The joy of kids' books, when you're all grown up

 

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., *** out of four stars), a clear-eyed and often hilarious deep dive into some old 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 — far from it. 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 schoolers.”

 

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 side consequence of his endearingly conversational tone is occasional thoughtlessness, as when he broaches the topic of why boys turn away from what they consider “girls’ books” but then aborts the discussion, saying it’s beyond him to explain.

Handy might have consulted any of the prominent children’s librarians who would be ready to share their insights. Given that Handy is publishing 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 when his own perspective runs dry. His argument for why he hasn’t included any books from the current boom in children’s literature (except for occasional asides about Harry Potter) similarly feels arbitrary and thin.

 

Like the adoring fan he is, though, Handy brings out the best sides of the books he describes. Maybe the greatest effect of Wild Things is to recover the full power of books that have been diminished in popular perception.

I gained a new respect for the hard truths of pioneer life depicted in Little House on the Prairie, for example, and particularly enjoyed Handy’s chapter on The Chronicles of Narnia.

Though he has a tough time with C.S. Lewis’s obvious Christian allegories, warning the reader that the books could be considered “lollipops spiked with dogma,” Handy then reclaims the series, portraying his awe so convincingly that this reader, at least, remembered anew why he adored those books so many years ago.

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