Wild Things takes a witty and singular look back at childhood literature through the eyes of Vanity Fair contributing editor Bruce Handy.
What inspired you to write this book?
It came out of reading to my children. I realized I was getting so much pleasure not just from the nighttime ritual but from the books themselves, books I had loved myself as a kid and enjoyed rediscovering, as well as the incredible wealth of kids’ books that have been published since I was a kid in the ’60s.
Why do you think children love the books they love?
I think mostly for the same reasons adults do: They love books that entertain them but that also speak to them on some deeper level, whether it’s in a comforting way or a challenging way.
“I think good children’s books, like good adult books, are written because the author has something he or she needs to express; they come from some kind of core inspiration.”
In your opinion, what’s the difference between good children’s literature and bad children’s literature?
I think good children’s books, like good adult books, are written because the author has something he or she needs to express; they come from some kind of core inspiration. The problem with a lot of kids’ books is that they feel as if they were written with some moral or pedagogical impulse in mind—all the books that read like someone sat down and said, I want to write a book that teaches kids that sharing is good, or that there’s nothing wrong with freckles. Those are noble impulses and important things for kids to be taught, but in and of themselves they don’t make for great literature; you can’t engineer art that way—or not very often.
The themes of many children’s books are much darker than readers might have realized the first time around. Did any examples of this darkness surprise you?
The Grimms’ versions of fairy tales are famously violent and bloody, but I was taken aback by how deeply dark some of the more obscure ones are, like “The Willful Child,” about a dead boy who won’t stay buried, and “The Juniper Tree,” where the proverbial evil stepmother not only kills her stepson but cooks him in a stew and serves him to the father. On a different note, I didn’t end up writing about Bridge to Terabithia in Wild Things, but I read it for the first time as an adult, knowing that one of the main characters famously dies, but I was surprised by the rawness of the surviving character’s grief. I really admire that Katherine Paterson didn’t sugarcoat that and let it be messy and even ugly, like in real life.
How did you arrive at the interpretation that the Cat in The Cat in the Hat may be a stand-in for Dr. Seuss?
Like the Cat, Seuss was someone who needed a lot of attention; even he always described himself as a big, overgrown child. He had a ritual, every time he finished a book, of flying across the country from La Jolla to New York and reading the new manuscript aloud to the assembled staff at Random House—which put me in mind of the Cat’s plea to “Look at me, look at me, look at me now!” Also, like the Cat, he was tall and lean, wore bow ties, loved pranks and collected funny hats. I never read an interview where he said he modeled the Cat on himself—and I don’t think he would have been shy about saying so if it was true—but I think maybe unconsciously there was some kind of identification, a special affinity. Maybe the Cat was Seuss’ spirit animal?
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Wild Things.
Author photo credit Denise Bosco.