The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult
By Bruce Handy
Illustrated. 278 pp. Simon & Schuster. $26.
In “Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult,” Bruce Handy does as his title promises, proceeding through children’s literature like someone determined to cook every Julia Child recipe. But since, of course, the number of children’s books out there far exceeds the number of Child’s soufflé and marbled steak dishes, Handy selects a few titles to represent each age, from babydom on up to whatever it is children become before they become us. Some of these are from his own childhood, some are books he read to his (still growing) children, and some seem chosen to answer a curiosity about what so-called girl books really are. This not-quite-method leaves the book occasionally feeling dutiful — but mostly not. “Wild Things” doesn’t have much of an argument to make other than its premise that we should take children’s literature seriously, which I think many people already do, and yet the book succeeds wonderfully, not so much as an argument but as an eccentric essay, and an emanation of spirit.
The trivia alone offers quite a bit of joy. Maurice Sendak altered his original plan for “Where the Wild Horses Are” because he lacked proficiency in equine anatomy. Also: L. Frank Baum’s first publication was a guide to breeding Hamburg chickens. Margaret Wise Brown of “Goodnight Moon” fame gave just one piece of visual instruction to her illustrator, Clement Hurd — a photograph of Goya’s “Red Boy.” And Theodor Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) not only worked on the screenplay for “Rebel Without a Cause,” but also tried, early on, to make his fortune with an invention called the Infantograph — a machine that used images of prospective parents to predict what their offspring would look like.