Monday, October 23, 2017

Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children's Books as an Adult

I knew as soon as I saw this title that I had to read this book. I think the books we love as a child become hardwired into our developing brains and help make us who we become. I regularly reread books I loved when young, and I loved sharing those books with my children--sometimes they fell in love too, sometimes not, but revisiting them regularly is an important part of my reading life.

Maybe this love for kids books is genetic. Towards the end of my father's life, as his eyesight started fading and he felt dementia on the horizon, he bought himself beautiful new editions of all his favorite books and reread them one last time--these included Winnie-the-Pooh, The House at Pooh Corner, Alice in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows, The Stories of Uncle Remus, and all of Beatrix Potter.

Bruce Handy, author of Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children's Books as an Adult, did a wonderful job balancing his personal nostalgia for specific books with providing context for the books/authors he profiled, the impact they and their beloved characters had on children and the development of children's lit, and short bios of some of the major authors.

Here's the table of contents, which I found to be a good a way of structuring discussion on the topic:

New Eyes, New Ears: Margaret Wise Brown and Goodnight Moon - loved, loved, loved this chapter and I have a whole new appreciation for Goodnight Moon, which I always liked to read to my kids, but now I know why! Mini bio on Brown was excellent--she was an original, took her craft seriously, and worked hard. Also great info on The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Snowy Day--btw, did you know there are winter stamps from the USPS that feature The Snowy Day.  They're going on this year's Xmas cards, for sure!

Runaways: Family Drama in Picture Books--and Well Beyond - Handy compares The Runaway Bunny with Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint. The Runaway Bunny was never one of my favorites, but the chapter was interesting nonetheless, especially when Handy brought The Giving Tree into the discussion and especially the Frances series, featuring Frances the badger. I have always loved the Frances books--partly because my older sister Frances got them for me, with Bread and Jam for Frances, which Handy didn't include, being my personal favorite.

Once upon a Time and In and Out of Weeks: Fairy Tales and Maurice Sendak - yep, this is all about Where the Wild Things Are and how Sendak is the modern Brother Grimm. There's also a good bit on the Grimm brothers themselves, and the role and history of fairy tales throughout the ages. Handy also brings in the Disney versions of the classic fairy tales, and has some refreshingly positive things to say about them.

Why a Duck? The Uses of Talking Animals from Aesop to Beatrix Potter to Olivia the Pig - definitely one of the best chapters, especially mini bio on Potter. It was interesting to read about how frank Potter was about life and death--not sugar coating anything for the little tykes. Handy also talks a good deal about Reynard the Fox and Uncle Remus stories, which I heard a lot as a kid. This particular chapter inspired me to dig out my Potter books and reread a bunch of the stories. I still think the illustrations are the best part of the books. I have to say, I think I could write an essay comparing The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck with Tess of the D'urbervilles.

You Have to Know How: Dr. Seuss vs. Dick and Jane - I learned to read with Dick and Jane, and believe me, I wish our school had had more Dr. Seuss on hand instead. Handy dives into The Cat in the Hat in a big way--I was one of the those goody-two-shoes kids who were always very uncomfortable with the Cat in the Hat.  I much preferred Horton Hatches a Who and Green Eggs and Ham, but the bio on Suess (i.e., Ted Geisel) was very interesting.

Kids Being Kids: Ramona Quimby, American Pest - not having encountered Ramona Quimby or even her author, Beverly Cleary, as a child, I didn't have the emotional response to this chapter, but it was interesting nonetheless, especially with regards to the mythos of American suburbia.

God and Man in Narnia - wonderful chapter on C.S. Lewis's Narnia, especially The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  I'm not a big Narnia fan, but the storytelling and merging of so many cultural mythological strands make Narnia an important piece of kid lit.

One Nation: Washington's Cherry Tree, Rosa Parks's Bus, and Oz - despite the chapter title, this one is really all about Oz and Frank L. Baum. One of the best chapters in the book, it gave me a much better appreciation for Baum and his never-ending series of Oz books.  I only read the first in the series, but I read it many times as a child. I still remember the look and feel of the blue cover of the copy I had.
One of the best quotes from the book comes from this chapter:
"Lewis never led me toward Christianity, but Baum, for me, was a gateway drug to Mad."

Going on Seventeen (Or Not): Little Women, Little Houses, and Peter Pans - superb chapter. Handy never read Little Women or the Little House series as boy, so he took care of that as a man. He had mixed feelings about Little Women, which I totally get. I only read it myself a few years ago and so could only like it and appreciate it but not love it as happens when you read it as a child, especially a girl-child who wants to be a writer. I loved the fact that Handy loved and appreciated the Little House books, which stand up well for first-time adult readers. Yes, they have their issues, mostly with regards to Native Americans, but Laura as a character is in a class by herself. I loved Handy's summation of Pa Ingalls as the single most competent character in children's literature. I can forgive Handy for finding Anne of Green Gables unreadable--its tone and heroine, much as I love them, are not for everyone, and I find that Anne is another character you have to fall in love with as a child to love as an adult.

The End: Dead Pets, Dead Grandparents, and the Glory of Everything - the chapter is ostensibly about death in children's lit, but it is really a paean to Charlotte's Web by E.B. White. This part of the book was a joy to read because Charlotte's Web is a masterpiece, an American treasure and I agreed with every word of praise that Handy sang about it.

As you can see, I enjoyed picking illustrations for this post as much as I did writing it, and the book gave full credit to the illustrators whose artistry helped to hardwire those stories into our collective unconscious.

An enthusiastic thumbs up for this marvelous, insightful, book. Handy makes a convincing case that the best children's books are as important, meaningful, creative, and inspired as the best non-children's books...and always worth rereading.


  1. This book sounds AMAZING. I am going to have to get my hands on it. Sounds like a wonderful way to revisit some childhood favorites and discover new ones.

  2. I love so many of these children books mentioned in your post...then and now! The best books hold up whatever your age. And Handy's book sounds like one of the good ones. :)

  3. I love that story about your dad's return to children's literature. The simplest stories can have the largest impacts on our lives.

  4. This is a wonderful post. Many children's books are well worth reading for adults. This post reminds me of many of my favorites. Your post is very inspiring and I want to go out and buy some high quality editions of these books! I so love Dr. Seuss!

  5. One of the sadder things is that Britain and the USA seem to have mainly different children's books. Most of the titles above are unknown to me, having been brought up on well-loved British authors such as Enid Blyton, Richmal Crompton, Edith Nesbit and Anthony Buckeridge, who I suspect are little known in the USA. We did have a Brer Rabbit story book, I read Huckleberry Finn at school, and loved Anne of Green Gables and Little Women, but that was the the extent of my childhood exposure to American authors. I have since read the Little House on the Prairie books, which I thoroughly enjoyed, plus a lot of British children's classics which I hadn't read as a child, including Winnie the Pooh and The Wind in the Willows. I begin to think that children's classics are books that can be equally well enjoyed by adults. The British Library has just published 'A History of Children's Books in 100 Books' which appears to be a similar book, but concentrates on British authors. There is a good review of it on the 'Random Jottings' blog.

    1. Thanks for the tip about A History of Children's Books in 100 Books'--I will check it out.

      I wonder if more American kids read British authors than British kids reading American authors.

  6. Yes, growing up in South Africa I read the British books (did you read the Chalet School books?), but coming to the USA as an adult with two small children opened a whole new world of wonderful books for me. I didn't need to be a child to fall for Ramona and Laura, though I never took to Charlotte's Web. I also loved the Katie series as a child, which strangely enough, is American, but was read mostly by British and colonial children. I still love reading all my children's books.

    1. I've not heard of the Katie series--will have to learn about it.

    2. They are free on Kindle - by Susan Coolidge:
      What Katie Did
      What Katie did at School
      What Katie Did Next
      In the High Valley

      They get better as they go along. :)

    3. I haven't read the Chalet School books Lana, but had forgotten l'd read and enjoyed the first three Katie books, also Pollyanna! I don't know if any of them are read much these days.

  7. Thanks so much for your post. This is a book I want to read. Oddly enough when I was a child I never read children's books but recently I read Lithle House in the Big Woods and I see what I missed and I want to check out the other books you mentioned as well.

  8. I saw this book come out and put it on my list! Glad it's so interesting. I've quite a few to my own son and would love to read more on these. Great review!

  9. Sort of funny he found Anne of Green Gables unreadable. I'd like the chapters on Narnia and Charlotte's Web. I'd like to read those classics again.

  10. This book sounds really thorough in hitting all the best landmarks of children's literature that will keep on rewarding us throughout our lives. Thanks for your excellent tour of it, with pictures!