Grim Reaper reimagined in enchanting middle grade fantasy — and includes a surprising choice of narrator

Waterloo, ONTARIO – For thousands of years, legends of the Grim Reaper have terrified children around the world. But what if, instead of an ominous cloaked figure, Death is simply a tired wolf in search of relief?

Landing a six-figure, two-book deal just three weeks after the story went on submission, debut author Jessica Vitalis has penned a gorgeous, voice-driven fantasy for middle grade readers. Addressing significant themes like death and the afterlife while perfectly balancing a macabre and endearing tone, “The Wolf’s Curse” (Sept. 21, 2021, Greenwillow/ HarperCollins) offers an unflinching depiction of death while serving as a multilayered meditation on grief and loss.

Newbery medalist Erin Entrada Kelly praises the book, saying, “I am obsessed with this story!” And readers will undoubtedly be just as obsessed; fans of Lemony Snicket’s distinctive voice and “The Book Thief’s” melancholic storyteller will soon find a new favorite in Vitalis’ unlikely pick of an omniscient narrator: the Wolf.

Set in a world where stars are believed to be lanterns lit by loved ones when they reach the Sea-in-the-Sky and sail into eternity, 12-year-old Gauge embarks on a quest to avenge his grandpapá after a mythic wolf steals the old man’s soul. But the superstitious villagers believe the boy to be in league with the Great White Wolf and put a bounty on his head. A young feather collector named Roux offers Gauge assistance, but soon, the two orphans are forced to question everything they have ever believed about their town, about the Wolf and about death itself.

In what Booklist calls a “striking debut,” Vitalis’ novel is a vivid, literary tale focusing on family, friendship, belonging, and grief, wrapped up in the compelling narration of the sly, crafty Wolf. Fans of award-winning titles like “The Girl Who Drank the Moon” and “A Wish in the Dark” are sure to be captivated by “The Wolf’s Curse.”

“The Wolf’s Curse”
Jessica Vitalis | Sept. 21, 2021 | Greenwillow/HarperCollins | Middle Grade Fantasy
Hardcover | 9780063067417 | $16.99 | Ebook | $8.99

The Wolf is not bound by the same rules as you are.

The Great White Wolf is very, very old. And she is very, very tired. For hundreds of winters, she has searched for someone to take her place. But she is invisible to most people. In all those years, only three have seen her. One died young. One said no. One is still alive — a 12-year-old boy named Gauge. Everyone in the village thinks Gauge is a witch. He’s been in hiding half his life, all because he once saw the Wolf — and right after that, the Lord Mayor’s wife died. Now his only protector, his beloved grandpapá, is dead, too. The Wolf visits the boy again, this time with an offer. She can save him the pain of growing up. Now that he’s all alone in the world, it may be the only way to escape the bounty on his head. If only his grandpapá’s last words hadn’t been, “Stay away from the Wolf.”

Praise for Jessica Vitalis and “The Wolf’s Curse”

“Thoughtful, creative, and engaging. … Accessible and intriguing worldbuilding, particularly
around the Wolf’s backstory, will pique readers’ interests, as will larger questions about life,
death, truth, and tradition.”Kirkus Reviews

“Vitalis’ striking debut is alluringly told through the first-person perspective of the Wolf, offering a safe distance for sensitive readers to engage in a story about death, grief, and corruption. ”Booklist

“In a thought-provoking debut, Vitalis considers grief, the end of life, and the industry of death through the eyes of an otherworldly, psychopompic wolf.”Publishers Weekly

“A lyrical tale of loss and survival, tradition and belief, in which tension and secrets build like a towering wave. The Wolf’s Curse is a story of many layers. Young readers will treasure this beautiful debut and hold it close to their hearts.”Diane Magras, author of “The Mad Wolf’s Daughter”

“A fable as polished and timeless as a fine wooden toy. Readers will root for spunky heroes Gauge
and Roux while keeping watch for a certain mysterious wolf who’s not what she seems….”
Catherine Gilbert Murdock, author of the Newbery Honor book “The Book of Boy”

“ A clear-eyed, big hearted fable of compassion, friendship, and love.”
Anne Ursu, author of “The Real Boy”

“An extraordinary fantasy debut … an emotional roller coaster with all the feels”
Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

JESSICA VITALIS is a Columbia MBA-wielding writer. After leaving home at 16, Vitalis explored several careers before turning her talents to middle grade literature. She brings her experience growing up in a non-traditional childhood to her stories, exploring themes such as death and grief, domestic violence, and socio-economic disparities. With a mission to write entertaining and thought-provoking literature, she often includes magic and fantastical settings. As an active volunteer in the kidlit community, she’s also passionate about using her privilege to lift up other voices. In addition to volunteering with We Need Diverse Books and Pitch Wars, she founded Magic in the Middle, a series of free monthly recorded book talks, to help educators introduce young readers to new stories. She was recently named a 2021 Canada Council of the Arts Grant Recipient. 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.

Follow Jessica Vitalis on social media:
Facebook: @jessicavauthor | Twitter: @jessicavitalis Instagram: @jessicavauthor
YouTube: Magic in the Middle | Hashtags: #TheWolfsCurse #FeathersForGauge

An interview with Jessica Vitalis

This was your sixth novel over the span of 13 years. What inspired you to take on a Grim Reaper narrative?

I was standing in front of my bookshelves, seeking inspiration, when I came across Markus Zusak’s “The Book Thief.” I remember thinking that if I ever wrote a story with Death as a narrator, it would turn out a very different book. Once the idea crossed my mind, I couldn’t let it go. And so “The Wolf’s Curse” was born!

The book poignantly touches on grief and loss. Why was it important for you to write on these specific themes?

I didn’t actually mean to write a book about grief and loss; “The Wolf’s Curse” started out as a humorous adventure in which Death tried to trick a kid into taking her (yes, her) job. But when a trusted reader pointed out that I was avoiding the heart of the story, I knew I had to dig deeper. I decided that if I was going to tackle these themes in middle grade, I wanted to do it in a manner that was both honest and entertaining.

Middle grade readers range from eight-year-olds to upwards of twelve and thirteen; how did you tackle the challenge of writing for an audience with such diverse needs?

Younger middle grade readers tend to focus on plot and particularly connect with stories centered on friends and family, whereas upper middle grade readers are moving from the innocence of childhood toward an understanding of the larger world; part of the beauty of fiction is that it allows readers of any age to experience hardships within the confines of a safe space, thus preparing them for the challenges that life might eventually throw their way (if it hasn’t already). In “The Wolf’s Curse,” I tried to offer an unflinching examination of death balanced with a captivating adventure that would ultimately provide a layered experience. Hopefully this will allow readers to pull from the story what they need at whatever stage of life they are in so that they can continue to make new discoveries as they come back to read time and time again.

How does the book take the traditional concept of the Grim Reaper and transform it for young readers?

The term Grim Reaper is inherently negative and carries frightening connotations; when I set out to explore the personification of Death, I knew I had to create a character more accessible to middle grade readers. The snarky Wolf allowed me to bring an element of levity to what otherwise would have been a much heavier story.

The Wolf is an omniscient narrator. Why did you choose to write the book from this point of view?

A Grim Reaper-type figure always had to tell this story. At one point, I considered making the narrator a raven or crow, but a Great White Wolf seemed to be a more interesting choice. I didn’t actually realize I’d made the Wolf omniscient until I was well into my second full draft; at that point, I was having so much fun with the voice, I decided to run with it!

What was the biggest challenge you faced in writing “The Wolf’s Curse”?

This was the first story I ever wrote utilizing an omniscient narrator and the biggest challenge I faced was in deciding how deeply into Gauge’s head I wanted to go and how to do so without disorienting the reader or making it feel like I was head-hopping between characters. The other big challenge was another technicality: since I was writing in present tense and the Wolf couldn’t be present in every scene, I had to make it believable that the Wolf would know what Gauge was doing when she wasn’t around.

The novel contains unique death mythology. How does the world-building complement the themes in the novel?

The first draft of this story was set in a vague European setting without any specific death mythology other than a Wolf who was tired of fetching souls; once I settled on a French-inspired seaside setting, I explored how a fishing culture might view death. This led to the belief that stars were actually lanterns lit by departed souls as they traveled to the Sea-in-the-Sky to sail into eternity; that they are buried in wooden boats at cemeteries they call Wharves; that they need to be buried with feathers to fly up to the sky; and that rather than capital punishment, their criminals are set out to sea. These fantastical details allowed me to explore loss and grief while still captivating young readers who might not be inclined to read a more traditional (contemporary, realistic) story focused on these themes.

The book also addresses topics like socioeconomic disparity and abuse of power. What made you decide to include these themes, and why are they integral to the story?

I had a non-traditional childhood, which included moving nearly twenty-four times by fourth grade and living in places that included a renovated school bus, a camper, and a one-room cabin without electricity or running water. Once we settled down, I was acutely aware of the socioeconomic and class differences between me and my classmates. I left home at the age of sixteen, put myself through university, and went on to obtain an MBA at Columbia Business School. Now that I live a life of relative privilege, I’m acutely aware of the imbalances that exit in our society on both a personal and societal level; it is my hope that by exploring these themes in my books, middle grade readers can learn to recognize injustice and inequality, which may help those experiencing it on a personal level and potentially readers to eventually become part of the solution.

You’ve said that you have a “literary godmother” in Newbery medalist Erin Entrada Kelly. Can you describe how that relationship came about?

I was searching for an agent when Erin put out a call for manuscripts to critique with the writing class she was teaching; I jumped on the chance to get feedback from an author of her caliber. She not only loved my manuscript but passed it on to her agent, who offered representation the very next day. It’s safe to say that Erin single-handedly changed the course of my career!

Can you talk a little bit about Magic in the Middle and what you hope young readers will gain from watching these book talks?

Magic in the Middle is a natural extension of my passion for middle grade fantasy; it’s a free series of monthly recorded book talks that teachers, librarians and caregivers can share with their middle grade readers to introduce new books and get kids excited about reading. (As an added bonus, I often include short video messages from the authors themselves!) To learn more, visit my website at