Fuse #8

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Review of the Day: The Wild Girl

The Wild Girl written and illustrated by Chris Wormell. Eerdmans Books For Young Readers. $17.00

Chris Wormell books aren’t flashy and extravagant. They don’t bop you over the head with shiny foil or cartoonish glee or wild dance sequences. As a children’s librarian it was with great relief that I discovered that there are as many different kinds of picture books out there as there are works of adult fiction. There is undoubtedly a picture book out there for every kind of child. And let us say that you have a kid that likes the idea of seeing other kids surviving on their own. Maybe they want a Man v. Nature book, but intended for the preschooler set. Robinson Crusoe for toddlers. Pint-sized future “Hatchet” lovers. For such children, Wormell hands us a remarkably satisfying tale of a girl and her dog living in an age that may or may not have yet discovered iron.

Perhaps the book takes place in the past. Perhaps in the far future. Whatever the case, this is the tale of a girl who lives all by herself with her dog. The girl doesn’t go to school or wear shoes or have anyone living nearby. And though she and her pup catch fish and pick berries, roots, and bugs for their meals, she's lonely. One day in the snowy winter, the girl and her dog are out collecting firewood when they see tracks that work their way towards their cave. The animal isn’t there when they arrive but they arm themselves in case it returns. Return it does. The enormous bear fills the cave entrance but leaves the child and canine almost immediately. It’s then that the two realize that they are still not alone. From their little nest at the back of the cave emerges a baby bear cub. Frantically the girl attempts to relocate the mama bear, but must turn for home when she cannot locate her. Fortunately, who should be standing in the cave’s entrance than the mother bear. “That winter, the cave high up on the mountainside was the snuggest, warmest place in all the wide wilderness," says the book as all three sleep contentedly together. "But by the spring, they all had fleas.”

There’s no denying that kids daydream of living in a world without grownups. The girl in this book almost fulfils a kind of ultimate fantasy. She gets to run around all day with her dog doing cool stuff like hunting and making fires. Of course, at the same time she’s lonely, and the final image of her tucked snugly within the mama bear’s fur (her hair almost one with the animal’s thick brown pelt) is a deeply reassuring one. It seems to suggest that the girl has found a mother substitute. Of course, mother bears aren’t so acquiescent as to leave their young anywhere near small girls and dogs without a fight. This is hardly a book about real world situations, but the reason why the bear leaves the cave with “strange, sad eyes” in the first place is never adequately explained.

Fortunately, at no point in this book is the art ever static or dull. Though Wormell limits his palette to browns, blue-purples, and the softest cream-colored pages, the images are always moving or filling up their pages with aplomb. When showing the girl going through her normal routine, the action breaks up into small vignettes. And when the girl looks across the valley for any sign of human life, we see sweeping vistas of purple-tipped mountains. Wormell can evoke snug and scary within a series of several frames. The watercolors are delicate and reflect the odd sweet little story perfectly.

It’s always fun to try and guess what book might pair the best with a given title. The book I kept coming back to as I read “The Wild Girl” would have to be “Weslandia” by Paul Fleischman. In both books a child creates their own singular society without parental interference/existence. Of course, this particular book has an appeal entirely of its own. Best read to the child that dreams of freedom and comfort in a single package.

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