Monday, February 5, 2018

Meta Review Wild Things:The Joy of Reading Children's Literature as an Adult


Title: Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children's Literature as an Adult
Author: Bruce Handy
Publisher: Simon and Schuster, 2017. 307 pages.
Source: Library

Publisher's Summary:

An irresistible, nostalgic, and insightful -- and totally original -- ramble through classic children's literature from Vanity Fair contributing editor (and father) Bruce Handy.

In 1690, the dour New England Primer, thought to be the first American children's book, was published in Boston. Offering children gems of advice such as "Strive to learn" and "Be not a dunce," it was no fun at all. So how did we get from there to "Let the wild rumpus start"? And now that we're living in a golden age of children's literature, what can adults get out of reading Where the Wild Things Are and Goodnight Moon, or Charlotte's Web and Little House on the Prairie?

In Wild Things, Bruce Handy revisits the classics of every American childhood, from fairy tales to The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and explores the back stories of their creators, using context and biography to understand how some of the most insightful, creative, and witty authors and illustrators of their times created their often deeply personal masterpieces. Along the way, Handy learns what The Cat in the Hat says about anarchy and absentee parenting, which themes link The Runaway Bunny and Portnoy's Complaint, and why Ramona Quimby is as true an American icon as Tom Sawyer or Jay Gatsby.

It's a profound, eye-opening experience to reencounter books that you once treasured after decades apart. A clear-eyed love letter to the greatest children's books and authors, from Louisa May Alcott and L. Frank Baum to Eric Carle, Dr. Seuss, Mildred D. Taylor, and E.B. White, Wild Things will bring back fond memories for readers of all ages, along with a few surprises.

My Review:  

I was excited to stumble on this book at the library (while sorting books, as usual). Someone who wrote about the joy of doing something I do quite a lot? I had to read it.

What I got, I think tilted a bit more to the "adult" than the "joy" part of the premise. The blurb is pretty honest; the book is using a fairly scholarly approach to understand children's books and their appeal as well as their underlying meaning and significance. And don't get me wrong: that was interesting. But I often felt that the joy of reading those stories got lost in the lit crit.

I may also have been a little put out that Handy spent most of his time on books I've not read, and which aren't part of my psyche. That's right: for whatever reason, I never read Beezus and Ramona or the Wizard of Oz books (the former I might remedy; Handy convinced me I had some inner wisdom in not reading the latter). He did a good job of rehabilitating C.S. Lewis for those of us who aren't religious (and of explaining why I never liked either The Magician's Nephew or The Last Battle all that much), but turned around and annoyed me not so much by his accurate assessment of Little Women (caught between Alcott's feminism and a need to conform to societal standards) as by his out-of-hand dismissal of Anne of Green Gables.

Honestly, that inability on Handy's part to see that the somewhat irritating young Anne (who talks too much and often nonsense) is herself a character struggling against the stifling norms of her society really bothered me. Maybe his disgust with Anne for naming the geranium and giving it anthropomorphic feelings springs from a gender difference, but to me Anne's actions seem completely reasonable. As children, don't most of us imagine and half-believe that certain toys or other things are actually alive? Since Handy didn't finish the book, he doesn't get to see how Montgomery developed that uncontrolled imagination into something that could carry Anne out of the normal realms of Avonlea little girls. (That Montgomery later felt it necessary to push Anne into adulthood and back into what amounts to a very traditional female role is another issue, and one that could lead me down side-trails for pages.)

In the end, however much I did or didn't agree with everything Bruce Handy wrote, his book is an interesting look at the context, history, and significance of a number of childhood classics, and it is worth a look. It may just be, though, that analyzing joy is like analyzing humor: it has a rather crushing effect on it.

My Recommendation:
Read this for the backstories of the books, and the better understanding of the evolution of children's literature.

FTC Disclosure: I checked Wild Things out of my library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."  


  1. I think he has the incorrect perspective for Anne of Green Gables. But then, maybe I don't always have the right perspective for children's lit either.

    1. Yeah, it was a minor part of the book, but his dismissal of her really affected my feelings about other things he said.

  2. Yes, I'd probably stop reading the book after dismissing Anne and being overly critical of other works.

    1. I only forgave him because he did do a pretty good job on some of the other books--especially making Narnia seem like a place I might be able to go again.


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