Samuel Johnson died in 1784, but what he said about children's books sounds quite modern: "Remember always that the parents buy the books, and that the children never read them."
That quotation and E.B. White's "SOME PIG" serve as apt epigraphs for Bruce Handy's Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children's Literature as an Adult.
Not that I agree with the second half of Johnson's quip — I meet too many kids who are avid readers to believe that. But choosing and reading children's books is an adult activity for millions of parents and teachers (and some adults who are neither).
Handy, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair whose essays and criticism have also appeared in the New Yorker and other publications, offers those adult readers some grownup perspective on kids' lit in this knowledgeable and charming book.
Handy, a parent himself, doesn't condescend about his subject. "It should go without saying," he writes in the introduction, "that the best children's literature is every bit as rich and rewarding in its concerns, as honest and stylish in execution, as the best adult literature — and also as complicated, stubborn, conflicted and mysterious."
He cites an example: Beverly Cleary's "masterpiece, Ramona the Pest, a psychologically acute study of a girl struggling against social conventions (in her case, kindergarten's), is like Henry James with much shorter sentences. I'm sort of joking, but I'm sort of not. ..."
That's also an example of Handy's tone throughout: smart but light. There's no ponderous academic theorizing here, just a voracious and thoughtful reader's exploration of a genre about which he finds much to love.
The book's chapters move from picture books for babies through books to read to preschoolers and then on to books kids can read themselves, stopping at the boundary that marks the even more wild things of YA.
Each chapter discusses several books, or even whole genres, but focuses on one classic. In the first chapter, for example, Handy takes a deep dive into one of the most popular kids' books ever: "Goodnight Moon stands alone as the totemic picture book of American babyhood."
He writes appreciatively about how Margaret Wise Brown's carefully crafted story and Clement Hurd's wonderful illustrations work together to create a world both familiar and enchanted. He also cracks, "Am I the only one wondering where the bunny's parents have run off to?"
Another pleasure of Wild Things is Handy's brief biographies of the writers he focuses on. Brown, he tells us, was no grandmotherly presence but "headstrong and zany, like a madcap heroine in a 1930s screwball comedy." (He also notes that the majority of these iconic writers for children were, like Brown, childless themselves.)
His chapter on Maurice Sendak opens with a history of traditional fairy tales, which in their original forms, as collected by the brothers Grimm and others, were often hair-raisingly bloody cautionary tales.
Indeed, he writes in a footnote, "You can hardly blame the Nazis on the Grimms, but, not surprisingly, the Third Reich embraced the brothers' work, insisting that fairy tales be taught in schools and even restoring the violence and cruelty that had been pruned from some editions. ... The Reich embraced the Grimms so enthusiastically that during the postwar occupations the Allies banned fairy tales for a period as part of denazification efforts."
Sendak, who was Jewish and lost many family members in the Holocaust, transformed the same materials into something entirely different in books like Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen. "Sendak's gift," Handy says, "was to reinvent the fairy tale by drilling down through his own unconscious and ransacking his own childhood joys and terrors." Handy writes as astutely about the art in these books as about the prose; Wild Things' one lack is reproductions of some of those illustrations.
That chapter also contains one of several examples of Handy's willingness to diss kids' books he doesn't like, usually for sentimentality or insincerity: "I would like to put in a bad word for The Giving Tree, Shel Silverstein's inexplicably popular retelling of Stella Dallas and Mildred Pierce for nursery schoolers."
His chapter on Dr. Seuss, especially The Cat in the Hat, where "chaos makes an unexpected house call," revolves around the importance of chaos as something children are attracted to yet fear.
He also makes the intriguing observation that the ending of the book leaves open the possibility that the children will lie to their mother about the Cat's visit, leading Handy "to propose that the 1960s began when Dr. Seuss first engaged baby boomers in a conspiracy of silence against their clueless parents."
One of the most delightful chapters is Handy's take on classic "girl book" series by Louisa May Alcott and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Growing up, he never read either, because boys just didn't.
"I had intended to read only the first two or three Little House books" as research, he writes, "but, delighted and transfixed — cooties be damned — I breezed through all nine in the series."
He found himself engrossed by just what I remember loving in those books as a kid: the astonishingly difficult everyday challenges of pioneer life. "So attention, boys: you should know that there is more shooting and skinning, more playing with pig bladders and gnawing on bear drumsticks than you might expect from a book with a girl holding a rag doll on the cover."
He's not so crazy about Little Women. He's charmed by Jo March but put off by the book's moralizing and (I say this as one who loves the book still) its frankly awful ending: "romping, headstrong, flyaway Jo is not meant to be Mother Bhaer any more than Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn are meant to be bookkeepers."
There's much more to enjoy here, in chapters about Beatrix Potter and Beverly Cleary, L. Frank Baum and E.B. White. Even if you're a parent at the point of thinking the thousandth reading of Goodnight Moon might just drive you crazy, Wild Things can show you something new in it.
Contact Colette Bancroft at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.