Wild Things is a must-read for any new or expectant (literary-minded) parent.
As a child, picture books and literature aimed at the nursery set come across as little more than pleasant stories and images, all part of a nighttime routine that lends a sense of order and structure to an otherwise chaotic day. More often than not, the subtext is lost on young ears, the essence of the stories existing in the most simplistic of terms. As a parent, revisiting these same books from the other side of the page, they gain a whole new life, often showing a surprising amount of depth and nuance that tends to get lost on the young. Some are mordant and morose, while others subversive and sly, offering something for the reader in addition to a simplified version for the young listener.
Given the sheer volume of children’s books – picture or otherwise – wading through the morass can be a daunting task for a new parent looking to jumpstart a literary mind. Even the most cursory glance at the children’s and picture books section of any bookstore can be anxiety-inducing; the garrulously gaudy colors, tired titles and overabundance of anthropomorphized animals, vehicles and who-knows-what-else is enough to turn anyone off from the whole pursuit, complacently picking up the first thing that looks the least bit offensive. Furthermore, many of these tossed off titles come across as an affront to the intelligence of children.
As Maurice Sendak noted, “Grown-ups desperately need to feel safe, and then they project onto the kids. But what none of us seem to realize is how smart kids are. They don’t like what we write for them, what we dish up for them, because it’s vapid, so they’ll go for the hard words, they’ll go for the hard concepts, they’ll go for the stuff where they can learn something. Not didactic things, but passionate things.” A fitting assessment from a man who, though never having any children of his own, managed to capture the essence of childhood uncertainties, frustrations and imagination in Where the Wild Things Are. It is also this very essence that serves as the heart of Bruce Handy’s highly enjoyable Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult.
For parents both new and experienced, Handy’s insights are spot-on, emotionally-charged and often quite amusing (his taking to task of Curious George’s the Man with the Yellow Hat for his lackadaisical approach to parenting a monkey is particularly on point). Simultaneously autobiographical analysis of his own bedtime readings, literary criticism and cultural exploration of the comings and goings of children’s books, Wild Things takes Sendak’s beloved classic as its jumping off point and delves deeply into the worlds of Margaret Wise Brown, Dr. Seuss, E.B. White, C.S. Lewis, Beverly Cleary and more. Rather than mere reading guide, Wild Things approaches its subject matter with the analytical eye of an adult filtered through the sensibilities of a child simply looking to be entertained, understood and loved.
As Handy is quick to point out, it is more often than not safe to start with the tried and true classics –Seuss, Goodnight Moon, Sendak, et. al. – to establish a baseline from which to build. There is a reason these seemingly simplistic stories have resonated for multiple generations, remaining in print since their initial publication run. Seuss’s mutant lexicon and tongue-twisting rhyme schemes (anyone tried reading Fox in Sox at speed lately?) make for enjoyable listening and visuals for children while also affording adults a uniquely childlike view of the often-confusing world in which we find ourselves. The repetition and routine of Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon, while perhaps tedious to a tired parent, offers a sense of comfort, familiarity and repetition for those young minds on the verge of sleep.
And while many of these stories lack the flashy product placement tie-ins of many modern children’s books, the stories, lessons, emotions and, more often than not, humor at their core is so universally relatable that they transcend time and place, existing in a world all their own, a literary Neverland of sorts. Though many of the lessons they seek to impart may not be noticeably absorbed by children, their underlying messages tend to seep in, helping to shape their perception of the world around them and their place in it. As Sendak pointed out (and Handy reaffirms multiple times over), children are not stupid nor are they ignorant, so there is no point in sugar-coating the universal truths by which we all must live.
This isn’t to say that the harsh realities need to be beaten into a child’s subconscious, but rather, as E.B. White managed with Charlotte’s Web, often challenging concepts like life and death can be dealt with in a straightforward, entertaining manner that never talks down to a child and never calls into question their ability to understand things. Indeed, children understand a great deal more than they are often given credit for, thus making the bulk of contemporary children’s literature an egregious insult. Thankfully, Wild Things serves as both a primer for those looking for guidance in where to start with their children and also a clear-eyed assessment of revisiting children’s literature from a more worldly perspective, realizing the impact certain stories might have unknowingly had on a fertile young mind. Equally humorous and emotionally-charged, Wild Things is a must-read for any new or expectant (literary-minded) parent.