This is a truly extraordinary book. I could see many an art-lover wanting it for her bookshelf. (It was recently named a 2013 NYT Best Illustrated Book.)
But its extraordinariness doesn’t stop with the illustrations. This picture book is based on the true story of Jemmy Button, whose real name was Orundellico. He was brought from Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America all the way to England in the early 1800s. He was educated in Victorian ways. Months later, he was brought back to his native land. It was thought he would teach his people new, more “civilized” ways. But he didn’t. He shed his fancy clothes and re-learned his language and became himself again. Wild, one might say.
“Once, long ago, on a faraway island, there was a boy.
Some nights he climbed to the tallest branch of the tallest tree to look at the stars.” He listened to the lap of the waves and wondered what was on the other side of the ocean.
One day a boat came with visitors.”
And there begins the story of Jemmy Button. He was given his name for the pearl button the visitors gave his family when they took him across the sea, where everything was a strange surprise.
Wild, on the other hand, is a made-up tale. It echoes stories of children raised by wolves a la Mowgli from The Jungle Book. This child was taught to speak by a bird, to eat by a bear, and to play by a fox. She’s wild and she’s happy. That is until some other humans show up and take her away. Boy are they strange.
I love how the illustrations give clues to deeper details that aren’t necessary to understand the basic story. Like that it’s hunters driving the girl away in their truck. Or the newspaper clipping that tells us: “Famed Psychiatrist Takes In Feral Child.”
To the wild girl, these strangers talk, eat, and play all wrong. She simply can’t take it. She returns to the woods.
“Because you cannot tame something so happily wild…”
In both books, the idea of “civilizing” someone out of their true home and culture is debunked. I could see these books being read together for discussion and/or as an introduction to colonialism and its complexities. Or perhaps these books are a way to explore the ways in which we all are a bit wild. The ways we want to stay that way or even cultivate more wildness in modern life.
To the untamed!