Book Review: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult by Bruce Handy

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

I had such high hopes for this book, but unfortunately was ultimately disappointed. My husband picked it up for me at the library, thinking I might find it interesting — and I did! But I also found it a rather slow read that was definitely inappropriately titled. Rather than, “Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult,” a more accurate title would’ve been something like, “One man’s random musings on kids’ books,” because that’s sort of what it felt like to me. Some of those musings were interesting and insightful, and some were just…not. While this seems fairly critical thus far, I do want to highlight a few positives from the book that stood out to me as I read and motivated me to keep reading whenever I felt compelled to give up on the book.

First, the last thing you read in the book is, as is often the case, the author’s acknowledgements. It is clear from this writing that this was a labor of love for the author, and he put an incredible amount of work and effort into it. It took him six years to write the book, and after having read the whole thing, that doesn’t surprise me: it is meticulously researched.

Handy does a a great job distilling the biographies of many famous children’s authors. I was intrigued by the personal stories of authors such as Margaret Wise Brown, Dr. Seuss, Beverly Cleary, and Louisa May Alcott, among others. I learned a lot about their lives, their motivations for writing, and their struggles/triumphs of publishing. It was interesting as an editor of indie books to read about the dynamics between some of these authors and their editors and publishers. The information also lends context to some of the books; in some cases this is very interesting (as in The Cat in the Hat), and in others it is disappointing (as in Little Women).

Early on in the book Handy says, “…what we need from stories changes as we age. When we are very young, what we need are our parents. When we are older…we need…to pull away from their gravitational field….” Unfortunately, I can’t figure out at the moment where that quote is in the book (oops), but I remember it was in one of the first two chapters. He offered it as a way of explaining the differences in picture books for the youngest children and those geared toward slightly older children, but I think it holds a lot of truth – “what we need from stories changes as we age.” I would argue it’s not just as we age, but just as we travel through different phases of life (which may or may not be due to age) and it’s why I have trouble ever answering questions about my favorite books or favorite genres. I’m drawn to different books at different times, based on what I need from stories at that particular moment in my life.

On a simpler level, Handy’s writings on Beverly Cleary and her Henry Huggins/Ramona books inspired me to pick some of them up for my daughter to read. After looking through Ramona the Pest, I decided the books are good reading for her at this age and checked out a few from the library; just today I placed holds on a few more because she’s really been enjoying them. I never read them myself as a kid, and I’m always grateful for good book recommendations for my little bookworm!

Finally, I am awed by Handy’s opinion of C.S. Lewis. It’s rare to find an atheist who so highly praises a Christian writer. To me, the praise Handy gives Lewis is some of the highest:

I’m no expert, but Lewis’s ostensible fantasy strikes me as an unusually sophisticated, not to mention graceful and humane, portrayal of belief, no matter the age of the intended audience. Or perhaps I should just say that the Narnia books allow me to “get it” in a way that most religious expression, whether art or testament, does not (176).

I find that last sentence to be so beautiful, and to encapsulate the very purpose (as I see it) of the Narnia books — for people to “get it.” It speaks to Lewis’s great talent and, I would argue, some intervention of the Holy Spirit, that he can write such enjoyable books in such a way that even those who do not believe God exists can start to understand belief.

So, for lack of a more eloquent way to wrap this up, I’ll leave it there. Overall, I give the book probably a 2.5 (somewhere between “eh” and “it was ok”), but as you can see I gained quite a bit from it so it was worth persevering.

What do you think?

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