Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature is a non-fiction book about, you guessed it, children’s literature. Throughout, the authors, Betsy Bird, Julie Denielson, and Peter D. Sieruta, tell the untold stories behind many famous children’s books, providing interesting anecdotes and analysis. Even if you only have a slight interest in children’s literature, it is a fantastic read!
But instead of gushing about it (because that’d probably just be me saying, “seriously, go read it” over and over again), I thought I’d just share a few of the thoughts I had while reading it (that you might have when you read it too).
1. Hey! I remember that book.
Okay, so it makes sense that you’d remember a bunch of best-selling children’s books, but you don’t always keep that information in your mind until someone mentions them again. For me, reading this book was like travelling back in time to my elementary school library or to read aloud time with my first teachers.
2. I’ve never heard of that author, but I know that book.
There were many times when reading this book that I could recall reading the stories being discussed, but I didn’t know the author they were talking about. When you’re a bibliophile, you tend to collect favourite authors just as much as you collect favourite books. But Wild Things made me realize that this didn’t happen in my early years of reading. The awareness of authors must come later than appreciation of a good tale, it seems. I think the first authors I became aware of were Sheree Fitch, Roald Dahl, and Shel Silverstein. I probably grew to know Fitch and Silverstein because my teachers often read their poetry to the class, while Roald Dahl books were often gifted to me (and all had similar cover art styles).
3. There’s so much more to that story than I though…
That’s kind of the point of this book, but in particular I’m referring to literary analysis. For example, there’s one section of Wild Things where the authors talk about Harriet the Spy. I read that book probably in third or fourth grade and can only really remember bits and pieces of it, but I know for sure that I never read it as a metaphor for coming out. No wonder there’s so many people studying children’s lit!
4. Oh man, what could have been!
There’s a section on hidden delights in children’s lit that’s particularly interesting. Among the fun tidbits of information are a few things that almost happened that didn’t. The one that makes me feel a pang of regret is that Maurice Sendak was asked to illustrate a version of The Hobbit in 1967. He was asked to prepare sketches for J.R.R. Tolkien to review but someone mislabeled them, which irked Tolkien. There was supposed to be a meeting to straighten out the misunderstanding, but Sendak suffered a heart attack and the meeting didn’t happen. But can you imagine how awesome that edition would have looked?
5. Huh, maybe that book isn’t a good as I remember.
The end of Wild Things discusses how book reviews/critics, parents, and children receive children’s books. The authors bring up several examples that are toted as classics of children’s lit, but don’t really hold up to criticism. For example, I remember having The Giving Tree read to me when I was little and thinking it was a sweet story. But, as the Wild Things authors point out, it has some troubling implications when read with a feminist lens (the kid sure seems selfish, at least). Other works that I remember fondly seem to be more didactic and sickly-sentimental when I think about them now. In any case, it’s a reminder that as we change, so do our perceptions of stories (a case for rereading, I suppose).