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In this quirky tale by Japanese born author/illustrator, Satoshi Kitamura, three sheep go on a trip to the seaside where they encounter a group of wolves playing mini golf on the beach. The wolves trick the sheep into taking off their coats before going in the sea, telling them that “the salt water will ruin them.” When the sheep come back from their swim, their coats and the wolves have vanished. Can they track down the culprits? With the aid of Private Detective Elliott Baa and a gang of rugby playing cats, the sheep set out to recover their lost property, which proves to be an eventful and chaotic quest.
If this sounds like a rather strange story, it certainly is – but strange in a good way. My children loved this book. What is amusing about it is that although throughout the book the sheep do things that you definitely wouldn’t associate with sheep, such as going down to the beach in a convertible and taking off their fleecy coats to go for a swim, at other times in the story we see them standing around on 4 legs in the meadow, eating grass, just like common-or-garden sheep. The combination of animal characteristics and human characteristics is a particularly endearing feature.
This is a book that even children who are not yet able to read independently can enjoy, because the illustrations are so vivid that they almost tell the story without any need for words. It is an excellent book to read aloud to children and to encourage predictive skills, which are an important part of literacy development. An adult can pause at key points in the story to ask the child what they think is going to happen. For example, when the wolves offer to look after the coats while the sheep go for a swim, children can be asked what they think the wolves will do. When Elliott Baa and the sheep follow a trail of wool through the town which leads to the door of a building, children can be asked to guess what might be found inside, or what they think might be in the bag that the sheep take from the knitwear shop. Children are motivated to keep listening to the story to find out if their guess was right.
The wonderful pictures provide an opportunity to test children’s observational skills. You can ask children to try to spot different things in the pictures. In one scene of total mayhem featuring a hilarious altercation between the wolves and the rugby playing cats, it’s possible to spot all sorts of items that are strewn around the room or flying through the air, such as a paintbrush, a sewing kit, a lamp, a sock, a biscuit tin, etc. My children loved to play ‘I spy’ with this picture. No matter how many times we read the book, there always seemed to be something new to spot in this particularly busy illustration. Young children can also count the number of cats, wolves, ducks, and seagulls etc. that appear throughout the book.
This book doesn’t send out any heavy moral message, although it does warn children that people aren’t always what they seem and that it is not always good to be too trusting, a reference to the old proverb about “a wolf in sheep’s clothing’, from which the book’s title comes. (It’s a neat twist here that the sheep end up wearing wolves’ clothing. Exactly how is revealed at the end of the book and I won't spoil the surprise.) It’s great that this book shows the characters working things out by being observant, quick witted and using creative problem-solving methods.
In some parts of the book, the sheep talk to each other through speech bubbles, which provide variety and a comic book style. My daughter used to like to take the part of one sheep and let me read the others. It made the story more of an interactive experience and was a great way for her to practice her reading skills without having to attempt to read the whole book, which does have a few long, complicated words in it. The text in speech bubbles is shorter and simpler, so it is a good way for children to begin this book. By the age of about 6 I think many children would be able to have a stab at reading this book independently, as the pictorial cues do help them to work out the more difficult words.
I love Satoshi Kitamura’s artwork, which is beautifully atmospheric. I particularly love the pictures where it is getting dark as they really build the suspense. There is a good balance between pictures of the countryside, the coast and urban scenes, which can encourage children to notice the differences in the various locations – such as the architecture of the town, the spacious roads and lush, green landscape of the countryside etc. The pictures also show different modes of transport, with the sheep starting out in a car, then hitching a ride on a canal boat, then going on foot to the town, which helps children to reflect on the different speeds involved and the time it might have taken the sheep to complete stages of their journey using the various methods. There is a lot to talk about in this book. My children loved the part where the sheep were on the beach, which often led us to discuss the things we liked to do on our own holidays. The attention to detail in the pictures is superb and this adds lots of comic touches. For instance, when the sheep realise the wolves have fled with their coats, they spot tyre tracks in the sand, but if you’re very observant you will also spot an empty beer can and bottle discarded on the beach in the corner of picture. In another super picture of the sheep in the car, I love the way Kitamura has blurred the trees to make it look as if they are travelling at great speed and you can just spot a little rabbit at the corner of the picture, peeping out of a hole, keeping a safe distance.
Sheep in Wolves’ Clothing is surprisingly involved for a children’s story, with lots of incidents, fast paced events and unexpected twists. It is a great example of how to structure a story, which could influence children who are starting to write their own. It shows how a story needs a beginning which grabs your attention, lots of interesting characters and happenings, then a satisfying ending which ties up all the fragments of the plot. Understanding the way a story is crafted is part and parcel of developing literary appreciation.
This was always a popular book at our house. It is funny, original and surprisingly exciting. Adults reading this to their children will appreciate the subtle sending up of the traditional detective story, with a sheep as a private eye, dressed in a fedora hat and dark glasses, and the seedy looking building in the back streets where the criminal gang of wolves hang out, which has a sign on the door saying, ‘Wolfgang & Bros Quality Knitwear.’ We loved the way that when the detective bursts in on this hardened gang of crooks he finds them knitting! It’s a joy to read and I have no hesitation in recommending this book. I noticed it being sold new for an extortionate £32.02 on Amazon, although used copies could be obtained from £5.02. It might be better to check out your local library first.