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Review of the Day: Wild Things by Clay Carmichael

Wild Things
By Clay Carmichael
Front Street (an imprint of Boyd Mills Press)
ISBN: 978-1-59078-627-7
Ages 10-14
On shelves now

I like children’s books that touch you without pandering at the same time. I like books that make you cry, but don’t bend over backwards to make you think that they’re sob-worthy. Basically, I like books that can get at the heart of a story the old-fashioned way. Through plain good writing. Now I don’t know this Clay Carmichael character. According to her bio she’s a resident of Carrboro, North Carolina. She’s written three picture books in the past, making this book Wild Things her first novel. As a kid, if you’d tried to sell me on this tale by calling it a "coming-of-age story" I would have gagged right then and there. If, on the other hand, you’d said that this was a book about a kid who has practically lived on her own her entire life, goes off to live with her potentially crazy uncle, finds a cat in need of taming, and stumbles on a denizen of the woods who may or may not want to be found. . . . now THAT’s a novel I could get behind! Forget that coming-of-age jargon. What you’ve got here is a story about freedom and learning to trust people. You’ll find that there’s a reason this book begins with a quote from Jorge Luis Borges that reads, "Love is a religion with a fallible god".

The wild things. They’re critters and creatures and people who can’t be tamed, but can (with patience) be coaxed. Eleven-year-old Zoe is wise beyond her years. She’s had to be. Until now she’s been taking care of her mama, a woman who runs hot and cold by turns. Now mama is dead and Zoe’s living with her Uncle Henry, an unpredictable character at times. Growing accustomed to his ways (and his sculpture creations), Zoe finds a family with the people who surround her uncle. She even makes the acquaintance of a local wild cat. But who in the blue blazes is that strange wild boy with the white doe that lives in the woods? And what, if anything, is his connection to Zoe?

Character is hard. Stereotype is easy. Characters that have been used as stereotypical figures in the past are maybe the hardest of all. We’re all familiar with the children’s books in which a girl makes friends with an older black woman who has an abundant, unending supply of hope and cheer. Everything from Because of Winn-Dixie to The Secret Life of Bees has gone that route, for better or for worse. There is such a woman in Wild Things too named Bessie, but Carmichael keeps a close eye on this character. Bessie could easily be a standard saintly speaker of platitudes, but Carmichael gives her a very human wicked streak that stretches a mile long. In fact, all of Carmichael’s characters are like that. They look stock at first. The crusty uncle with a heartbroken past who learns to love thanks to a little girl (paging The Secret Garden). The wild boy who lives by his own rules, but loves to hear stories told by a girl (Peter Pan). But just using stock characters isn’t a problem, it’s what you do with them and how you develop them. Even J.K. Rowling took standard tropes that could have been considered tired and worn, but she made them sparkle with her great writing. Carmichael does the same thing on her end, only this time it’s with reality pure and strong.

She’s a writer, that Clay Carmichael. Seems to have it in her bones. Know how I know? She can pull off sentences that a lesser writer couldn’t even attempt. Read these sentences with me: " `Welds are stronger than glue, as strong as the metal itself. Welds bind the steel for skyscrapers and bridges together. A good weld almost never breaks.’ I thought of Bessie. Too bad a strong weld couldn’t fix her heart." You see that? That shouldn’t work. Heck, practically the very first sentence OF the book talks about Henry and how he’s a heart doctor. A heart doctor! I think the nice thing about first time novelists is that they’re willing to take chances with meaning. An author who’d been churning out novels for decades wouldn’t get near a metaphor as outright obvious as a heart doctor. But darned if Ms. Carmichael doesn’t pull it off. Heck, it wasn’t until I reread sections of the book that I even noticed what she was doing. Kids pick up on sentences that try to tug at the heartstrings without earning the readers’ trust. They won’t be picking up on anything of the sort with this novel.

There are a couple loose ends that don’t quite get tied up at the end of the book, of course. We never really find out why Zoe’s classmate stares at her continually when she first gets to school (though we can probably guess). And we don’t really know where the mysterious boy in the book has lived for all these years, or his fawn’s story. But by and large you get to the end of this book with the feeling that all roads have converged, and the story has hit its natural end. In spite of the characters still trying to find their way in the world, no one in their right mind would say this book is in need of a sequel. No one I know, anyway.

I like books that have good hearts. Good souls. Kids do too when it’s done well. Waiting for Normal by Leslie Connor was discussed in the children’s bookgroup I run, and the kids really got into it. I’ll be testing Wild Things out on them soon. This is a book that sucks you in with the storytelling, and doesn’t loosen its grip until the very last page. Maybe there are elements in it that won’t completely work for the child reader, but generally I think there are a lot of kid-friendly elements here. The headstrong independent girl who can hold her own with adults. The wild child, living in the forest with his snow white companion. And that sense of finding a home with people of "your kind" even if they don’t look or seem anything like you. I don’t like to pull out the term "a little gem of a book" too often, for fear of overusing the phrase, but if ever a title earned it, it’s Wild Things by Clay Carmichael. Entirely enjoyable for kids and adults alike.

On shelves now.

Copy: Reviewed from ARC sent by publisher.

Notes on the Cover: Well, I understand how it fits within the context of the story. Interestingly enough, the first thing I think about when I see this cover is The Savage by David Almond. And much like this book, there was a great deal of conversation over whether or not that book was for kids or teens. The text was find for 10-year-olds but the illustrations, teen-like. In the case of Wild Things, the text is thoughtful and mature, but not so thoughtful and mature that it scares off potential younger readers. The cover, on the other hand, has a wildness to it that suggests and older readership. It sort of looks like what would happen if Francis Bacon ever went into the book jacket business. Not a bad artistic statement, but I can see a lot of parents and librarians automatically slotting it into the “Teen” section merely because this is a book that doesn’t sport the usual socks/back of the head/silhouette jacket so many other middle grade novels prefer these days.

Notes on the Title: I’m trying to work out if it was unfortunate or brilliant that this book was given a name so close to the Spike Jonze film out in theaters right now. I’m still trying to work it out, honestly. I’ll let you know if I come to any conclusions.

Other Blog Reviews:

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  • Download this PDF of a conversation between Ms. Carmichael and her sculptor husband.
About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. I’m with you – I kept thinking she was not going to be able to pull this one off but she did and I fell for it, hard. It’s just a good book about decent people that makes you feel good. I keep forgetting sometimes how rare these books are.

  2. Joyce Moyer Hostetter says:

    Definitely one of my favorites this year!

  3. What a lovely review. Love the socks, back of the head comment. I’m sold, but my reading list is getting too damn long.

    Could you please review a book you hate, perferably one I haven’t read yet, so I can take a sigh of relief.

  4. Absolutely! I’ve a simply terrible picture book I’ve been delaying reviewing. That’ll come up soon, you bet. And trust me… you haven’t seen it before.

  5. PamNation says:

    I agree with Joyce. “Wild Things” is one of my favorite books this year.

    But in saying that, I have to add that I wouldn’t let my 10 Year-old read it. The character of the mother makes the book more older-MG and YA to me. She’s a woman who is an addict, and who lives with a string of men who abuse her and Zoe. Not someone my daughter is ready for.

  6. This is the real question. Zoe is never physically assaulted by those men. And there’s really only one (the last one) that could be called seriously abusive. Even then it’s not obvious, but I’d be willing to say that this is upper-MG I suppose. Some 10-year-olds would be fine, while others would probably need to wait.

  7. Clay Carmichael says:

    I came across a quote recently that expresses my opinion–and my own experience–about this:

    “Kids are living stories every day that we wouldn’t let them read.” –Josh Westbrook

  8. When searching for this at my local independent bookstore, I was directed to a similarly named book by David Eggers. Who I apparently helped write the screenplay for Where the Wild Things Are, and apparently then wrote a book called The Wild Things. So. Confusing.

  9. I loved the book and will let my ten year old read it. I loved Bessie and think we can all learn from her and her”own heart”.