The Wild Book by Juan Villoro, illustrated by Eko, translated by Lawrence Schimel.
Yonder, Restless Books, New York, 2017.
MG fantasy, 234 pages.
Lexile: 750L .
AR Level: not leveled
*The Spanish-language version has an AR of 4.8, worth 7.0 points.
NOTE: This Mexican novel was first published in 2008, my review is of the 2017 translation.
Juan’s father is building a Parisian bridge, and his distraught mother is finding a new home. While his sister gets to spend the summer with her best friend, Juan’s shipped off to his strange uncle who lives within a labyrinth of books. There he learns that he’s got an unusual power to make books magically respond to him.
I’ve been searching and searching for MG fantasy novels set outside the US or in translation. Several are available from Asia, few from Africa, and I’ve found some great works by American authors of Latinx heritage, but mostly still set in the US. After finally finding this book and waiting some time for the mail, I immediately started reading. Unfortunately I didn’t end with the same enthusiasm.
I could see why this book was chosen as one of the first in the Yonder imprint. It’s sure to appeal to book loving children (and their librarians), but the protagonist is more concerned about his parents’ divorce and the cute girl at the pharmacy than exploring the library. Villoro not only manages to keep a decent balance between the bibliophilic adventures and real life, he also advocates for that balance within the story, too.
This had lovely moments. The whimsical way the book sections were titled, inventive dishes based on works of literature or philosophical ideas, the cat family. I loved how the books would move around and how the meaning of reading and thought and time were explored. It remined me of several favorites, in different ways – The Phantom Tollbooth, The Secret of the Blue Glass, A Wrinkle in Time, and Inkheart. Although I anticipated the ending, I still enjoyed it.
Eko’s title page inclusion made me think there would be spot or even full page illustrations, but the credit was for the chapter headers. I appreciate Restless Books giving proper due to everyone though, and wish that was more common in children’s literature. Jori van der Linde did the cover art, and this book is so well formatted that the only hint it’s from a small press is the off margins on the back cover. I enjoyed both sets of artwork, although I was surprised that both artists interpreted Domino as a checkerboard pattern instead of the dotted tiles which first came to my mind.
Villoro’s inclusion of literature for the blind was well considered, and I loved the idea of Ernesto’s sightless father’s special lightless, distraction-free reading room so he could focus entirely on the book in his hand (or lap, because Braille tomes are large). The lack of discussion over audiobooks will inevitably date this, but the sensitive portrayals around disability even without any major disabled character made the other problems even more shocking. Besides Ernesto’s deceased father, Juan’s mother suffers from unspecified anxiety and depression, and customers at the pharmacy have a variety of ailments.
Praises sung, this book has problems. One has already been noted by others – insta-love. Juan falls in love with Carmen literally at first sight, and is a besotted teen afterwards. Otherwise not so problematic – she’s interested in him too, if not quite so dramatically. They spend a lot of time together and eventually kiss. Others call her his girlfriend and tease him about it, and her mother has a serious talk with him. I’m not a fan of instalove but this was okay, and in line with what some older MG readers might be experiencing or seeing older friends experience.
What got me though, were the derogatory indigenous references. It started on page 15 with a description of Juan’s mom talking “as if she were an Indian. From her mouth came […]” This completely threw me out of the book, especially after turning the page to read “smoke signals.” Wow.
I was foolishly hoping that this was a single error, but a major subplot is about a book with an indigenous person named Eagle Eyes who appears at just the right moment and later needs to be saved by the children who got lost in his jungle. Every time I started to feel invested in the story there would be another pointless stereotypical Native reference. There were other weird bits too, like a reference to the Mafia, but even other stereotypes at least weren’t as racist.
A few other odd points to mention. The mother is a smoker, and heavily so during the divorce. It’s strongly implied, although not quite confirmed, that Juan’s father cheated. The bookish adult cousin he stays with is called “Uncle Tito” even though Tito is a diminutive name for… uncle. I’m not sure if that was in the book or they just assumed American kids are ignorant. Uncle Tito’s name is Ernesto, and the book dwells on how he married but his wife couldn’t live in his library so he moved out with her, decided he preferred his books, then lived in near isolation.
The indigenous references killed this book for me and I cannot recommend it. Adults have a responsibility not to perpetuate racism in children’s literature.