Here’s a rare middle grade book in translation, from an award-winning author of Mexican literary fiction.
The Wild Book by Juan Villoro. Translated by Lawrence Schimel. Yonder Books, 2017.
Juan’s mother has been falling apart since his father moved in with a girlfriend in Paris. Although he worries that he should be taking care of his mother, he and his little sister Carmen are sent to different houses for the summer to give her a break and improve her mental health. Juan is sent to his eccentric Uncle Tito, who never leaves his enormous house full of books and is both erudite regarding books and crude regarding food and bodily functions.
Juan is set to exploring the different rooms of the house, each with different categories of books like “Cheeses that Stink but Taste Delicious”, “Motors that Make No Noise”, and “Marmalade is Not Money.” Uncle Tito hopes that Juan will be able to find the Wild Book, which has eluded generations of searchers. But the books all have personalities of their own, some shy, some dangerous.
A highlight of Juan’s summer is meeting the beautiful Catalina, the daughter of the pharmacist across the street, who’s helping behind the counter over break. He brings books for her to read and finds that the stories she reads are different from what he’s read, giving them even more to talk about.
This is a book that really brought out to me the importance of the translator. The language is an odd-to-me mix of formal and colloquial language – how much is the result of being translated and how much would be there if I could read the Spanish? The whole story, with the protagonist falling in love (but denying it) but being quest-oriented without a real villain felt very different from the middle grade fiction I’m used to, juxtaposing plot lines for older and younger readers. In general, gender expectations in this book felt very old-fashioned – the mother who had no sense of identity outside of her marriage, and Catalina, who though described as clever, still seemed much more of a work of art to be admired than a real person. Though this grated, the magical books were really well done. Overall, this was an enjoyable exploration into new-to-me literary sensibility, with a magical library.
This book has been nominated for the Cybils award. This review reflects my opinion, not that of the Cybils committee.