A Rumpus of Wild Things: Interviewing Bruce Handy About His Latest
A couple months ago I made mention of the fact that Bruce Handy, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, had written a book called Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult. Naturally I was curious, and not just because his book shared a title with my own. I approached it with some trepidation but a recent review in The New York Times and my own perusal of its pages was enough to convince me that the man wasn’t some fly-by-night appreciator of the form. Clearly he had given this a fair amount of thought. Full disclosure, I’m in his Bibliography for this blog article. I’d be lying if I said that didn’t tip the title in my favor to some extent.
When I was asked whether or not I would like to interview Mr. Handy I thought it a very good idea. Reading his book, and the care with which he did his research, I did have a couple questions. Here then is Mr. Handy, patiently addressing my rambling coterie of queries.
Betsy Bird: Children’s book enthusiasts are fairly used to new parents finding a newfound love and appreciation of children’s books. Usually, though, those new parents, when they feel so inclined to write something, will go the usual route of writing an article for Salon on why they hate Maisy the mouse, or words along those lines. Very few take the time and attention to write an entire book in praise of children’s literature. From your impressive backmatter I can see that you did your homework. What is the particular perspective of this book that differs from others that have come before?
Bruce Handy: Ha, that’s a question I spent a lot of time wondering about myself while I was writing the book! It felt like such a gift to be paid to write about something I love, and I wasn’t always sure why I deserved that privilege or why readers would care. (Most authors I know wonder about that…) In the end, what I think and hope distinguishes my book from other writing about kids’ literature is that I’m really writing from a fan’s perspective–not as an academic or educator, and only occasionally as a parent. That said, I also hope I’m a discerning, knowledgeable, and companionable fan.
BB: Often when a new parent steps back into the world of picture books (a world that they themselves haven’t visited since their own youth) they run across some surprises. Some of are pleasant. Some aren’t. In the book you mention, as one example, the fact that Curious George just doesn’t really do it for you anymore. Were there any other particularly famous books out there that you found surprisingly dislikable?
BH: “Eloise” is a big example of this for me. Eloise as a *character* is so great and distinctive, and I love Hilary Knight’s illustrations, but there’s no real story in the first book and for me it gets tiresome pretty quickly, especially the archness. My kids and I loved the *idea* of Eloise, but I don’t think we every got through it to the end. And the three sequels published in Kay Thompson’s lifetime, “Eloise in Paris,” “Eloise at Christmastime,” and “Eloise in Moscow,” I find outright tedious. This might be heretical, but I think the best Eloise book by far is “Eloise Takes a Bawth,” which was published in 2002, after Thompson’s death (and partly written by Mart Crowley). That one has a story and Knight’s illustrations are as brilliant as ever.
BB: In the recent New York Times review of your book, Rivka Galchen mentioned all the fun details in your book, including the following: “L. Frank Baum’s first publication was a guide to breeding Hamburg chickens. Margaret Wise Brown of “Goodnight Moon” fame gave just one piece of visual instruction to her illustrator, Clement Hurd — a photograph of Goya’s “Red Boy.” And Theodor Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) not only worked on the screenplay for “Rebel Without a Cause,” but also tried, early on, to make his fortune with an invention called the Infantograph — a machine that used images of prospective parents to predict what their offspring would look like.” How did you go about finding these details in the first place? What were your go-to sources for research?
BH: That was one thing that surprised me in the researching of this book: that the authors I focused on had such fascinating lives. I hadn’t honestly known that much about any of them when I first set out to write “Wild Things.” I ended up writing much more about their lives than I had originally thought I would, because the lives were so interesting and because, as with most great artists, I think, the lives really illuminated and informed their work. Biographies were a key source for me, and I was lucky that almost every figure I wrote about has at least one good biography. I also tracked down as many interviews and other source material–old profiles, reviews, etc–as I could. I was lucky in that some of my subjects, especially Maurice Sendak and Dr. Seuss, were great and frequent talkers. Louisa May Alcott’s letters are often hilarious. Alas, I can’t claim to have done much original research; the factual parts of “Wild Things” rely on the work of many great biographers, academics, and journalists. But that said, one of my new goals in life is to track down Geisel’s treatment for “Rebel Without a Cause”! That will be my contribution to Seussology.
BB: Okay. So I have to know. You named your book “Wild Things”. Coincidentally I named my own book “Wild Things” a couple years ago, but that was because my co-writers and I seriously couldn’t come with another name. In your case, was this always the name of the project from the start, or was it something you struggled with?
BH: A total struggle. Very early in my writing process I decided my book would be titled “In the Great Green Room,” which I loved and kept a secret; it was like mental good-luck talisman that helped keep me going. I turned in my book with that title last summer, but soon discovered it was also the title of Amy Gary’s new biography of Margaret Wise Brown, which was going to beat my book to bookstores by nine months. Argh–it was so hard to give “In the Great Green Room” up! We had sort of a scramble after that:h my editor, agent, and I tossed around all kinds of ideas. At one point we settled on “Goodnight Nobody,” which sounded good, but we eventually realized it didn’t really mean anything. “Wild Things” ended up as almost a default choice–as it sounds like it did for you. (Sorry, didn’t mean to crib your title.) For me, any doubts about “Wild Things” were completely erased when I saw the cover design Thomas Colligan at S&S came up with (with a big assist from Sendak). He deserves to win a ton of design awards for it.
BH: I honestly haven’t read much YA. I thought about whether I should include some in “Wild Things”–I do, to the extent that “Little Women” is YA. I also read Judy Blume’s “Deenie” and “Forever” for my book, which I thought were terrific but didn’t end up writing about. In the end, since YA seems like a distinct world from the rest of kid lit, and because part of what I was hoping to do with “Wild Things” was to encourage adults to read kids books whereas adults’ reading YA is already kind of a “thing,” I decided against touching much on YA. I’ve thought about whether I should do a YA follow up. I might, though in a sideways way: I’m also thinking of writing something about teen movies.
Many thanks to Bruce for his answers and to Stephen Bedford for setting this up.
Filed under: Uncategorized
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
SLJ Blog Network