Caught Between Worlds (A Look at The Wild Things by Dave Eggers)

Dave Eggers. The Wild Things. San Francisco: McSweeney's, 2009

The Wild Things
The Wild Things

Max is a little brat. But can you blame him? With a divorced mother fighting to keep a job, an absent father and a sister named Claire who has forsaken her brother for a world of popularity, it's no wonder that Max acts like he does: He is constantly being overlooked. Even in the car, his mother ignores his inquisitive nature. After posing a question that yields little response, “he looked to his mother...but what he said seemed to have no effect at all” (Eggers 62). Max doesn't really have anyone, save his imagination.

Met with a series of unfortunate situations, Max's spirits continually flounder, which causes his temper to rise. His irrational responses to unexpected happenings include drastic retaliation and violent outbursts. His anger, mixed with the re-discovery of his old wolf suit , results in a calamitous event. At dinner, “though the house was full, as Max stared at the wolf suit it seemed to be calling to him. It’s time, it was saying to Max” (Eggers 72). In a culminating act of frustration, the youth runs away and finds a boat that has idly, and somewhat magically, washed up to shore. Essentially, “the boat was his if he wanted it” (Eggers 85).

The boat takes Max on an adventure, sailing “in and out of days and nights,” and offers an exciting new beginning for him to find his voice far away from a world that had taken it away (Eggers 95). The new land he finds is recognized as land of the Wild Things from Maurice Sendak's famous picture book
Where the Wild Things Are . The personality of each Wild Thing projects a fragment of Max's own personality. Carol is the leader of the group of Wild Things, and the visionary as well; Katherine is the motherly figure toward Max and the free-spirit, Judith has a quick wit and a cynical attitude and is seen as a threat in Max's eye, while Judith's companion Ira is a passive "Wild Thing" who likes to make holes. Other Wild Things that Max meets and befriends are Douglas, the passive genius, Alexander, the whining sentimentalist and the "Bull," whose brute strength does all the talking for him.

Max arrives on the island and recognizes opportunity. Here, his imagination is a tool for survival . When asked by the Wild Things, “’Are you our king?’” he shakily replies, “’Sure. Yeah, I think so,’” which earns the respect of the gullible group of brutes (Eggers 119). However, as the king Max faces a daunting challenge for such a small boy: it becomes his responsibility to settle disputes and discontent in the land of the Wild Things, and when this doesn't happen Max finds himself reverted back from a king to a voiceless, powerless boy.

The Wild Things represents the instability of youth and the sentiment of being without a home. Max's sense of displacement resonates throughout Eggers’ story and weaves through Max's mind as channeled by his imaginative storytelling and the vivid concoction of a world where Wild Things roam free. The question for this novel is its own driving force: Where does Max belong? Does he belong at home, with the Wild Things, or is he so completely unique that he can't fit in on any part of this world?

Possible Lessons:
Point of View: Rewrite a section from the book from a different characters perspective

Writing: Choose a character from the novel and write diary entries from their perspective as the book progresses and emotions change

Role Playing: A major discussion concerning the vast characterization in the novel has been centered around the "Wild Things" and what they are vis-a-vis Max. Many have hypothesized that each Wild Thing represents an aspect of Max's personality, while others have explained that each Wild Thing is linked to a real person who is a part of Max's life. No matter what the case is, there is no denying how rich each character is in terms of stature, looks and personality. The great part about The Wild Things is that each character was written in a manner that is identifiable with children. Carol is the active one who believes in playful disestablishment, while Katherine is his secret crush whose free spirit can easily scare Carol away. In role playing it would be very interesting to see if the students can pick apart these certain nuances. Inasmuch, it would also be great to see how people respond to Katherine and her free spirit, or Judith's overbearing attitude in contrast with Ira's apathy. By playing the roles of each character it will be easy for the students to understand the Wild Things from a more human aspect and to get up close and personal with them. And, to be quite honest, it's exciting to see where the students might go with the assignment.

Compare and Contrast: Have the students make connections from Eggers' rendition of the story to that of Maurice Sendak's children's book.

Correspondence: In this activity, teachers can let their students become Max, as he writes a letter home to his mother from the island of the Wild Things. Some students can choose to use this letter-writing opportunity to put themselves in the place of a Wild Thing writing home to their own parent about their new friend Max (although absent from the story itself, Carol's parents are mentioned in chapter 23, page 143). This dramatic activity allows readers to invent a back-story for a character and gives each student the opportunity to think critically about the desires, hopes, and fears of any specific character. Letters can be read aloud with the entire class or shared in groups in order to stimulate discussion. For an additional challenge, have students write from the perspective of a secondary character, such as the Bull. (This technique is suggested by Jeffrey D. Wilhelm in his educational book "You Gotta BE the Book", chapter 4).

Dave Eggers
Dave Eggers
Dave Eggers

It was his memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius that brought Eggers' name to the forefront of the modern literary canon. Other works include What is the What, and Zeitoun as well as editing the Best American Non-Required Reading series. Eggers also established and operates his own publishing company called McSweeney's, which obviously publishes novels written by himself and others, but also produces a quarterly magazine titled McSweeney's Quarterly Concern as well as a monthly magazine titled The Believer. Most recently, McSweeney's endeavored to create a 300 page newspaper as a part of their Quarterly Concern. Eggers explained in an interview with The LA Times Our hope... is that readers will say, 'I forgot all there things newsprint can do'" (

Picture from

Multimedia (Video or Audio)

In this short video, Dave Eggers explains his vision for the book The Wild Things in relation to the original children's novel Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. He explains how he ventured into the world inside Max's head, where he found inspiration for the strange, furry beasts. In reverence to Sendak, Eggers stays true to the magic and imagination of the young, creative Max. Video thanks to

Additional Resources:
Interview with Dave Eggers: Behind the scenes of the book and movie
Before the Book

The Wild Things Movie Review
The Wild Things Book Review
Dave Eggers – Creatively Engaging with Public Schools
Interview with the authors, Sendak and Eggers
Creativity in Schools
Dave Eggers
The Official Movie Website's "About" Page
Wilhelm's "You Gotta BE the Book" (for more insight on teaching methods to engage apprehensive readers)
Other Projects from Dave Eggers
LA Times Article on The San Francisco Panorama

--Kristen Dyksterhouse, William Osbourne, Chad Patton, Bethany Sluiter