Jessica Vitalis is the author of The Wolf’s Curse. She is a full-time writer specializing in middle grade literature with a previous career in business and an MBA from Columbia Business School. An American expat, she now lives in Canada with her husband and two daughters. A standalone companion, The Rabbit’s Gift, comes out October 25th, 2022 with Greenwillow/HarperCollins.

The Wolf’s Curse
Published by HarperCollins

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Jessica Vitalis

My mission as a writer is always to create fun and entertaining stories that will encourage readers to ask questions and see the world in a new way.

What was the inspiration behind The Wolf’s Curse?  

I was standing in front of my bookshelves, searching for inspiration, when my gaze landed on The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Although I’d read the book before, I wondered at that moment what a book written from Death’s point of view would look like for middle grade readers. Once the idea took hold, I couldn’t let it go and The Wolf’s Curse was born!

The Wolf’s Curse is a story filled with rich and descriptive folklore, magic, and sorcery. What kind of research did you do for the book?

The research for this book fell into two categories: death mythology and writing craft. I knew I didn’t want to write a story about death and grief that came with the trappings of the real world in terms of funerals and cemeteries and traditional concepts of the afterlife, but I wasn’t sure exactly what my story world would look like. I searched the internet for inspiration and found that cultures around the world have very different ways of mourning their dead. For example, Tibetan Buddhists traditionally placed their dead at the top of a high peak to be consumed by birds and wildlife, believing that this contributed to the circle of life. The Malagasy people of Madagascar have a ceremony called The Turning of the Bones, where every few years they change the shrouds on their dead in a joyful ceremony that involves music and dancing. And different cultures in the Philippines have many different ways of honoring their dead, including hanging their coffins high on cliffs so that they are closer to the heavens. I didn’t want to appropriate any of these cultures, but they inspired me to design a world in which the villagers’ death rituals are inspired by their status as a historical fishing village without access to modern technology to understand the world around them. For example, they believe that their deceased travel to the Sea in the Sky, where they light lanterns (their understanding of stars) and sail into eternity. They also refer to their cemetery as the Wharves, and their coffins are carved wooden boats they call Vessels.

Because I’d never written with an omniscient narrator before, I also devoted quite a lot of time to reading as many middle grade books with omniscient narrators as I could get my hands on and studying how to pull that off from a craft perspective. That turned out to be quite a challenge because the story is written in present tense, and the Wolf plays an important role in the story but isn’t present in many of the scenes. The result is that the story often slips into a close third person perspective, which had to be handled carefully so as not to disorient the reader.  

The story features a young boy who becomes an outcast because he has a special ability to see the Wolf. What inspired that choice? 

I wanted to have fun with writing Death as my main character; initially, my idea was to write a story in which Death tries to trick someone into taking her job. In order to raise the stakes, I decided there could only be one person qualified to fill the role. That turned out to be twelve-year-old Gauge, who has spent most of his life in hiding after being labeled a Voyant, or a witch, because he can see the Great White Wolf. After Gauge witnesses the Wolf steal his grandpapa’s soul, he vows revenge, making the Wolf’s task even more challenging.

What drew you to write about themes of grief and loneliness? 

Initially, I didn’t think much about these themes at all—my real interest was in writing a book with a unique narrator. But when I sent my first draft off to a beta reader, she pointed out that I couldn’t really write a book about death without including grief. I realized that if I was going to do the book justice, I was going have to tackle grief and loss in a very honest and accessible way, but at the same time I wanted to write a story that would resonate with kids of all different cultures and religious traditions. I also found it troubling that, as a society, we tend to represent death as a Grim Reaper-like character—something to be feared rather than a normal part of the circle of life. It’s my hope that the fantasy elements in the story are fun to read but also that they encourage young readers to begin examining their own beliefs surrounding death and the afterlife. In terms of loneliness, I had a difficult childhood and moved nearly 24 times before reaching the fourth grade; the importance of friendship and found family is a theme that appears in nearly all of my work.

What do you hope readers will gain from reading your book?

My mission as a writer is always to create fun and entertaining stories that will encourage readers to ask questions and see the world in a new way. I hope The Wolf’s Curse will help them to explore death and grief, but most of all, I hope that they’ll walk away with the feeling that no matter how bad things seem, there’s always room for hope and healing.

Tell us a little about your new book, The Rabbit’s Gift, coming out this fall! 

I’m super excited about this book—thank you for asking! The Rabbit’s Gift was inspired by the 1896 silent film La Fée Aux Choux, in which a fairy picks human babies from cabbage plants. In my book, human babies are grown by rabbits in cabbage-like plants called Chou; they trade the Chou with humans for the purple carrots the rabbits need to survive. The dual point of view story features Quincy Rabbit, who is tired of being overlooked due to his small size. When his Warren begins to starve, he sets out for the human world to find purple carrot seeds, determined to prove that you don’t have to be big to be a hero. The other main character, Fleurine, is the daughter of the Grand Lumière that rules the country. Fleurine longs for a sister to help shoulder the burden of her maman’s impossible expectations; when Fleurine spots Quincy stealing her purple carrot seeds, she follows him back to the Warren and steals a Chou, setting off a chain of events that jeopardizes the future for rabbits and humans alike. The Rabbit’s Gift comes out October 25th (but is available for pre-order now in case anyone is interested!).

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