- - Monday, March 26, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

WILD THINGS: THE JOY OF READING CHILDREN’S LITERATURE AS AN ADULT

By Bruce Handy

Simon & Schuster, $26, 336 pages

Some people believe children’s books are only written for, and read by, children. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Those same children, when they grow up and become adults, often re-read their favorite stories to their children and grandchildren.

Yet, there’s something almost magical about reading a children’s book when you reach adulthood. Bruce Handy, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, explores this intriguing journey down memory lane in his first book, “Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult.”

“It should go without saying 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,” he writes, “and also as complicated, stubborn, conflicted and mysterious.”

For instance, Margaret Wise Brown’s “Goodnight Moon” is depicted as a “transcendent masterpiece” and the “totemic picture book of American babyhood.” The text is composed of quick sentences and observations, including items in the great green room (such as the red balloon, comb and bowl of mush), and a reference to the nursery rhyme where the cow jumps over the moon. Indeed, “by offering a simply, almost liturgical accounting of the room and its furnishings, Brown instantly and gracefully gives the reader a child’s-eye view of things.”

Ms. Brown’s “The Runaway Bunny” also “hits a sweet spot,” according to Mr. Handy, “between infancy’s abject dependency and a toddler’s itch to make some actual use of his or her own newfound mobility.” This classic tale is oddly contrasted with Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint” — which also examines the “parent-child bond” in a more grown-up fashion, but could be described as “‘The Runaway Bunny’ turned rancid.”

There’s an intriguing chapter on anthropomorphic, or talking, animals in children’s literature. Animal stories “have long had a special hold on the human imagination,” since they’re “looking outward and shining a not always flattering light on the real world.”

This includes some of the “hard truths” contained in Aesop’s fables, which have “endured in the West because they promote vaguely Christian values, like humility.” Meanwhile, Beatrix Potter’s tales showed her to be “an astute observer of animal behavior” — including the scene when her most beloved protagonist, Peter Rabbit, “is stripped to his animal essence, running on four legs instead of toddling upright on two” to escape Mr. McGregor’s rake.

Meanwhile, Maurice Sendak (whose most famous work inspired Mr. Handy’s book title) is described as someone who “found the universal in the profoundly, even heroically personal,” and a “relentlessly introspective author” who identified “purpose and meaning — safe harbor in an ocean of anxieties, and worse.”

Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel is depicted as a quintessential thinker who was “quite thoughtful about his work and cognizant of his responsibility as a children’s author.” C.S. Lewis’ works served as the “biggest surprise” to Mr. Handy, who found himself “charmed and persuaded by the religious undercurrents in the sense that I am moved and persuaded not by the theology itself but rather by Lewis’ ability to convey in tangible, organic terms what his religion means to him, what Christianity feels like for him.”

Naturally, there are a few quibbles with “Wild Things.”

Classic tales by Hans Christian Andersen, Sandra Boyton, Roald Dahl, Arnold Lobel, Robert McCloskey, Richard Scarry and J.R.R. Tolkein are either missed or barely mentioned. (He obviously couldn’t cover everything in one volume.) And while some readers may agree with his choices, they may feel he’s out to lunch with others.

Sam McBratney’s “Guess How Much I Love You” (which I reviewed for The Times in 2013) is called a “sweet book,” but the message is “slightly unnerving” to Mr. Handy: “Daddies dote on their children but daddies also have to get the last word in.” Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” is described as the “least favorite thing he ever wrote . a sentimental, souped-up riff on a Hallmark graduation card.” Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” is praised in part, but also has a “moralizing instructional air.” There are occasional, unnecessary digs at religion, and he posits that C.S. Lewis “could be an intellectual bully when the mood struck him.”

Nevertheless, most people will agree the books Mr. Handy focuses on deserve to be included in an extensive list of beloved children’s literature. Like any “worthwhile art,” he writes, “great children’s books are capable of speaking many different ways to many different readers.”

On this, we should all be able to agree — and maybe even live happily ever after.

Michael Taube is a frequent contributor to The Washington Times.


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