Is there some unwritten law in publishing that all nonfiction books have to have subtitles, as if the ordinary title isn’t enough? It certainly seems to be a trend, and while sometimes the subtitle gives you a better clue about the contents of the book than you would have had from the title itself, sometimes the subtitle can be a little misleading. Case in point: Wild Things : The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult, by Bruce Handy. It is an excellent book and an entertaining read, but it wasn’t exactly what I expected from the subtitle.
Consider it yourself. Wouldn’t you think a book with that subtitle would talk about how as an adult rereading children’s books you see different things in them, things too subtle or too adult for you to have picked up when you were young? That’s not really what happens in this book, though. For the most part, the author chooses a children’s book or series per chapter (sometimes he’ll put a couple together if they’re thematically linked), talks about the book, and then gives an often entertaining and enlightening history of the writer and the publication of the book in the first place. Occasionally, very occasionally, he’ll talk about how his children reacted to the book when he read it to them and how their reactions differed from his when he experienced the book as a child, but that’s not the focus of the book. So if you’re looking for a more personal experience of encountering children’s books as an adult, this is not the book you’re looking for.
However, it is a fun book to read, especially if you enjoy and are familiar with the classics of children’s literature. You don’t have to agree with the author on all his evaluations of the books; I personally cannot understand how anyone couldn’t love Where the Wild Things Are, a book I not only read as a child and read to my child when she was young but also used to take with me when I babysat as a teenager, and, unlike Handy, I found Anne of Green Gables to be delightful and fun.
That doesn’t matter, though. You can disagree with the weight he gives to different books, but you will still enjoy his enthusiasm for the books he likes, and the fascinating details he unearths about the authors (especially the lesser known ones, like Margaret Wise Brown, of Goodnight Moon fame. Who would have guessed she was such a bohemian kind of flake, the kind of woman who would blow her whole first advance from one of her books on a room full of flowers?). He raises, but doesn’t always answer, some interesting questions about the books, too. For instance, why are the boys who are heroes of the classic boy books (Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and of course Peter Pan) allowed to remain boys throughout the books, while the girls in the classic girl books (the March girls in Little Women, Laura in the Little House series, Anne in the Anne of Green Gables books) have to grow up and get married and become adults?
It’s a pleasure to be reintroduced to some of your favorite children’s books in the company of such a knowledgeable enthusiast, even when you disagree with him on the value of some of those books. If you haven’t read all the books he writes about (I haven’t, I admit it), then he provides a good introduction and makes you want to read them for the first time, and he gives you a good excuse to dig up your old copies of your favorites and reread them in the light of his insights and his judgments.