‘Wild Things’ is a fun and some­times in­sight­ful look back at the joys of books we loved when we were young

USA TODAY International Edition - - LIFE - Eliot Schre­fer

In th­ese days of Cap­tain Un­der­pants and Percy Jack­son, chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture seems more main­stream than ever. Are kids’ books re­ally just for kids, or is there some­thing in them for ev­ery­one?

Bruce Handy takes a shot at an­swer­ing that ques­tion in Wild Things: The Joy of Read­ing Chil­dren’s Lit­er­a­ture as an Adult (Si­mon & Schus­ter, 336 pp.,eeeE out of four), a clear-eyed and of­ten hi­lar­i­ous deep-dive into some stand­bys of chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture.

Though it would be easy to fall into ei­ther rap­ture or di­a­tribe, Handy treats his lit­er­ary sub­jects like fam­ily mem­bers, with ad­mi­ra­tion and in­fu­ri­a­tion and love.

He’s a per­cep­tive and af­fa­ble close reader. Handy’s great­est praise is for Bev­erly Cleary, whose Ra­mona the Pest he de­scribes as “like Henry James with much shorter sen­tences.” Beatrix Pot­ter of Peter Rab­bit fame comes off as both more pro­found and more se­vere than I re­mem­bered. (She “keeps one foot firmly planted in each world, hu­man and beast; her sto­ries are fa­mil­iar yet strange, cozy yet haunted by Dar­winian men­ace.”) Wild Things is not all praise. Dr. Seuss, though he “blends imag­i­na­tion, hu­mor, rhyme, rigor, silli­ness, ag­gres­sion, and chaos the­ory,” whiffs with Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, which is “what you might get if you asked Mitch Al­bom to ghost a Dr. Seuss book.” And don’t get Handy started on The Giv­ing Tree, “Shel Sil­ver­stein’s in­ex­pli­ca­bly pop­u­lar retelling of Stella Dal­las and Mil­dred Pierce for nurs­ery


Though it’s a fun jour­ney, it’s a lit­tle un­clear whom this book is for: Handy is an edi­tor at Van­ity

Fair, not a chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture scholar, and it some­times shows. He hasn’t cho­sen to in­clude the opin­ions of any chil­dren other than his own, and a con­se­quence of his con­ver­sa­tional tone is oc­ca­sional thought­less­ness, as when he broaches the topic of why boys turn away from what they con­sid- er “girls’ books” but says it’s be­yond him to ex­plain.

Given that Handy has writ­ten a book about chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture, not dis­cussing it at the din­ner ta­ble, it doesn’t seem too much to ask that he look a lit­tle deeper. His ar­gu­ment for why he hasn’t in­cluded books from the cur­rent boom in chil­dren’s lit sim­i­larly feels ar­bi­trary and thin.

Yet like the fan he is, Handy brings out the best of the books he de­scribes. I gained a new re­spect for the pi­o­neer life de­picted in Lit­tle House on the Prairie, and en­joyed Handy’s chap­ter on The Chron­i­cles of Nar­nia.

Though he has a tough time with C.S. Lewis’s Chris­tian al­le­gories, Handy re­claims the se­ries, por­tray­ing his awe so con­vinc­ingly that this reader re­mem­bered anew why he adored those books so many years ago.


Bruce Handy

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