Handy, Bruce. Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult. Simon & Schuster, 2017. 307p. $26. 978-1-4516-0995-0.
Handy is best known for his articles in The New Yorker and other magazines, and he brings that same wit and insight into this adult’s look at children’s books. This is not a lecture or doctoral thesis, but a way of reading children’s literature in a thoughtful way, combining both history and the author’s background with the impact his or her books have had on children.
The book’s organization really helps the reader progress through the topic by beginning with books for very young children, and going forward with books for a gradually older audience. Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon, and Clement Hurd’s illustrations, are the focus of the first chapter. A few other books for babies are discussed but the bulk of the analysis is on Goodnight Moon. The next chapter discusses The Runaway Bunny, also by Brown, comparing it to Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, (yes, this makes sense once you read it).
One of the best chapters begins with a brief history of fairy tales, including those collected by Grimm and Perrault, and then Handy segues into the work of Maurice Sendak. Where the Wild Things Are is examined as well as some of Sendak’s lesser known books including Outside Over There. Both Handy and Sendak discuss Disney’s revision of fairy tales but don’t condemn those works in a passage that is fair while still having a distinct opinion.
The chapter on Dr. Seuss’s work (and life) is really fun, in part because Seuss had an interesting life working in advertising, World War II propaganda, and later in Hollywood. Still, Handy explains why many of his books have stood the test of time – anarchy, joy, humor, and play are timeless assets that inspire kids to learn to read.
The work of Beverly Cleary, especially her “Ramona Quimby” books, is my favorite chapter since books for the transitional age group are often overlooked. He compares Cleary’s work to playwrights because she lays out common middle class families in an honest way; something that is not easy to do while still making the plots and characters interesting.
Later chapters address C.S. Lewis’s “Narnia” series and its religious allegory, politics in children’s books, especially in Baum’s “Wizard of Oz” series, and books girls enjoy including Alcott’s Little Women and Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” series. Children enjoy many of these books without understanding the allegories or political references, but when adults reread them, it gives them a new layer of information to think about.
The final chapter talks about books that feature the death of a character, which children often appreciate as a way to process unfortunate things in their lives. Handy circles back to Margaret Wise Brown, and discusses The Dead Bird. Of course, he spends the most time on E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web which is a great example of this, which Handy explains clearly without being nostalgic. In fact, he avoids a nostalgic feeling throughout the book; he often refers to the fact that children do not need to be talked down to.
Children’s librarians are not the only audience for this celebration of children’s literature, but can appreciate many of Handy’s points. It may motivate some to reread books they haven’t read since childhood, where surprises will be found. In many ways, it can be fun and useful to read a children’s book without having to think about how it can be used in a classroom, or for storytime, and just enjoy the prose, characters, and plot. When a book has that something extra, it is often discovered during a second or third reading.
Penny Peck, San Jose State University iSchool