A journey back into children’s books

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New York City writer Bruce Handy rereads his childhood favorites — and tells you why you should too


  • Author Bruce Handy. Photo: Denise Bosco

  • Bruce Handy returned to many of the classics he read as a child, from “Goodnight Moon” to “The Cat in the Hat” to “The Wizard of Oz, to research his recently published “Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult.”

Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, wrote “Green Eggs and Ham” on a dare using only 50 words, all of which, with the exception of “anywhere,” were monosyllabic. Beatrix Potter, the author and illustrator of “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” boiled dead animals and studied their anatomy to help her make realistic drawings.

These little gems were among those discovered by Bruce Handy as he researched his first, recently published book, “Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult.” In it, Handy, 58, encourages adults to sit down with the books of their childhood, not just to read to their children at bedtime, but also for their own enjoyment.

Handy, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and father of two, revisits childhood classics, from “Goodnight Moon” to “The Cat in the Hat” to “The Wizard of Oz,” employing context, biography and analysis to offer new insight into each. His writing is relaxed and witty, but also has a thoughtful side, particularly as he summons his childhood and then reminisces about his kids growing up.

The inspiration for the book came from reading to his now grown children, ZoŽ, 21, and Isaac, 18, every night when they were young. “I found quickly that I was really just enjoying the books, that I was responding to them critically and artistically,” said Handy, who raised his children on the Upper West Side and still lives in the neighborhood. “I started writing about kids’ books for The New York Times and I found that, as much as I enjoyed reading them, I enjoyed writing about them too. They bore the same scrutiny that, when you are a critic, you would apply to any [book].”

Originating as an essay on Maurice Sendak’s classic “Where the Wild Things Are,” from which Handy borrowed his title, the book took him six years to write, in part because of the enormous quantity of worthy children’s literature. “The more I looked, the more I found,” Handy said. “I probably thought ... picture books are so quick to read. It’s not like I was writing a book about Dickens and I had to read 20 800-page novels.”

Handy didn’t stray too far from his journalism background to write “Wild Things.” “I cheated a little bit because I kind of thought of this as 10 long magazine articles,” Handy said, adding that, while “Wild Things” does follow a narrative, the chapters are discrete and can be read in any order. “That was a fun part of this book.... I just wrote [the chapters] how I felt,” Handy said. “If I thought it would be fun to read the ‘Oz’ books, I wrote my ‘Oz’ chapter.... I totally bounced around.”

The book is as much a collection of Handy’s memories as it is an in-depth analysis. “I always thought of it as a mix of these personal, critical and historical/biographical [aspects],” he said. “I always enjoy weaving my own opinions into things when editors will let me get away with it.”

Handy said that reencountering his childhood favorites did not always go smoothly. He once made the mistake of reading the end of “Charlotte’s Web” in a library reading room. “I’d read it hundreds of times at this point, but I was still crying when Charlotte dies, and I was in this room and all these people were looking at me,” he recalled. “The books are so emotional in and of themselves, especially ‘Charlotte’s Web’ for me, and now they’re tied up in my memories of reading them to the kids.”

“I love the way that books become part of your life and part of your history,” Handy continued. “You can sort of look at your history through books.”

As for his children, whom Handy refers to as the stars of his book, ZoŽ and Isaac are happy to be involved. “I feel really honored to be a part of this book,” ZoŽ said. “It was really nice to go back and think about books that I really haven’t thought about in a long time. It helped me remember not only some of my favorite books, but some of my favorite times with my dad.”

His children were also useful in keeping Handy on track throughout those six years. “Isaac actually was great because he was always giving me a hard time about getting it done,” Handy said, laughing.

Handy hopes that “Wild Things” will motivate his audience to “plunge back into these books, and also think about their own reading when they were kids, and how that shaped them, and how their relationship with books evolves over reading to their kids.”

This evolution is at the center of his book. Handy himself is no stranger to it, and writes about his own changing views of certain works at different periods in his life. For example, while the Christian themes of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” eluded him as a child, on discovering them as a teenager he found them alienating, yet as an adult came to appreciate the genius with which Lewis was able to express his faith artistically. “It just took me a while to get past whatever my own prejudices were and be open to works that I might not agree with in one way, but would be very moved by in a different way,” he said.

Handy already has plans for his next book, a social and pop cultural history of the 1980s focusing on issues of money and greed, and reflecting on inequality today. “I want to challenge myself and push myself in a different direction,” he said.

But we can also expect more on children’s literature from Handy in the future. “It’s funny,” he said. “Reading to my own children ... definitely led me into this new part of my career.”

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