Whether or not you are Catholic, Jane Langton's Saint Francis and the Wolf has something to recommend it. Focusing on a lesser-known St. Francis of Assisi legend, Langton tells a story that catches the imagination as well as any good piece of folklore. A wolf is terrorizing a small town called Gubbio, clawing and howling at the town gates day and night. Children cannot play in the fields. Farmers are afraid to work their harvests, so the miller has no grain to grind and the baker no flour to make into bread. Everyone is hungry.
Then St. Francis hears of the town's plight and offers to talk to the wolf. The townspeople urge him not to, sure the wolf will eat him. But St. Francis finds the wolf and peacefully prevents the creature from eating him. St. Francis tells the wolf there must be peace between him and the people of the town. "If you promise to do them no harm, they will feed you as long as you live," he says. The wolf agrees to this by wagging his tail and laying his paw in St. Francis' hand.
The townspeople celebrate--and they keep their promise to feed the wolf. Soon the wolf is like a family pet, playing with the children and going house to house for company. Yet after only two years, the wolf dies of old age, and the town mourns.
"[The wolf's] gentle presence in Gubbio had been a reminder of the goodness in all living things."
What I Like: The story is told in a lovely, old fashioned way, and the illustrations by Caldecott winner Ilse Plume are reminiscent of old illuminated manuscripts. Even preschoolers will appreciate this tale.
What I Dislike: If you aren't Catholic, there is nothing religious about this book. Never do we see St. Francis praying or reminding the people of Gubbio about God's promises. And the ending line (about the "goodness in all living things") leads to thoughts of humanism instead of Christianity. (To be fair, however, the end papers do contain a religious poem by St. Francis of Assisi, "The Canticle of the Sun," which praises the Lord.) Therefore, many readers will not consider this book "Christian;" still, it's a well-told tale with beautiful illustrations.
Overall Rating: As a Christian book, I'd give this title a "Poor" rating, but as s secular book, it deserves a "Very Good."
Age Appeal: 3 - 7.
Publishing Info: David R Godine, 2007; ISBN: 1567923208; hard back, $16.95