"Outside a dog a book is man's best friend, inside a dog it is too dark to read!" -Groucho Marx========="The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." -Jane Austen========="I don’t believe in the kind of magic in my books. But I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book."-JK Rowling========"I spend a lot of time reading." -Bill Gates=========“Ahhh. Bed, book, kitten, sandwich. All one needed in life, really.” -Jacqueline Kelly=========

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children't Literature as an Adult by Bruce Handy

When my children were young I loved reading to them before bedtime. (Heck, I still love reading with them if they are home for a special occasion and an appropriate book presents itself!) I wasn't an English major or a children's lit expert so we would read whatever struck my fancy, often choosing books I read as a child. Sometimes when in the middle of one of these rereads, I would have to set the book aside in disgust because I would recognize the racism or sexism that I hadn't noticed as a child on my first read through. But usually I would relish the reread, seeing the book through my children's eyes.

When I first saw the title of the book Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children't Literature as an Adult by Bruce Handy I knew I HAD to read it and I wasn't disappointed in my expectations. (I made my choice strictly by the title which proves how important book titles are!)  Handy, an author and book editor, also enjoyed reading to his children when they were young, but he was much more organized than me in terms of his book selections than me.

Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children't Literature as an Adult is roughly organized by themes encompassing examples of great pieces of children's lit from early board books up to great middle grade selections, perhaps with just a little kiss on the border of YA fiction. Each chapter revolves around a theme and usually one or two authors are highlighted in each chapter, also.

The first chapter's theme is going to bed and seeing things with "new eyes, and new ears", focusing on the books of Margaret Wise Brown, mainly Goodnight Moon. As weird as most adults think that book is, Handy points out how it is really brilliant, especially if you look at it through a child's eyes.
"No one seems to knows why it became her preeminent work, but like all her books it is grounded in a profound empathy for the very young...in one of her earliest stories, she writes that the title character 'had brand new eyes and brand new ears, and he heard and saw everything'---which was Brown's gift, to experience the world like a child, as if both she and it were just off the griddle" (9).
I must admit that I liked Goodnight Moon better after reading this chapter. Handy gives voice to something I've long noticed when reading children's books, some seem like they are books about kids or children's themes but written in a very adult voice or from an adult point of view. While others, like most of those written by the genius Margaret Wise Brown, look at the world through the eyes of child. Kids intuitively know the difference and want parents to read and reread these selections.

The parent-child relationship is the next theme in the book with another Margaret Wise Brown selection, Runaway Bunny, getting top billing and Bedtime for Frances by Russell Hoban a close second. Examples of good parenting are not rare in children's book like they are in adult and YA books, but the parents in the aforementioned books are especially good. Handy does identify a few terrible parenting examples, too---the mom in The Cat in the Hat and the man with the yellow hat in the Curious George books. Talk about absent or laissez-faire parenting examples. What parent would leave her children with only a fish for a babysitter?

If the first two chapters deal with comfortable themes, the third moves away and tackles the importance of fairy tales in child development. I think I only read my daughters the Disneyfied versions of fairy tales and didn't venture into the much more frightening versions by the Grimm Brothers. Both have a place in children's lit. Maurice Sendak's book Where the Wild Things Are really builds on themes common in fairy tales, though the original stories dealt with physical needs for food, shelter, etc. and Sendak's masterpiece dealt more with emotions. Ursula Nordstom, Sendak's editor at Harpers said, "I think that Maurice's book is the first picture book to recognize that children have powerful emotions, anger and love and hate" (64).

I should stop here and mention that just about every chapter made me think that some important person in my life would really enjoy it. My oldest daughter loves fairy tales, so I dearly wanted her to read about here. My youngest daughter is a Beatrix Potter fan. The chapter on talking animals mainly focused on Potter's wonderful illustrations and tales. Since Carly was home for Spring Break, I did read her large swatches of both the talking animals chapter and the next chapter about God where Handy highlighted C.S. Lewis and his Narnia series. Lastly, my oldest sister is a huge Dr. Seuss fan. She would be fascinated by what Handy had to say about the beginning-reader genius, Dr. Seuss. Yesterday at book club I did quote the chapter on growing up where Handy talked about Little Women and Little House on the Prairie. Handy made the point that 'boy books' tend to end at the end of the adventure but 'girl books' tend to keep going until marriage. I am not sure if this is still the case, but it certainly was when we were growing up reading books Little Women.

The last chapter dealt with probably the best middle grade book ever written about a very difficult theme, Charlotte's Web. I've always thought that books were a perfect way to talk to readers about tough topics. I used to tell my students that it was okay to read books if they were grappling with an issue because the book handed out advice but didn't pay attention if they kept the advice or not.
Before he launches into a description of Charlotte's Web and it's author E.B. White, Handy asks this question, "Do wiser, funnier, more pleasurable books exist? If so, they're few and far between, no matter how old or young their intended audience" (249). I confess that I decided to reread White's masterpiece after I read this chapter. Kids, like everyone, are flummoxed by death and how to talk about it. Charlotte's Web is a good place to start.

Lest you think that Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children't Literature as an Adult is only about books and authors, Handy does not ignore the illustrators of the classic pieces that he highlights. His discussion of the ways that the illustrations enhance or distract from the stories were helpful to my understanding of the craft of illustrating children's books.

I was weeping as I read the Afterward to the book. Why? Because Handy talked about how much he loved reading to his own kids and felt sad when they no longer needed/wanted him to do so. I remember those days well, even though they were many years ago. Thankfully, I have a young grandson. Already we are 'reading' board-books together. It won't be long before I can share all my favorite stories with him...Jamberry; The Big Hungry Bear; A Million Chameleons...


  1. Interesting book, and insightful. One of my favorite books as a child was "Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel" or something like that. My poor parents had to read it to me hundreds of times. Looking back on it as a adult, I see that the theme of turning a negative into a positive solution was what I loved about the book.

  2. I remember reading that book to my girls. I don't remember it as a child, however.

  3. Reading to and with our children is such a significant thing in our lives and this book sounds like it brings a whole new dimension to the experience. The chapter themes sounds really interesting.

  4. I have that book on my wishlist. It sounds like it focuses on older titles, so I suppose he's talking about re-reading as an adult. My daughter and I just started listening to Hunger Games in the car on a trip to Seattle, and it was so much fun to experience it for her first time with her like that!

  5. I find that subtitles play a big role in my decision to pick up a nonfiction book! This one sounds really heartwarming. I like the idea of revisiting books I read as a child in a more thoughtful way.


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