A Review of Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children's Literature as an Adult by Bruce Handy
For as long as I can remember, I have always been a voracious reader. At two years old, I would dump out the big wicker basket that held my picture book collection, crawl inside, and read until I made it through all of my favorites: the entirety of the Berenstain Bearsseries, my worn copy of Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon, Sarah Stewart’s The Library, Yoshiko Uchida’s The Bracelet, and Jane Yolen’s Owl Moon, to name a few. Many of these books I read several times in one sitting.
Reading was my favorite pastime; I could never get into video games, wasn’t a big fan of Barbies, and would only watch television if there was a Spongebob marathon on. I went to a magnet school for my first three elementary years, and would spend both forty-five minute-long bus rides poring over a book. One afternoon, I missed my bus stop because I was too engrossed in my novel to pay attention to the scenery. Thoroughly terrified, I spent the rest of the ride tearfully hovering next to the bus driver who promised to drop me off at the end of her route. I remember sprinting across the cul de sac into my mom’s arms after finally getting home, and explaining that I missed my stop because I was reading. “A good book will do that to you,” she said.
My mom shares my love of books— in fact, her appreciation for the written word is undoubtedly greater than mine. After getting her masters, she taught third grade in the Bronx for a few years before moving down South. While I was in middle school, she started tutoring neighborhood kids in writing and reading comprehension before taking a job as a librarian at a local private school. Two years ago, she also took on the role of the K-5 art teacher, and has coined the term “art-brarian” to describe her job. In addition to being my biggest cheerleader, she has always harbored my love for reading and we constantly trade and share books with each other.
One of our favorite things to do when I’m home is fart around the mall together, popping into random stores on a whim and occasionally stumbling upon something cute or good-smelling or edible. On one such casual afternoon, we were browsing in a Barnes and Noble and happened to find a brightly-colored book hanging out in the “Essays” section. Upon reading the title, my mom snatched it up and used it as teaching material for several months. It wasn’t until I got home this past summer that I finally got my hands on her already well-loved copy, and I pored over that book the way I poured over the final Harry Potter.
Bruce Handy’s Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult is about exactly what the title suggests— the sheer joy of revisiting the books that you loved as a child. Handy, currently a contributing editor for Vanity Fairand himself a father, expresses his deep love of children’s literature through his thorough, tender examinations of a handful of meaningful titles— of course, the breadth of great children’s books out there is incredibly vast, which Handy acknowledges— ranging from babydom (Goodnight Moon, Where the Wild Things Are) to more mature reads, such as Little Women and Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books.
Wild Things, at its core, is an enthralling adventure through the world of kids’ books. Handy frequently inserts himself into the text, discussing what it has been like for him to read his favorite books from childhood to his own children, making this not only a nonfiction examination of popular children’s literature, but also the story of a man communing with his own childhood through the gentle obsession over and reverence of the texts he has deemed sacred. Handy delights in re-experiencing some of the greatest stories children’s literature has to offer, and has gleaned adult insight into these books that a child would only be able to subliminally pick up.
Handy dedicates a hearty chapter to each of his chosen books and takes his time discussing the nuances of their development, the colorful biographies of each author, and the complexity behind the meaning and implication of the stories. Charlotte’s Web includes an important and careful discussion of benediction and death, Aslan in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe can be read as an emulation of Christ, his resurrection borrowed from Christian theology, and Ramona Quimby is a much more emotionally complex heroine than any second grader could have possibly realized.
The trivia included in this book is equally as fascinating as the discussions of the books themselves, as Handy includes quirky tidbits from the lives of several notable authors; Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) worked on the screenplay for Rebel Without a Cause, L. Frank Baum’s first publication was an instructional guide on breeding Hamburg chickens, and Maurice Sendak altered his subject matter for for Where The Wild Things Are because he couldn’t draw horses. But Handy doesn’t let himself get caught up in the fun facts, and offers concrete arguments that challenge conventions of children’s literature. He compares the structural narrative of Margaret Wise Brown’s The Runaway Bunny to Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and challenges the notion that “girl” books are inherently “girlish,” using The Little House on the Prairie as an example. Of Pa, the patriarchal character, Handy asserts his masculine appeal, stating “from the denatured vantage point of 21st-century urban fatherhood, where bantering with the super as he fixes your toilet counts as manly self-sufficiency, Pa cuts an intimidating figure: Not only does he feed and shelter his family using his own two hands … he also makes his own bullets.”
My personal favorite chapter came at the very end of the book and was, however ironically, about endings and death in children’s literature. Handy examines the inclusion of death in Charlotte’s Web, a book that opens with the powerful line (spoken by Fern) “Where’s Pa going with the ax?” As we know, Fern saves the runt pig Wilbur, who goes on to befriend Charlotte, a spider who spins adjectives into her webs that make Wilbur something of a state fair superstar. I can confidently say that that book means more to me than I can possibly put into words, having been one of the first full-length chapter books that I read independently. Charlotte’s Web is everything a good novel should be: vivid, poignant, affecting, beautiful, difficult, and undeniably important. Handy points to the vitality of including such a careful description of death in a children’s book, and admits that the conclusion of the book, when Charlotte dies and leaves behind all of her infant spider children, makes him cry when he reads it aloud to his own kids, who say “Why are you crying dad? Wilbur has all these new friends now.” Us readers realize that Handy’s children won’t always have that childlike sense of wonder and resilience, and we feel as deeply for them as we feel for Wilbur.
I felt as melancholy when I finished this book as I have when I’ve finished any sprawling novel. It reminded me of what it was like to be five years old, and eight years old, and ten years old, and twelve years old and how incomparably magical it was to get lost in a good book, and I loved being able to share the experience of Wild Things with my fellow bookworm— my mom. Simply put, The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult was a joy to read.