Dave Eggers is known as an accomplished memoirist and novelist—but fewer people realize he is also the author of several books for children, including picture books with illustrator Shawn Harris, Her Right Foot and What Can a Citizen Do?, and the forthcoming Moving the Millers’ Minnie Moore Mine Mansion: A True Story, illustrated by Júlia Sardà. But Eggers prefers not to think of them as children’s books at all, rejecting market categorization of his books wherever possible. In his latest novel, The Eyes and the Impossible, also illustrated by Harris, a young dog named Johannes considers what it means for him and other animals to be free. Eggers spoke with PW about writing for young people and adults alike, his favorite “children’s book” authors, and why he felt driven to tell a story entirely from the perspective of animals.
How did you approach writing this book differently than you might a book for adults?
I actually didn’t approach this project any differently than writing for adults. As I was writing, I thought, “I’m just going to write this exactly as I think it should be written, and not really worry about the audience.” I was so ready to write freely, without having to check facts, or write about technology—just writing from a much more untethered place. I guess the freedom expressed in the book, or that [the protagonist] Johannes feels, is very much the freedom I was feeling as a writer. But you know, Johannes is a young dog and there are certain things that come through his perspective that resonate with a younger reader.
For the McSweeney’s edition [which has a special wood-bound cover], we’re sending the message that the book is for all ages. I know that for the Knopf Books for Young Readers version, it’s children’s middle grade. And I totally understand those kinds of designations from a publisher’s perspective and a librarian’s perspective. I just personally love the all-ages designation. I tend to resist genre and age group designations. I really resist critical designations of this or that literary movement.
I’m hoping that anybody would feel welcome to this book. All of these designations hamper what should be the pleasure of just picking up any book that looks intriguing to you.
Are there any particular writers who are categorized as “children’s book authors” who you particularly enjoy?
There are so many authors, whether it’s Jason Reynolds or Katherine Applegate, or Kate DiCamillo, who I got to read with my kids, and enjoyed just as much as they did.
Especially when I discovered Kate DiCamillo’s books when my kids were little. I thought, these are classics, and the writing is so pure and perfect. She became one of my favorite writers. And yet, there are probably some adults who say, “Oh, those types of books aren’t for me,” even though they would benefit greatly from the pure reading pleasure of those books.
The author’s note in the beginning of the book cautions readers against anthropomorphizing the animals. Why was that important to you to emphasize?
I wanted to free the reader from misinterpretation and to help them be able to take the story at face value. The park in the book is not Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, but I was inspired by it. And the bison who are kept there—I never took those bison as anyone but unfortunate creatures stuck in the pen in the park. They don’t symbolize anything else to me. As humans, we do tend to think it’s all about us, and I wanted to caution the reader against that.
We got cats during Covid. I had written most of the book at that point, but I was revising and polishing it, and I was just thinking about how we have these two cats, and they’re related, but they’re different in every conceivable way. Every single tendency is different from one to the other, and everything about them is so specific and complicated. But we don’t assume that level of complexity about animals, that they could have their own sense of soulfulness and spirituality.
And this is so key to Johannes; he becomes hypnotized again and again by his first exposure to art, and it gets him in a lot of trouble. And so allowing that dog to have that kind of exaltation in freedom and beauty was crucial to the voice, and to the book in general. I mean, if nothing else, that’s really what the book is about.
Had you been thinking more about themes of animal liberation when you began writing it?
I remember in my 20s, so this was like 1994, I went on my first horseback riding trip in Idaho, at a dude ranch. We were just going slowly up the hill on a hot day, and moving the exact speed that we could have walked ourselves. But instead, we’re sitting on a horse who is sweating profusely and biting my leg every couple of minutes. The horse was so pissed off about the whole project, and I’m looking at him in the eyes and thinking, “I don’t need to ride you. We’re not moving any faster. I’m just three feet higher than I would be if I were walking on my own.”
And the whole project was so absurd, for everybody. That was my first time thinking about how this animal really has a mind of his own. And so, I have pretty strong opinions about animal freedom. But I’m full of contradictions, too. I’m not a vegan. I wish I were.
I think in the case of the bison at Golden Gate Park who inspired the bison characters in this book, having seen them now for 30 years, I never had a sense that they were living their best life right there. And Johannes is always sort of contrasting his life with the animals he sees who are kept.
I think that I am kind of a purist when it comes to freedom. It really has to be unmitigated. I would never preach to anybody about how to keep a pet or anything. All I know is that there is something really special when your cats come back to you every night because they want to sleep inside and they like your companionship and food—but during the day they’re gone, and they have totally independent lives. It just feels like that’s probably the best arrangement; the one that feels most in balance, and most fair.
This is not a political book, but I do think I tried to channel what it might feel like—the contrast between an animal in captivity and an animal who owes nothing to anybody, and is utterly free.
The Eyes and the Impossible by Dave Eggers, illus. by Shawn Harris. Knopf, $18.99 ISBN 978-1-524764-20-3; McSweeney’s, $28 ISBN 978-1-952119-45-3 May 9 ISBN 978-1-5247-6420-3