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Debuting with Death, a guest post by Jessica Vitalis

When I was drafting what would turn out to be my debut novel, “The Wolf’s Curse,” I couldn’t have predicted that it would come out during a worldwide pandemic. With the entire world facing unimaginable levels of loss and grief, a Grim Reaper retelling might not seem like an auspicious beginning for my career.

But if it’s one thing writing this story taught me, it’s that processing grief isn’t only about resilience: It’s about rituals. It’s about community. It’s about hope –– the possibility that we might heal and, in so doing, find some measure of future happiness.

How we do that varies not only from person to person but from culture to culture. In North America, burials and cremations are the norm, along with funerals that allow loved ones to gather in remembrance of the departed. These rituals are part of our attempts to say goodbye, to come to terms with our grief. Having grown up in the United States, I thought these rituals were more or less the norm around the world.  But in researching death rituals while writing “The Wolf’s Curse,” I learned that they vary widely across cultures.

For example, some Tibetan Buddhists practice sky burials, where their bodies are left outside for birds and animals, thereby freeing the soul and continuing the circle of life. The Malagasy people of Madagascar have joyful ceremonies known as the “Turning of the Bones,” where approximately every five years, they perfume and/or rewrap their dead in fresh shrouds and dance near the tombs, and the Tinguian dress their dead in finery and seat them in a chair with a lit cigarette. One South American tribe is said to eat pieces of their dead to absorb their spirit, and the people of Kirbati exhume the skulls of the deceased to preserve and display in their homes.

Despite the many different traditions around the world, the rituals I encountered all share one common element: They bring comfort to the living. This realization was pivotal to writing “The Wolf’s Curse,” which is set in an early Renaissance-era seaside village. 

In my fictional world, the people believe that stars are actually lanterns lit by their loved ones once they reach the Sea-in-the-Sky and sail into eternity. The deceased are buried in boats with feathers, fishing gear and the other supplies they’ll need to make their journey. When my 12-year-old character loses his grandpapá and embarks on a journey to complete the old man’s Release ceremony, he’s stalked by a mythical Great White Wolf and ends up learning life-changing truths about the Wolf –– and about the nature of death.

The story is a twist on a Grim Reaper narrative, and it certainly explores grief and loss, but it also explores community, friendship and, most of all, the hope that comes with healing. The traditions and rituals might look different than the ones you and I are used to, but the emotions — the need for human connection and healing — are universal. Although I never could have foreseen the trials this year would bring, I’m grateful for the chance to share a story that might infuse a little more of this connection and healing in all our lives.

Meet the author

Jessica Vitalis is a Columbia MBA-wielding writer. She brings her experience growing up in a nontraditional childhood to her stories, exploring themes such as death and grief, domestic violence, and socio-economic disparities. 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” is her debut novel.

About The Wolf’s Curse

Shunned by his fearful village, a twelve-year-old apprentice embarks on a surprising quest to clear his name, with a mythic—and dangerous—wolf following closely at his heels. Jessica Vitalis’s debut is a gorgeous, voice-driven literary fantasy about family, fate, and long-held traditions. The Wolf’s Cursewill engross readers of The Girl Who Drank the Moon and A Wish in the Dark.

Gauge’s life has been cursed since the day he cried Wolf and was accused of witchcraft. The Great White Wolf brings only death, Gauge’s superstitious village believes. If Gauge can see the Wolf, then he must be in league with it.

So instead of playing with friends in the streets or becoming his grandpapa’s partner in the carpentry shop, Gauge must hide and pretend he doesn’t exist. But then the Wolf comes for his grandpapa. And for the first time, Gauge is left all alone, with a bounty on his head and the Wolf at his heels.

A young feather collector named Roux offers Gauge assistance, and he is eager for the help. But soon the two—both recently orphaned—are questioning everything they have ever believed about their village, about the Wolf, and about death itself. 

Narrated by the sly, crafty Wolf, Jessica Vitalis’s debut novel is a vivid and literary tale about family, friendship, belonging, and grief. The Wolf’s Curse will captivate readers of Laurel Snyder’s Orphan Islandand Molly Knox Ostertag’s The Witch Boy.

ISBN-13: 9780063067417
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/21/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

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