Bruce Handy, father of two, and a busy editor and writer for Vanity Fair and the gone-but-not-forgotten Spy, describes a moment when his kids fell asleep while he was reading aloud to them. The book was probably one of Beverly Cleary’s, possibly Ramona the Pest. “Me, I was disappointed. I wanted to know what happened next in the book. Could have gotten up, but is there any sound more enchanting than that of sleeping children? So I stayed put in the rocking chair. I kept reading.”
The result of all that reading is Handy’s engaging, anecdotal, and funny new book, Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult, which Simon and Schuster published last week. Handy isn’t the first writer of mostly grown-up things to take kids’ books seriously. Those excellent critics Leonard S. Marcus, John Updike, Louis Menand, Adam Gopnik, and Alison Lurie have published thoughtful, insightful essays on the literary merits of the genre in places like The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. And children’s book authors and illustrators, like Maurice Sendak, have added substantially to the discussion.
But Handy’s Wild Things feels new and extraordinarily appealing. This is partly due to the idiosyncratic scope of the work: he moves quickly away from the tedious, moralistic early 18th-century examples of writing for children — of one, Handy writes, “I can’t imagine that any actual child, no matter how pious or masochistic or dull-witted, read it with much relish” — to bigger questions of why picture books so often have animals in their starring roles, or what makes certain of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books so enjoyable and others less so. His research is scholarly, but his opinions are, as they, say, his own. I was delighted to agree with his assessments of Silverstein’s The Giving Tree (soppy, maudlin) and Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go! (“a sentimental, souped-up riff on a Hallmark graduation card”).
Some of these books Handy, who was slow to learn to read, recalls from his own childhood, and he re-creates very successfully the impact of hearing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe read aloud by his second-grade teacher. When Aslan comes back to life, Handy writes, it felt like “a true miracle.” After all: “dead characters in children’s stories typically stayed dead — Old Yeller being a prominent example, along with most birth mothers in fairy tales.”
As a boy, Handy didn’t read the classic children’s book written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Louisa May Alcott, or Lucy Maud Montgomery. These felt like “girls’ books” to him. But turning to them for this project, he takes them seriously, noting that “the tension between should and want is strong in Little Women, and far less internalized than that in the Little House books.” Wilder’s books hold up better, despite being “a chronicle of failure,” because they are also “a saga of endurance” — lightened by the “friskiness” of the main, autobiographical figure of Laura, who prevailed despite enormous privations and heartbreak, to become a successful writer …of children’s books.
What makes Handy’s book so delightful is his high-low voice. Having said that his research is scholarly, his tone is not, and it was a pleasure to read his description of Beverly Cleary as “Henry James with much shorter sentences," or of Frank L. Baum’s Oz books as “a gateway drug to Mad.” He may be writing about kids’ books, but Handy is distinctly adult, and just the kind of informed but amusing conversationalist we’d all like to hear talk. You can learn a lot from Wild Things, but like Mary Poppins’s spoonful of sugar, it goes down very easily indeed.
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