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“Eggers, in this funny and touching novelization of Maurice Sendak’s picture book, is brilliant at portraying the exuberance and chaos of a young boy’s mind and heart.” —San Francisco Chronicle
The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Dave Eggers’ marvelous new novel, The Wild Things, based on Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s story, Where the Wild Things Are.
In The Wild Things, Dave Eggers takes the imaginative seeds planted in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and brings them to fruition in a rollicking full-length novel. While Sendak’s story unfolds in nine sentences, Eggers’ novel gives readers the back-story of Max’s family life, the explosive tensions that drive Max to run away, and a rendering of Max’s life with the strange beasts, the “wild things,” he lives among after his long sea journey.
The opening chapters of The Wild Things show Max in a contemporary family. His parents are divorced, he and his 14-year-old sister live with their rather harried mother, and Max feels resentment towards their mother’s boyfriend. Though once very close, Max and his sister Claire have grown apart as Claire has become a teenager, favoring her friends over play with her brother. Max, on the other hand, is fully a child, and the line between his real life and his fantasy life is still blurry. He builds forts, dons a wolf-suit and howls, invents elaborate revenge schemes, and seeks out people primarily for their willingness and ability to have fun.
Sadly, most of the people in Max’s life have forgotten what fun is. When he asks his sister if she wants to play “Wolf and Master,” he is met with a silent “no.” And when he asks her why, she smartly replies, “Maybe because your wolf suit smells like butt?” [p. 72]. He turns to his mother and her boyfriend Gary, but they too are unwilling to enter into his imaginative realm. Finally, his frustration at their refusal to acknowledge his desires grows so intense that he bites his mother—a fitting enough response for a wolf-boy, but a terrifying outrage to the grown-up human world.
Max flees the house, and thus begins a hero’s journey that will take him across the sea to a strange island inhabited by the beasts from Sendak’s story—the “wild things.” Once there, Max’s fantasies of power and play fully bloom. He leads the beasts in all kinds of mayhem, one wild rumpus after another. He becomes their King and even starts a war, which spins wildly out of control. Max is pummeled throughout the conflict, much as he was pummeled by his sister’s teenage friends after he started an ill-advised snowball fight back in the “real” world.
His adventures among the beasts reveal much about Max’s fantasy life—both what he desires and what he fears. He is regarded as a King by the beasts, but he often doesn’t know how to use his power. And while he rules them, he also worries that they will devour him, or accidentally crush him beneath their massive weight. Max’s interactions with the wild things are given a psychological complexity and depth that open a fascinating window into the mind and heart of a remarkable child, and by extension, into the mind and hearts—the secret wishes and fears—of all children.
1. Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s story, first published in 1963, is extremely brief, containing only nine sentences, just over 300 words, and a series of wonderfully expressive illustrations. How is Eggers able to get inside such a compressed story and extend it into a novel? In what ways does the novel stay close to Sendak’s story? In what ways does it imaginatively expand upon Sendak’s story?
2. What are the family dynamics that push Max into running away? What is the source of Max's anger?
3. When Max bites his mother, we are told that “Max had never bitten her before. He was scared. His mom was scared. They saw each other anew” [p. 77]. Why is this such a powerful and frightening moment in the novel? In what ways is it the appropriate action that leads to Max’s running away?
4. How does The Wild Things illuminate the challengers families face today?
5. The narrator says that Claire “had adopted a tone of perpetual dissatisfaction and annoyance with everything Max did, and with most things that existed in the world” [p. 4]. How does Max’s own stance toward life differ from that of his 14-year-old sister? How is the adult world depicted in the novel?
6. What fantasies does Max’s life among the beasts fulfill? What does he find there that he was denied at home?
7. How should the beasts be understood? Are they projections of Max’s fantasy life—aspects of his character or unconscious? Are they manifestations of his own uncivilized, destructive urges, his wish to be an animal?
8. When Max says that he feels responsible for ruining the island, Alexander tells him: “You really think you wrecked this island? You think you’re that powerful? That you’re the reason everyone is happy or sad?” [p. 262]. Where else does Max feel his actions have such enormous impact?
9. In what ways are the beasts both dangerous to Max and protective of him? How do they regard him? How do their feelings toward him change over the course of the novel?
10. After the war he started goes terribly awry, Max feels that “everything he did, at home or here on this island, caused permanent damage” [p. 209]. What are the parallels between Max’s destructive behavior at home and on the island?
11. What is the significance of Max’s relationships with Carol and Katherine? How does he relate differently to each of these characters?
12. Why was Max’s final act on the island necessary? What is the symbolic significance of this act?
13. Children’s books often offer a mixture of fantasy and moral or ethical instruction. Does The Wild Things have an implied moral? What does Max learn from his experience with the beasts?
14. In what sense is Max an archetypal boy? How might understanding him lead to a greater understanding of the human condition?
15. Dave Eggers co-wrote (with Spike Jonze) the screenplay for the film version of Where The Wild Things Are. If you have seen the film, how does the novel differ from the movie? Which form seems closer to Sendak’s original story? How do the film and novel compliment each other?
(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com)
Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland; Madeleine L. Engle, A Wrinkle in Time; Norman Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth; Neil Gaiman, Coraline; E.L. Konigsburg, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler; C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
Dave Eggers is the author of Zeitoun and What is the What, among other books. He is the editor of McSweeney’s, an independent publishing house in San Francisco, and is the cofounder of 826 National, a network of nonprofit writing and tutoring centers for youth with locations in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Boston, Ann Arbor, and Seattle. With his weekly high school class, he edits The Best American Nonrequired Reading, a yearly anthology, and with his brother, Toph, he cowrites the Haggis-on-Whey series of semi-informative books, which includes Giraffes? Giraffes!, Animals of the Ocean (in Particular the Giant Squid), and Cold Fusion.