people could forgo the lower aspects in search of the higher needs?
After each of his two trips to the theatre the wolf has slight interactions with his landlady, a woman who holds a bad impression of the wolf. One of her lines is: “Leading a life of crime, no doubt.” Again there’s the issue of meat-eating in anthropmorphized children’s stories. Is the wolf inherently a criminal? Or is the landlady basing her assumptions on the wolf’s manginess and poverty? What does the wolf mean when he says “you wouldn’t understand”?