The Wolves of Willoughby Chase

by Joan Aiken. Chapter Book. 192 pages. Grades 3-7.
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Teacher's Guide

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The first in The Wolves Chronicles series, this classic is a lot of fun. It makes a great read-aloud for third grade through sixth.

Set in a fictitious early-19th-century, rural England, it is filled with ironic, sometimes dark, humor as it pokes fun at the many classic "orphan" stories. The setting is mainly historical except for the ever-present wolves, which have migrated in large numbers down from Northern Europe and Russia through a tunnel under the English Channel.

In this parody of a gothic melodrama, two cousins, Bonnie and Sylvia, through the villainy of Miss Slighcarp, become wards in an orphanage. With the help of a gooseherd, Simon, they escape from the orphanage, rescue an impoverished aunt, cause the arrest of Miss Slighcarp and her two accomplices, and regain control of the mansion just in time to greet Bonnie's parents who have not, after all, been lost at sea.

The vocabulary is challenging, partly because it's British English, and partly because it's the early 1800s, and mostly because the author doesn't shy away from using juicy, interesting words. I (Rebecca) read this as an eBook and the ability to quickly look up words in situ was a real advantage. If reading this aloud you may want to stop occasionally to make sure students are able to follow what's going on and to point out particularly fun words.

There is slapstick humor (the nasty governess turns out to be bald when a pitcher of water is thrown at her and dislodges her wig) as well as more subtle humor.

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Things to Talk About and Notice

  • This book has a particularly effective opening paragraph. Read the paragraph aloud a couple of times. What makes it so effective? “It was dusk--winter dusk. Snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills, and icicles hung from the forest trees. Snow lay piled on the dark road across Willoughby Wold, but from dawn men had been clearing it with brooms and shovels. There were hundreds of them at work, wrapped in sacking because of the bitter cold, and keeping together in groups for fear of the wolves, grown savage and reckless from hunger.”

  • Look at the characters’ names. Does the author tell you anything about the characters through the names she gave them? Compare these to some of those that Charles Dickens used.

  • Why do you think it’s called The Wolves of Willoughby Chase? Why are wolves such a threat at the beginning, and why are they almost nonexistent at the end? Do you think they will they come again?

  • Find the amazing coincidences and unbelievable occurrences. Change one of them and note how it would change the rest of the story.


  • This book is a melodrama. Look up what makes a book a melodrama. Can you cite specific incidents in this book that are melodramatic?

  • Research wolves. Which of the behaviors they exhibit in the story are possible or probable?

  • Find out about orphanages and workhouses of that time in England. Were they all as bad as the one Mrs. Brisket ran? Why?

  • Compare this book to the movie or play “Oliver”. Which of the songs would fit into this story?

  • Watch a silent movie melodrama.

  • Write and act out your own melodrama.

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Related Books

  • Other Books About Orphans:

  • Wamer, Gertrude. The Boxcar Children Series

  • Burnett, Francis. The Secret Garden

  • Spyri, Johanna. Heidi

  • Other Books About Wolves:

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    Grades 5 - 8
    Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George. Novel. 170 pages.
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    Miyax rebels against a home situation she finds intolerable and runs away toward San Francisco, toward her pen pal, who calls her Julie. But soon Miyax is lost in the Alaskan wilderness, without food, without even a compass. Slowly she is accepted by a pack of Arctic wolves, and she comes to love them as though they were her brothers. With their help, and drawing on her father's training, she struggles day by day to survive. Read More.

  • Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Little House in the Big Woods

  • Other Melodramas:

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    Grades 3 - 8
    The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman. Illustrated by Peter Sis. Chapter Book. 96 pages.
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    This Newbery Award winner tells the story of Prince Brat and his whipping boy, Jemmy. Bored with his existence, even though it's fun watching Jemmy be punished for his own misdeeds, the prince decides to run away. He forces Jemmy to go with him since the prince needs Jemmy's reading and writing skills. Quickly the two run afoul of two villains, Hold-Your-Nose Billy and Cutwater who hold the boys for ransom, unsure which is the prince. Jemmy, who has previously despised the prince, gains respect for him as they deal with their misfortune and eventually outwit their captors.

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Related Areas Within Carol Hurst's Children's Literature Web Site