Review of the Day: The Eyes and the Impossible by Dave Eggers, ill. Shawn Harris
The animal book. Much maligned. Loathed. Occasionally abhorred. Standouts aside (I see you, Charlotte) it’s a genre of children’s book that can go real bad, real fast. I have heard actual, honest-to-goodness children’s librarians say point blank that they cannot stand animals chapter book fiction. True story. And yet the reasons vary wildly. Some only associate such books with death (as with the aforementioned Charlotte, The Underneath, etc.). Some find them cutesy or too twee for words (I’m not naming names here). Others dislike them because they are too often avatars for some grand metaphors about the human condition (most recently seen in The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse). And when you hear that an author of books for adults has written such a title (strike one) and that their publisher is calling it “a timeless story for readers of all ages” (strike two), the hairs on the back of my neck stand straight up and refuse to come down, despite my best entreaties. The author in question is Dave Eggers. My relationship to his children’s books has been touch and go. I certainly consider Her Right Foot his informational fiction picture book about the Statue of Liberty, to be one of the greats. But when it comes to chapter book fiction, the last thing of his I read was The Lifters which was . . . nice. A perfectly decent book. But life is too short for the perfectly decent, particularly when we’re talking about an animal book. Yet the blurbs on this new title were from folks I trust like Jon Klassen and Jon Scieszka and Annie Barrows. And with art by Shawn Harris, this at the very least looked interesting. So saying, I tell those of you who are like myself that though you may not be the biggest fan of books populated by furry woodland creatures (and, yes, that definitely is this book in a nutshell), read The Eyes and the Impossible and you will find a thoroughly well-written, occasionally touching, funny, strange little book that sticks both its landing and in your memory. It might even turn you around on the whole animal fiction thing.
Johannes occupies a park. The only free dog there, he is everywhere at once, running so fast you could never catch him. Here he works for the park’s three resident Bison. For them, he is “the eyes”, and he has helper animals that report to him daily. Things have stayed the same for quite some time, but suddenly there is a shift. A strange new building. Odd rectangles that enthrall Johannes and ensnare him. Strange hoards of animals that descend on the park and eat everything in sight. And strangest of all, Johannes has concocted a plan so wild and strange, it may change everything about his life from now on.
Dave Eggers probably is perfectly aware of people like me so, to ease at least some of our fears, this is what he writes in the book even before the story has started:
“This is a work of fiction. No places are real places. No animals are real animals. And, most crucially, no animals symbolize people. It is a tendency of the human species to see themselves in everything, to assume all living things, animals in particular, are simply corollaries to humans, but in this book, that is not the case. Here, the dogs are dogs, the birds are birds, goats are goats, the Bison Bison.”
He is also, I am sure, equally aware that it is the right of the reader to interpret whatever they read through their own lens, in strict defiance of the author if needs be. Even so, I appreciated the note. One assumes he is attempting to head off at the pass future interview questions from child and adult alike, wondering what it all means. Perhaps he is doing students a favor by trying waylay their teachers from giving them writing assignments that would demand they give a lofty weight and meaning to these critters in some outsized capacity. It may all be for nought, but I appreciate the effort. Also, as someone who gets real tired of novel-length metaphors real fast, it’s nice to get a modicum of reassurance right at the start. I suspect that there are many kids out there who will feel the same way.
Animal fiction has one distinct advantage over other kinds of middle grade chapter books that I have failed to mention until now: They make excellent classroom readalouds. Now truth be told I have not yet attempted to read The Eyes and the Impossible out loud to anyone. I think I may do so with my son fairly soon, but I know enough about the book to say with certainty that this book isn’t quite as simple as, say, The One and Only Ivan. A teacher considering it may wish to give it a practice run at home before debuting it before an audience. After all, the book opens with, “I turn I turn I turn before I lie to sleep and I rise before the Sun. I sleep inside and sleep outside and have slept in the hollow of a thousand-year-old tree.” It’s not exactly Ulysses for kids, but it’s not exactly NOT Ulysses either. Even so, I think it could enthrall, if done properly. Just make sure you’re up for bringing your best performance.
Considering its quality, it’s a bit funny that I’ve taken this long to get to the actual writing in the book. It’s good. Quite good. Very good even. What is truly remarkable about Mr. Eggers as a writer is that he has found innumerable ways to say the otherwise simple phrase of, “I ran” here. Johannes never says he simply ran. Every time he takes off we are treated to these delicious descriptions of his speed, and no two ever repeat. “I run like a rocket. I run like a laser. You have never seen speed like mine. When I run I pull at the earth and make it turn.” Johannes speaks like a canine Mohammed Ali. When he brags, his exaggerations take on a grandiosity that grows increasingly delicious the more outsized that they become. A person could read an entire book entirely consisting of Johannes’ brags and it would be enough.
I think that’s the key to The Eyes and the Impossible, actually. Eggers has a nice sturdy plot, where interesting things happen, but he also fills the book (it’s almost sneaky) with beautiful language. Often that language, as when Johannes brags, is funny, and for kids it’s like the humor means they’re allowed to enjoy the writing. It gives them a pass. So you’ll get lines like, “I can make my way up quickly, like a feather lifted by wind, because my speed is light flight and my claws like promises kept,” and it works. The bravado convinces you, even as the language enthralls. How else could Eggers write something like this: “You are wondering about the sweater. You are wondering if the sweater altered my running ability, or my ability to reach the speed of light by throwing the future into the past and being the mechanism that turns the world.” The man has guts, I’ll tell ya that.
And thumbs up on the characters in this story, by the way. Naturally I enjoyed the plot (there are repeated moments that read like some kind of furry footed version of Ocean’s 11) and its well-deserved ending. I liked very much the moment when Johannes confronts some rude goats and they almost immediately fall to worshipping him on sight. And being set on an island, I can almost completely visualize the stage production of this book. But beyond all of that I liked the characters and their individual arcs in particular. Johannes, our lead, is interesting because in spite of his braggadocio, you aren’t put off in the least. You like him, possibly because his behaviors are so very familiar and so very dog. His friends never quite fall into standard types, either. With their limited page time, it would have been easy to just slap them into individual scenes, each with a single personality quirk. Instead, they all seem to have interior lives and, in some cases, a multitude of quirks. Some of them even get character arcs, if you can believe it. And all this with such a slim page count too.
Though he never really tells us what a “pupusa” is, or why Johannes likes to eat them so much (a great number of things dogs eat are completely disgusting, so I like to think that Dave Eggers has spared us some great and terrible knowledge here), for the most part this book wraps up every dangling plot thread, by the story’s end, while still allowing the readers to speculate about what happens after that last page. It is little wonder that the man behind the nation-wide 826 initiatives where kids do a fair amount of creative writing has handed us a book that ends with what is essentially a gigantic writing prompt. Yet I would bet every penny I’ve earned in my life that Dave Eggers wouldn’t touch a sequel to this book with a ten-foot-pole. Though it has a certain Stuart Little-esque ending, and you’re left wanting to know more, some kids will be strangely satisfied. Others will probably reenact the fury I myself felt in third grade when my teacher finished reading the previously mentioned Stuart Little and I felt horribly cheated. You know what happens to those kids? They write their own endings. Their own sequels. And then they become writers themselves. Smart move, Mr. Eggers, sir.
Seems a bit of a pity not to mention Shawn Harris in all of this. The guy classes up this joint, and does it in a rather unique way. Now Harris is a bit of an enigma as a children’s book artist. Sometimes I feel like he follows a compunction to never illustrate the same way twice. That instinct has served him well, as his Caldecott Honor for Have You Ever Seen a Flower? attests (and Caldecott committees adore it when you change up your style). Now he’s done something utterly original with this book. I didn’t pick up on it at first either. Essentially, he’s taken ten paintings of classical landscapes, mostly from the 1800s (with a single 1600s van Rusdael for spice) and added Johannes to each one. Added so well, in fact, that you can hardly imagine the landscapes without him. It isn’t simply a matter of injecting a dog into a scene either. Look at the painting “Forest Interior” (1878) by Berndt Lindholm. This is one of the few paintings where Johannes is moving quite close to the viewer. He runs down a path and the sun hits his fur at precisely the same angle that it hits the trees and ground. Harris has even inserted his shadow, completing the illusion that he’s been here all along. That minute attention to detail pays off almost too well. I’m not sure how Shawn Harris is going to feel about thousands and thousands of children assuming he painted each of these images entirely from scratch, but he’s about to receive that honor.
A confident writer that is confident for good reason is deeply satisfying. Any one of us could try to write our own version of this story, and not a single one of us would write it the way that Dave Eggers has. I devoured this book in a single sitting and would reread it happily if asked to do so, which I cannot say for every kids book I pick up. It’s the writing, man. It dares to be better, but doesn’t lose young readers along the way. There’s excitement and goats and near drownings and ridiculous disguises. It’s a legitimately fun book that soaked itself in great writing and isn’t afraid to show that writing off. I don’t know if it has what it takes to become a massive hit. I don’t know if other adult gatekeepers will agree with me on what it is doing (and how well). All I know is that that doggone publisher is actually right. It really is a book for all ages. Oh, how I cringe to say that, but it’s true! A work of animal fiction. A title you can read with the whole family. A fun book. A worthy book. A great one.
On shelves May 9th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Video: Would you like to see a trailer? Would you like to listen to the lilting cadences of Ethan Hawke? Now you can have both!
Misc: How it possible that a single book is being released by two publishers at once? I can’t attest to the nature of the relationship between the two companies, but I can say that in this particular case Penguin Random House is releasing a more standardized edition of this book while McSweeney’s is offering a very different, and rather beautiful, “wood-bound hardcover” (seen here). This may seem strange, until you remember that years ago it was Dave Eggers who wrote the novelization based on the Where the Wild Things Are movie and McSweeney’s bound the book entirely in fur (ala The Little Fur Family).
About Betsy Bird
Betsy 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.
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