WHEN YOU’ REALL GROWN UP
‘Wild Things’ is a fun and sometimes insightful look back at the joys of books we loved when we were young
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.