Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 30 Sep 2017

Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature As An Adult by Bruce Handy

I really wanted to love this book – especially in light of a whole series of very positive reviews it received on publication. Despite being very US focussed, it seemed to promise all the things I like about book-related reminiscences and especially the sort of general good-humoured meandering through memories of childhood reading that are perfect for curling up with on a Sunday afternoon.

But, sad to say, for me the promise remained largely unfulfilled. Handy is a seasoned journalist and magazine writer – Vanity Fair, Vogue, New York Times Book Review – and there’s no doubt he knows and loves his children’s literature and I doubt that anyone is going to be able to find fault with his selections. Of course they are personal and they are partial (who could ever cover every book you’ve got a soft spot for) but that should be part of the charm and the enjoyment.

But all too often for me there seems to be a confusion in just what persona Handy wants to adopt. At the beginning he seems to come on as a teacher – there’s something almost remote about his chronological ordering of the ‘survey’ he plunges into. Is this meant to be an accessible, essentially good-natured meander through his past reading or is this some kind of quasi-academic lit. crit. exercise? The hybrid we get feels like the worst of all options in that respect. Then the persona changes and we’re a parent overseeing the literary adventures of his (our) children and by the end of the book we are involved in a very personal piece of introspection and a meditation on the passage of time and growing old. None of these are illegitimate objectives but when they are all squidged together in a single volume it becomes a bit disconcerting.

There’s also a rather irritating tendency towards what feels like a slightly false jauntiness pervading the whole book. He has a penchant for slightly odd analogies or perverse conjunctions which come, I think, from over-reading the books and from a determination to load them with meanings that are hard to sustain. In her review of the book for the New York Times, Jennifer Senior captures this perfectly when she says:

Handy’s readings of certain texts can also be mystifying — and similarly garnished with literary pretensions. A typical case in point: his brief discussion of “Guess How Much I Love You,” Sam McBratney’s story about a father hare and his son competing to show who loves whom more. “I love you right up to the moon,” Little Nutbrown Hare finally declares. “Oh that is far,” his father says, before replying, “I love you to the moon — and back,” as his son drifts off to sleep. Handy takes this exchange to mean that dads always need to have the last word. Big Nutbrown Hare is “a benevolent version of implacably competitive dads such as the Marine officer in Pat Conroy’s ‘The Great Santini.’”

For me the best bit of writing in the book is the section that deals with Maurice Sendak and I think its strength comes from the fact that Handy is a reluctant appreciator of the great man’s work. There is no doubt that Sendak was a prickly customer to deal with and didn’t bear fools gladly and was even harsher on anyone who dared to criticise his work. Handy gets to grips with this very well I think and, albeit slightly grudgingly it seems to me, ends up acknowledging the genius of the man.

But perhaps I should leave the last words with Jennifer Senior and this again comes from her perceptive and well-judged review:

 He concludes “Wild Things” on a melancholy note, admitting that his foray into children’s literature allowed him more than a simple chance to re-encounter the favorite books of his youth. It allowed him the chance to hold close his children’s younger selves. “By one measure, I suppose,” he writes, “you are holding in your hands a work of sublimated grief.”  

How beautiful, and how painful, and how incontrovertibly true. His book could have glided on such perceptions alone. It doesn’t need anything else.

 

Quite right.

 

Terry Potter

September 2017