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

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

As one who reads a great deal of children's literature, everything from board books to YA novels, reading Bruce Handy's latest book Wild Things was not only an escape into the books of my formative years, it was a thoughtful analysis (complete with footnotes, appendix, and accompanying bibliography at the back of the book) of children's literature as both a genre and process of human development. From the outset this book might seemingly appeal only to teachers and librarians. However, I think most parents, caregivers, and educators of young children could benefit from the anecdotes and every day details outlining not only why we read to children, but what a metamorphosis children's literature has had in the past half a century.

To quote some from the introduction, here is a section on how the book is organized.

Roughly speaking, this book is organized chronologically, by the ages of intended readerships, beginning with picture books for the youngest children and moving on through chapter books and then to novels that just kiss the border of young adult fiction, maybe crossing over once or twice. I've tried to weave in a parallel narrative showing the way the best authors and illustrators not only address the needs of different age groups but also challenge them, broadening worlds and stretching imaginations. I'd like to think there's an implicit coming-of-age story here. 

A particularly poignant passage on picture books.

Why haven't picture books earned the same pop culture cachet that comics and graphic novels have? Picture books are like poetry to comics' prose, a form every bit as sophisticated if not more so, and no less worthy of adults' attention and enjoyment. In a fairer world, Ferdinand the bull, Olivia the pig and Sam-I-Am the whatever-he-is, would be mentioned right alongside Krazy Kat, Superman, Popeye, Charlie Brown and Lucy when discussing archetypal American characters. They might even deserve a seat at the table with Huck and Gatsby. 

And lastly, this take-away message.

One thing I hope to convey is the sheer pleasure of reading children's books, not just to whatever children you have on hand but also for your own enjoyment and enlightenment. As Ursula K. Le Guin has written, 'Revisiting a book loved in childhood may be principally an act of nostalgia...[however] you may well discover a book far less simple and unambiguous than the one you remembered. That shift and deepening of meaning can be a revelation both about the book and yourself.'

Admittedly I must forgive Handy on account of his extensive space dedicated to Seuss and his hearty dismissal of Anne of Green Gables, but otherwise this compelling nonfiction begs for future editions of similar substance.


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