I was captivated by the title and the cover of “Wayward Creatures” by Dayna Lorentz. In all honesty, the cover is a bit misleading — the boy does not interact much with the injured coyote, and, very appropriately, they do not become friends. Nor should they. The story of these two wayward creatures, both juveniles of their species, is told in alternating first person narratives. Gabe and Rill are both suffering, each in their own way.
Gabe accidentally starts a fire that spreads and ends up destroying almost 100 acres of parkland. The destruction is complete, and hundreds of animals, some domesticated and many wild, die or are injured. Just reading that probably causes you to think of Gabe as a rotten kid. I know I would have. But in a real sense, Gabe is a child who any of us who teach might see in our classrooms. A child who seems to have it all — a family, a home, two parents, three meals a day — but whose life lacks something important, a connection to others. Gabe’s family is in upheaval. His father has lost his job, and he is angry and bitter, continuing to interview, but emotionally removed from the family. Gabe’s mom has found a full-time job but is stressed about their financial situation. Liz, Gabe’s older sister, is in high school and worried about her college exams and finals because she needs to do well to get the scholarships she will need to attend college. And then there’s Gabe, attending a middle school where his two best friends are in a different “house” than his, making their own new friends, and playing soccer on a traveling team in addition to practicing during lunch. Gabe has made no new friends, and he’s so unhappy that he just eats lunch alone in the library and avoids everyone.
So when these two friends, Owen and Leo, invite Gabe to spend time with them after school, he jumps at the invitation. He’s not happy that their new friend Taylor joins them, but he’s feeling good about being included. Things don’t turn out as expected, mostly because of Taylor, and Gabe makes some pretty poor decisions that lead to his setting off fireworks and starting the fire. The other boys run off, but Gabe is horrified by the fire and stays to try to put it out, but it’s quickly out of control. He is there when the firefighters and police arrive, and he’s taken to the police station.
We also hear from Rill, the “teenage” coyote whose siblings were killed in traps. Her parents are bereft at their loss, and because Rill is the only older sister to the younger coyote pups, she is in charge of watching them and teaching them how to hunt. She’s not happy in her role as coyote-sitter, and she ends up rebelling and running away. It’s while she’s on her own that she gets caught up in the fire and suffers severe injuries. Gabe happens to find her, and he helps her, providing food and water. And while this is very much a no-no — interacting with wildlife — Lorentz presents it in a manner that keeps Gabe from really interacting with Rill in a way that might endanger the coyote’s ability to be released into the wild. And we do see the almost-disastrous outcome from Rill’s interaction with the fire and a young toddler, and how all-too-often coyotes are misunderstood and harmed because they live on the periphery of human abodes and follow their natural instincts.
Lorentz is a passionate believer in restorative justice, and we get to see how it works as Gabe participates in that program instead of being sent through the court system. But what struck me most about the story are the debilitating effects from the anger and isolation that Gabe feels and how that is what had caused his violent behavior (shooting a firework at another boy) and the subsequent destruction. He simply doesn’t have the tools to control his feelings of anger and betrayal regarding his family and his friends. He has no one to talk to and no one who understands, or even recognizes, his anguish.
It becomes clear why the restorative justice system works far better for Gabe than the traditional court system would have, and in the Author’s Note, Lorentz shares a lot of information about the programs, how each program is unique, and why they often are great choices for youth in trouble. She also shares suggestions for further reading, including Bobbie Pyron’s splendid “A Pup Called Trouble” which is based on a true story about a coyote.
Using this book in the classroom as a read aloud has the potential to lead to fascinating and impactful discussions about emotions and feelings of isolation (especially in these times of COVID and remote learning). To whom do the students turn when they feel angry or depressed? If they feel bullied? Having students share their feelings either verbally or through written journal entries might just allow a teacher or social worker to get some insight into students who might be in need of a bit of extra support. It’s also important to show students that programs like restorative justice exist to help those in need, and that punishment is appropriate at times, but not always. In fact, reading this novel might be an inspirational way to kick-start a unit on justice and the law.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Clarion Books, the publisher, for review purposes.