Beast by Margaret Wild

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Wild, Margaret.  1992.  BEAST.  New York:  Scholastic, Inc.  ISBN: 0-590-47159-7.

Margaret Wild’s Beast begins with the childhood chant, “Step on a crack, Break your mother’s back, Step on a line, Break your father’s spine.”  The life of Jamie, the eleven-year-old protagonist, is ruled by fear and superstition which make him do things like touch a doorknob three times or align his slippers to insure that he will be safe.  Jamie is terrorized by the Beast which comes to his house every night and howls and carries on.  Problem is, Jamie’s parents and little sister, Pudding, do not see or hear the Beast when he makes his nightly visits. 

A more real problem is Brendan, the bully.  Brendan is a popular boy, smart and athletic.  Most people, especially adults, think that he is a great kid, but for some reason unknown to Jamie, Brendan torments him on a daily basis.  Things are so bad that Jamie doesn’t do his math homework so that his teacher will make him stay in the classroom during recess so he can avoid Brendan. 

One day Brendan throws Jamie’s bookbag into a yard with vicious dogs who destroy it and since he can’t tell his parents about the bullying, Brendan is forced to borrow an old schoolbag from his best friend, Stephen.  Jamie sneaks out after dark to get the schoolbag and on the way home walks past Brendan’s house.  He discovers Brendan’s secret:  that his father, a former Olympic swimmer, is abusing the boy and even his dog.  Seeing Brendan’s unhappy homelife gives Jamie a new perspective on the bully.  When Brendan’s father confronts him about losing a school swim meet, the whole school sees the truth of their relationship.  Humiliated, Brendan runs away.

Jamie hears noises from an old abandoned house and decides to be brave and investigate.  He finds that this is where Brendan and his dog, who was responsible for the noises, go when things get bad at home.  Brendan tells Jamie how lucky he is to have such a nice family and how he has looked in Brendan’s windows at night because he longed for a happy family since his mother left his father, taking his baby sister with her.  After his talk with Brendan, Jamie then has the courage to banish the Beast forever.

A subplot throughout the book involves Brendan’s alter ego, the “Gamemaster,” who lures the other children out at night to play games. Brendan needs this control since his homelife is out of control.  By the end of the book, Brendan is able to let the Gamemaster go when he goes into foster care. 

Beast is an excellent book for young readers age 10 and up. Although the setting of Beast is Australian, there is little beyond the references to school and words such as "dresser" for cupboard or cabinet to really establish the setting.  Young readers in other countries will find that Jamie is a realistic protagonist and many can relate to his fear of the Beast and of Brendan.  They may be surprised that when he confronts his worst fear, the Beast, he discovers just how easy it is to defeat.  Jamie also discovers that even bullies like Brendan have their own fears and problems.  Brendan’s envy for Jamie’s happy homelife and family may lead readers to see their own homes and families in a different light.

Margaret Wild, who is also well-known for writing picture books, as well as novels for older children and teens, does an excellent job of capturing Jamie’s fear and desperation over the combination of the Beast'a nocturnal visits and Brendan’s bullying and his attempts to gain security through superstition and repetitive behavior.  Because of the focus on Brendan and his problems, as well as Jamie, this would be an excellent book to recommend not only to children who are being bullied, but also to the bullies.  Bullies could learn firsthand the kind of stress Brendan is putting Jamie under and the bullied child can learn that sometimes there are reasons for a bully's behavior.

Works cited:
Scholastic Authors and Illustrators website, accessed February 7, 2006.

By Monica Wood