Photo credit: Denise Bosco
One thing that has both delighted and perturbed me about publishing a book for the first time is how done
it is, how finished, how fully baked. I spent six long years writing and researching (and not writing and researching) Wild Things: The Joys of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult
, and now here it is — not just words and ideas, but a thing. A book
. The delightful aspect is having something tangible with which to justify those six years. The perturbing aspect is that I am the kind of writer who likes to tinker. I would tinker forever with my sentences if my editors let me. Part of me — perhaps a neurotic part, but still a part — does not want my book to be fully baked.
Over the years, I’ve written for many magazines, newspapers, and websites, so I’m well aware that you have to let things go at some point. And when you write for magazines, newspapers, and websites, you’ve seen your work literally in the gutter, or vanished behind a “404 page not found” message, which helps you to not to get too precious about it all. But as I said, this is my first book, and so I was both flattered and agitated when my best friend read an advance copy and sent me a lovely note about it that concluded with a quote from Albert Camus
, of all people, which my book had put my friend in mind of. He was right: the quote was so apt I started kicking myself that I hadn’t known of it, and hadn’t used it myself. It crystallized something I’d been grappling with in my afterword — a thought that I hadn’t fully articulated about what so much great children’s literature has in common, and why it can speak to adults as well. So here, thanks to the forbearance of Powell’s, is the way I wish my book had ended. Think of it as the publishing equivalent of a DVD extra…
touches on a number of classic kids’ books, exploring both how these works achieve their effects and what led their authors and illustrators to create them. One problem with a lot of less-than-classic children’s books is that they’re written with a purpose in mind — maybe to educate, or to uplift, or to make a bundle. (Children’s publishing can be very lucrative, what with sequels and merchandising and a fresh new audience every couple of years.) Many such purposes are noble, but also prescriptive and inorganic. The best kids' books, like the best adult literature, were written because someone needed
to write them.
In Ezra Jack Keats: Artist and Picture Maker
, Brian Alderson describes the creation of Keats’s breakthrough book, The Snowy Day
, a masterpiece of visual rhythm and gentle empathy:
Unquestionably the most important aspect was his discovery that he had found a language. He may not have known he was looking for one, or what he would say with it once it was found, but the revelation with Snowy Day was that there was something central to himself that he could articulate with a picture book.
Keats was 46 when The Snowy Day
came out in 1962. It’s telling, I think, just how many creators of enduring children’s books discovered their voices relatively late in life. Eric Carle was 40 when The Very Hungry Caterpillar
, his first book as author and illustrator, was published in 1969 — a rookie home run. Dr. Seuss (pen name of Theodor Geisel) began his career in advertising and as a cartoonist for adults; he brought out his first “brat book” (his term), And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street
, in 1937, when he was 33, and didn’t turn to writing for kids full-time until he was nearly 50. Beatrix Potter
and C. S. Lewis
were 36 and 52, respectively, when their first children’s books were published. Laura Ingalls Wilder didn’t write Little House in the Big Woods
until she was in her mid-60s.
The best kids' books, like the best adult literature, were written because someone needed to write them.
None of these authors was born planning to make a killing by creating iconic characters and bequeathing their heirs a gold mine in licensing deals; over time, in different ways and for different reasons, each discovered he or she had something unique to say, and that children’s books were the medium in which to say it. To some extent, they found themselves through writing for children. Which isn’t to say you have to be seasoned to write well for children. Margaret Wise Brown began batting out several excellent books a year while she was still in her 20s. (Goodnight Moon
was seen as just one more nice job when it debuted in 1947.) The writer and illustrator John Steptoe, a future Caldecott honoree, published his first picture book, Stevie
, when he was 18.
Another possibly surprising observation: among the authors mentioned above, only two, Wilder and Steptoe, had kids of their own. I bring that up only because I think there’s a common misperception that children’s book creators start out trying to amuse or nurture their own offspring. Some do. But making art, while of course not incompatible with being a parent, surely draws on a very different part of the soul. Seuss and Maurice Sendak
, also not a father, frequently insisted they wrote only to please themselves, and I think to varying degrees most of the others I cite here would have said the same. (As would most of your favorite adult novelists, at least when they are at their best). Brown once put it this way: “To be a writer for the young, one has to love not children, but what children love.”
Brown also once told a lover, trying to explain the roots of her creativity, “The first great wonder at the world is big in me.” While I hesitate to say what art should
do, one thing it often
does is stir up that first great wonder, and that is a special purview of children’s books. Goodnight Moon
, with its simple yet mysterious, almost liturgical accounting of a child’s bedroom and its furnishings, does it for me. So, in a different but analogous way, do the canvases of comparatively austere or controlled abstract painters like Mark Rothko, Agnes Martin, and Adolph Gottlieb. And so do A Love Supreme
and Charlotte’s Web
. You surely have your own examples. I hope you do.
Now here is my friend’s Camus quote, which I think speaks to the heart of the matter: “A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover through the detours of art those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.” I hope I haven’t oversold it, but is there a better description of what authors and illustrators for children do — or a better explanation of why their work can appeal across a lifetime?
÷ ÷ ÷
is currently a contributing editor at Vanity Fair
. A former writer and editor at Spy
, his articles, essays, reviews, and humor pieces have appeared in such publications as The New York Times Magazine
, The New York Times Book Review
, New York
magazine, Rolling Stone
, The Village Voice
, and The New Yorker
. Handy was nominated for an Emmy in 1993 as a member of Saturday Night Live
’s writing staff. He won a GLAAD Award in 1998 for his “Yep I’m Gay” Time
cover profile of Ellen DeGeneres. At Vanity Fair
, he has written on topics and personalities as diverse as Mad Men
, Amy Schumer, film composer John Barry, Pee-wee Herman, Miley Cyrus, the JT LeRoy hoax, Cinerama, and the history of flight attendants. A native of California and a graduate of Stanford University, Handy lives in Manhattan with his wife, the novelist Helen Schulman, and their two children. Wild Things
is his first book.