Vanity Fair contributing editor Bruce Handy’s new book, Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature As an Adult, arrives at an ironic time in his life. It was published this month, just as he and his wife, fellow author Helen Schulman, become empty nesters. It’s a fascinating look into the books many of us treasure most (Lena Dunham has her favorite characters from children’s books, Ferdinand and Eloise, tattooed on her arm and back, for example).

This writer, also Handy’s former assistant, still remembers Handy’s kids coming into Vanity Fair’s offices to visit their dad a decade ago. During his time as a senior editor at the magazine—a time when we received the daily specials from his favorite restaurant by fax—much of Vanity Fair’s cultural content fell on Handy’s shoulders. Working with him on articles about pop culture, I got to learn a great deal about Hollywood history, New York cultural institutions, and different worlds of dining. More than a decade on, as I’m reaching an age where kids are starting to come into the picture, I’m back at the well. I’m asking the newly minted children’s books expert to tell me which ones I should, eventually, fill my shelves with.

Bruce HandyPhoto: DENISE BOSCO

Can you tell me where this book came from?Picture books don’t get the recognition they deserve. Once in a while, you get a Maurice Sendak [Sendak’s best seller, Where the Wild Things Are, inspired Handy’s title], where you get appropriate credit, but great picture books should be seen alongside great graphic novels. They’re so important, too—they’re a kid’s first introduction to visual narratives.

Or any narrative.Right. Even something as simple as Goodnight Moon exists as this proto-narrative: Here’s what’s in the room, let’s say goodnight to it. There’s a progression there: They end up leaving the room and they’re saying “goodnight” everywhere. It’s taking you from your immediate world to a larger one—it gets kids ready to go on this great adventure.

Advertisement

What’s an underrated kids’ classic I might not know about?Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day came out in 1962. It was significant at the time because the hero is African-American, which wasn’t common in kids’ books. Outside of that, it’s so visually sophisticated: Each page is a full-color spread, he uses horizontal compositions, and it’s almost like looking at Lawrence of Arabia or 2001: A Space Odyssey. I hope Wild Things will draw attention to the visual craft and poetry in many of these books.

The books I remember best are the ones that really scare you. Not bump-in-the-night scary, but deeper than that. Kids want to feel real things when they’re read to.That’s why I love Ramona the Pest. Beverly Cleary does such a great job of getting inside the head of a kid, where those things are so magnified. It’s a psychological study, in its own way, and a social comedy.

I’ve always found it puzzling why not many of Beverly Cleary’s books have been brought to the big screen.The problem is that there isn’t a lot of plot in those books. What’s so great—and revolutionary—about Cleary’s books is that they’re just about normal kids doing normal stuff. There is empathy for the kids: The social problems they face are the problems of being young. But if you would plot it out, I don’t know if that would make for a great film. In some ways, it would be great for a TV adaptation. With TV, Game Of Thrones notwithstanding, the focus doesn’t have to be on plot only—it’s more about getting to know the characters.

What books should I buy for my kids?Sadly it’s the obvious ones, like The Very Hungry Caterpillar: They’re popular for good reasons. The thing with great kids’ books is that they bear repeat reading. The Very Hungry Caterpillar is a small story, but it has counting, it has the days of the week, it has a biology lesson, it’s clever, and it’s funny. It’s like a watch: There’s this simple face, but if you dig into it, you see this great construction.

What are the books to avoid?The problem with many kids’ books is that the writer has a moral idea to teach kids this or that: Sharing food is good, or having freckles is okay. That doesn’t lead to art. Kids appreciate art as much as anybody. I realized that many of the authors I write about did this because they needed to: They had something to express. Many great books—whether it’s the Ramona series or Green Eggs and Ham—they exist because the writer had something to say, which is true of any great art.

What do you think of Peter Pan?I think it’s weird. I never got it as a kid, though my kids were into it. There’s this unrealistic notion of youth, and it’s in the first paragraph already: “. . . henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end.”

Advertisement

It doesn’t ring true.It’s such an adult point of view, such a sentimental idea. When you’re that little, you’re excited about growing up. I don’t think that’s a 2-year-old’s experience, I think that’s J. M. Barrie’s version of what it’s like to be 2 years old.