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A Personal, Breezy Tour of Classic Children’s Books

Instead, “Wild Things” is relaxed, discursive and personal, a survey course centering on the writers to whom Handy especially responds. He analyzes their best works; provides cultural, historical and personal context; and salts his research with a grain or two of developmental psychology.

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Bruce Handy

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Denise Bosco

The result is very pleasing to read, when it isn’t frustratingly glib, which I regret to report is too often. Why the members of Handy’s brain trust didn’t tell him to cut out the excessive antics, I have no clue. Maybe they are suckers for all things Handy, as I tend to be. (I’ve enjoyed him since his days at Spy magazine; he now writes for Vanity Fair.) Whatever the reason, they clearly hadn’t the heart to tell him to kill some darlings in this particular nursery, and the book suffers for it.

But let’s first start with what makes “Wild Things” a breezy, easy appreciation. Handy quotes liberally from each book he admires, and he curates those passages beautifully, allowing readers both literary pleasure and a kind of time travel. His analyses are affectionate and often eccentric. He’s got a magpie’s eye for odd and shiny details. (I had no clue that Beatrix Potter was so devoted to anatomical verisimilitude that she boiled dead animals and then reassembled their skeletons.)

His chapter about Theodor Geisel — a.k.a. Dr. Seuss — is a total charmer. Handy describes the author’s books as a blend of “imagination, humor, rhyme, rigor, silliness, aggression and chaos theory,” which is as efficient and accurate a blurb as I’ve ever read, and he finds fanciful ways to show the true nature of Geisel’s genius. You may or may not know, for instance, that “The Cat in the Hat” was composed using just 222 different words, because Geisel was under orders from his publisher to draw from a prescribed vocabulary for beginning readers. But Handy takes the time to list those 222 words in alphabetical order, making it clear just what a feat it was. “You try finding a story in this,” he writes.

One of Handy’s strengths is that his brain tends toward unlikely analogies. But as the book goes on, these analogies increasingly become a tiresome nervous tic. After making a series of clever observations, Handy can’t resist capping them with a silly hat.

The “Little House” books, with all their hunting and hammering, “often read like 19th-century equivalents of ‘This Old House’ or ‘Guns and Ammo.’” “The Butter Battle Book,” the Dr. Seuss parable about the nuclear arms race, “reads as if the Sneetches had invaded Dr. Strangelove’s war room.” Ramona’s appearance in her creator Beverly Cleary’s “Henry Huggins” is “as passing comic relief, a nursery school version of the town drunk in a John Ford movie.”

This is not the only place Ford makes an appearance. He shows up in a strained footnote just 19 pages earlier: “A free idea for an American Studies thesis: Space Invaders — The Semiotics of Doorways in ‘The Cat in the Hat’ and John Ford’s ‘The Searchers.’”

Handy’s readings of certain texts can also be mystifying — and similarly garnished with literary pretensions. A typical case in point: his brief discussion of “Guess How Much I Love You,” Sam McBratney’s story about a father hare and his son competing to show who loves whom more. “I love you right up to the moon,” Little Nutbrown Hare finally declares. “Oh that is far,” his father says, before replying, “I love you to the moon — and back,” as his son drifts off to sleep. Handy takes this exchange to mean that dads always need to have the last word. Big Nutbrown Hare is “a benevolent version of implacably competitive dads such as the Marine officer in Pat Conroy’s ‘The Great Santini.’”

Well, maybe. But maybe it’s just the author recognizing that children want to be reassured that there’s nothing more potent than a parent’s love.

I don’t want to imply that Handy isn’t funny. Part of the reason I picked up “Wild Things” is because he is. It’s just that someone in the editorial process was obviously afraid of the delete key. This charming confession about the “Little House” series seriously made me laugh: “From the denatured vantage point of 21st-century urban fatherhood, where bantering with the super as he fixes your toilet counts as manly self-sufficiency, Pa cuts an intimidating figure.”

Seems a natural reaction, as Handy notes, to reading about a man who not only builds his own home but makes his own bullets.

It is when Handy shows his own weaknesses that he often stands on the firmest ground. He concludes “Wild Things” on a melancholy note, admitting that his foray into children’s literature allowed him more than a simple chance to re-encounter the favorite books of his youth. It allowed him the chance to hold close his children’s younger selves. “By one measure, I suppose,” he writes, “you are holding in your hands a work of sublimated grief.”

How beautiful, and how painful, and how incontrovertibly true. His book could have glided on such perceptions alone. It doesn’t need anything else.

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