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Bruce Handy Explores the Murky Depths of Great Children’s Literature

My editor said, ‘Why don’t you start reviewing picture books for us.’ I said, ‘Oh that sounds like fun.’

Children’s literature is easy to dismiss because–and hang with me on the logic here–it’s for children. Products made for children are often dismissed because many are made of toxic plastic and designed to do little more than rattle. But the good children’s books, the standouts, deserve a second, third, and fourth look. The good books deserve a critical eye and critical thinking. That’s why Vanity Fair columnist Bruce Handy, who has long reviewed literature for the New York Times, decided to do a deep dive. His new book Wild Things: The Joy of Children’s Literature as an Adult is part analysis, part tribute, and part personal revelation.

Handy is particularly interested is in exploring the unexpected and murky depths of well-known books for kids. He’s fascinated by how The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is both a story about a very handsome lion and a Christian allegory. He believes Charlotte’s Web is one of the great books about death. He really digs The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Fatherly caught up with Handy to talk about his reading list and how his kids changed his mind about what makes great literature.

Let’s start with the context here. How old are your kids now?

My son is now 18 and my daughter is 21. Four days after my book comes out I’m driving my son to college for freshman year. There’s some really deep irony there.

How about we start by you telling me what was the inspiration behind writing this book?

This started with me reading to my kids every night. With my wife. I don’t want to make it sound like I was the only one doing this. I just found that, as we were going along, not only did I enjoy reading as a nice family ritual and a great way to end the day, I greatly enjoying the books. An early one for me was Goodnight Moon, which I didn’t actually reach its current level of popularity until the eighties and nineties and become sort of ubiquitous. It wasn’t a book I was really familiar with, but the more I read it the more fascinated I became by it. It’s so amazing the way Margaret Wise Brown speaks to kids on their own terms and it really makes sense to them in this beautiful and poetic way.

I just found myself kind of having a deepening appreciation of that book and that happened with so many other titles, whether it was The Very Hungry Caterpillar or Charlotte’s Web. What kind of happened then is that, as my kids started getting too old for picture books, we started reading chapter books and I read them all the Harry Potter books. I was lucky to have been at that age where the kids and I got to participate with those books coming out.

 

Is there a particular book that stands out to you that through revisiting you found something you missed the first time either as a kid or even later in your life?

The real big one for me that actually led me to write this book was Where The Wild Things Are, which is a book I didn’t like as a kid. I just thought it was kind of weird. I just didn’t get it. I liked fairy tales and I liked fantasies, and I like The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe where they go through the wardrobe and there’s this sort of portal. Where The Wild Things Are is this forest and this kid is running around. It is a bit more dreamy with dream logic. Anyways, when we had kids somebody gave me a copy of it and I was sort of looking at it and it was maybe the first time I had seen it in thirty years. Suddenly, I just thought, ‘Wow this book is amazing.’ This is an incredible story with this psychologically tinged narrative, using fairy tale form to tell a story of a boy dealing with his anger and saying that it is OK and you can conquer your anger.

The punchline is that when I read it to them a couple of years later, my kids didn’t really like it. Its greatness still escaped them. I had been reviewing adult books for the New York Times and I remember I just sort of randomly complained to my editor that I was sad that my kids were growing out of picture books and that I was enjoying them and keeping up with new ones. My editor said, ‘Why don’t you start reviewing picture books for us.’ I said, ‘Oh that sounds like fun.’

Taking us back, what were some of your favorite children’s books?

I certainly loved Dr. Seuss and I remember we actually had that whole series of beginner books that started with The Cat in the Hat and other great books like Are You My Mother and Sam and the Firefly. I remember we had a subscription to those books actually as they were coming out and each month we would get one. All those Dr. Seuss books, The Cat In The Hat and Green Eggs And Ham. I remember I particularly loved books where you could get lost in the illustrations. I remember we had some Richard Scarry books, I forget which, but they had these great big spreads and big elaborate illustrations with all these things going on. I loved just being able to get lost in illustrations.

Another book I totally loved and still loved and was fun to read to my kids was Go, Dog. Go. At the end they have all these dogs having a huge party in trees and I remember, as a kid, staring for hours–well maybe not literally for hours–because I was drawn in by the stuff the dogs were doing. They were playing volleyball and someone was being shot out of a cannon. There’s just so much to look at. I just love getting lost in things like that. Then, I got older and fantasy books were really important for me.

When you were actually writing this book, did you end up revisiting any books you read as a kid? I know you just talked about The Chronicles of Narnia, did you end up finding anything new or did you reconnect with this childlike sense of awe from re-reading these stories?

Some of them definitely. Beverly Cleary is another writer who speaks to me and I found that I still really love as an adult. That was an interesting one for me, reading Ramona the Pest to my kids and then reading it again for the book because it so captures the emotions and kind of the psychology and the feeling of being a kindergartener. That really kind of moved me in a way. It definitely reminded me of my own feelings at that age in a way that was interesting and moving.

Is there a particular children’s book that impacted you as a child that you are now viewing in a different light?

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe has an interesting arc that spans childhood and adulthood. I love that book and I was first exposed to it by my second-grade teacher who read it to us. It was gripping and exciting and I read it again on my own. I read the other books on my own too. But then, I did take a kid lit class in high school and read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe for a class and was it interesting to see that it was clearly a Christian allegory or whatever. It was kind of like, ‘No. Wait. That means that.’

It felt like propaganda or something. But then, I didn’t actually read it to my kids because they saw the movies and weren’t really interested in reading the books unfortunately. But I had wanted to write about C.S. Lewis for this book so I reread all the books and it was kind of really amazing to me reading it now as an adult, I’m not a Christian or a believer, but I was really amazed by the way C.S. Lewis writes about his faith and by the way he characterizes Aslan. I found it sort of moving and interesting and compelling. Not as theology, but as an art. It was something that was so profoundly important to him and he was able to translate it in such a highly creative and tangible way, which make it into such powerful art. The books were also really funny. I can’t remember if I realized that when I as a kid, but there’s a lot of great jokes and a sort of droll humor and what not in those books. I wish I could go back time and sort of interrogate myself in elementary school and find out if I thought those books were funny or not.

Through reading your book what do you hope your audience takes away about children’s literature and their new perspective on the genre as a whole becomes?

With the book, I discovered or rediscovered this passion for these books and this whole body of literature. What I was really hoping to do was convey that passion. I was hoping that the readers would be able to come back and revisit these books and have a similar experience that I did, realizing how rich and powerful and rewarding, the way any great art, literature or film, is. I would hope that people would come away and find that these books can speak directly to them as adults. Not just as artifacts of childhood or something that’s meant to read to kids to get them to go to sleep and nothing more than that. I would hope people to really engage with these books as genuine works of art, as I think they are.

Bruce Handy

I’m also curious if you could sum of why you think exactly children’s literature is important. You could relate that to yourself, your children or as a whole. Why exactly is this genre is so important and foundational to many people?

It’s some of the first art and literature that we are exposed to. It is the first literature that we are exposed to. One thing I think that is interesting about books like Goodnight, Moon and The Very Hungry Caterpillar is that, for a huge chunk of American kids, it’s their first exposure to narrative. Even Goodnight Moon has a very sort of crude narrative, sort of like there’s all this stuff and now we say goodbye. There’s this idea of a progression through time. I think we get the kernels of so much art and literature that it becomes important to a lot of us later in life.

Maybe it’s a little bit different with kids growing up with iPads and TV, but probably for a lot of kids, these books are their first introduction into visual narrative and storytelling. The seeds for all that is all there.

What are some of the practical skills kids learn from children’s books?

Children’s books tell kids about the world. Whether it is in simple ways like The Very Hungry Caterpillar, where there is so much packed into this seemingly simple little story. There’s counting in that book, days of the week, a little biology lesson about a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. As you get older, a book like The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe tells you about Christian ideas and about church, which something hugely important in our culture whether you go or not.

What lessons about life can children’s books provide?

In the last chapter of my book, I write about books that help kids understand death. Mostly I’m talking about Charlotte’s Web, which is a huge masterpiece. Charlotte’s Web is a novel of ideas for kids. It’s about death and how you live a good life. There’s just a ton going on in that book and for kids, it is the first time that maybe they get to think about some of these ideas in an organized way, that way good art and literature makes you think about the world.