Thursday, July 21, 2011

Book Review: The Wild Things by Dave Eggers

In 1963, writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak made a splash in the world of children’s literacy with his now famous book Where the Wild Things Are. It spoke of Max, a little boy with a penchant for adventure, and his time as king of the Wild Things. 

The thirty-seven page book, filled with superb illustration, had something special. Recognised as an outstanding work, it won the Caldecott Medal for the Most Distinguished Picture Book of the Year. The simplicity of the metaphors encased in the story; the Wild Things, the island they live on, Max’s long, long journey, mean they require no explanation but provoke deep thought. They allowed Sendak to gently shed some light on the experience of boyhood and childhood, in a way that didn’t conform to the cheerful and expected portrayal of ‘Tom, Dick and Harry’ fooling around with birds’ nests and drinking milk. Max is a "naughty" kid, the kind that cause mothers to tear their hair and fathers to raise their voices, teachers to shake their heads, sigh and wonder what can be done. He is full of energy, insatiably curious, loud and scarily imaginative. He is courageous, but he is also very scared. He is, as his mother shouts, a wild thing. 

Where the Wild Things Are has been dearly loved by children and adults for over fifty years. In 2009 a film adaption was released, much to the terror and excitement of fans worldwide. The film was directed by Spike Jonze, who worked on writing the screenplay with Dave Eggers for five years. Eggers then went on (at the request of Maurice Sendak) to turn the story they had taken and expanded into a novel, and as such the novel The Wild Things was published in 2009.

Trepidation is always present when a much loved story is taken and re-worked, but when it is done with as much care, love and gentleness as Eggers has committed to this book, there is comfort. From the very first page, it is clear that Eggers understands not only what Sendak was trying to achieve with the original picture book, but understands children and how different their world is from adults’. The novel retains the level of simplicity that made the initial story so easily resonant and the metaphors still speak loudly. 

The characters of The Wild Things are beautifully and wholly created, both humans and wild things are endearingly and heartbreakingly realistic. Their character triumphs and flaws, as pointed out through the eyes of a child, are refreshing to read, their intricacies making them utterly believable. 

The star of the show, Max, is a character created with as much depth and understanding as you would find in any great literacy. Eggers knows this boy, it is clear, and empathy with his plight seeps through. It is Max which allows, almost demands, for a re-working of the story to be produced fifty years on, because the story of the struggling, tumbling little boy is becoming increasingly crucial to be told. As the blurb says, “Seven-year-old Max likes to make noise, get dirty, ride his bike without a helmet and how like a wolf. In any other era, he would be considered a boy. In 2007, he is considered wilful and deranged.”

I enjoyed reading The Wild Things more than any other book I’ve read for a long time. I have not yet seen the film, but it is definitely now on my top list of things to watch. What Maurice Sendak, Dave Eggers and Spike Jonze are trying to do for children with this story is important and relevant, and while they’re all great tales for children, it is adults who need to pay attention to the wild things. 


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