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Wild Things!: Acts of Mischief in Children's Literature


Wild Things!: Acts of Mischief in Children's Literature

Three of the liveliest voices in children's literature team up in WILD THINGS!, a fun and informational survey behind the scenes of the children's books you thought you knew.

When I had my second baby last year, I had a suspicion that he'd be given certain picture books as gifts, and sure enough, copies of WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE and GOOD NIGHT MOON appeared on our doorstep within weeks of his birth. Good thing, too, as his older brother's copies had long ago been practically read, and chewed, and loved to pieces. It occurred to me then, and again as I was reading this new exploration of the stories behind children's literature, that there are children's books --- like Maurice Sendak's and Margaret Wise Brown's, like Laura Ingalls Wilder's and J. K. Rowling's --- that are by now as canonical for parents and kids as Chaucer and Eliot are for English majors.

Sure, we all know about the great green room, and the wild rumpus, and the chocolate factory, and the Muggles and all the rest, but how much does the average reader really know about the stories behind the stories we love to read aloud? Betsy Bird, Julie Danielson, and the late Peter D. Sieruta set out to explore these very stories in WILD THINGS!, a thoroughly entertaining and downright educational romp through the world of children's literature and its creators.

WILD THINGS! is not a textbook; it's blatantly (and delightfully) opinionated, for one thing, and it doesn't claim to be a comprehensive history or survey of children's literature. Instead, it's a collection of essays on a variety of topics, with a unifying theme that the kinds of children's books that tell children the truth --- even if adults don't want them to hear it yet --- are preferable to the kind of pastel-hued, sentimental books that Theodore Geisel once called "bunny-bunny" books.

...a thoroughly entertaining and downright educational romp through the world of children's literature and its creators."

One of the myths (and there are many) that the co-authors set out to debunk is that the writers of children's literature must, by virtue of their young audiences, have squeaky-clean life stories. Quite the contrary! The authors give examples of notable authors who also dabbled in erotica, who may have plagiarized, who had sex lives far too racy to make it into even today's YA novels. They also pay tribute to the countless LGBT authors and editors who played instrumental roles in the development of children's literature over the last hundred years.

One particularly impassioned chapter sets out to discredit the trend of celebrity-penned children's books, pointing out that (with a few rare exceptions) they do a disservice not only to legitimately talented authors and to children's publishing departments but also to readers, who deserve better (and who, as the authors point out, often neither know nor care about a celebrity author's cachet). Small and entertaining sidebars offer each individual author's take on, for example, their favorite banned books or the books they think are overrated by critics.

The audience for WILD THINGS! is certainly teachers, librarians, and anyone who (like me) still feels passionately about children's literature as an adult (and maybe still reads more than a little of it, too). Even this educated crowd will learn a lot from this well-researched volume. But WILD THINGS! also deserves to find an audience among more general readers, perhaps among parents who are just starting to explore the world of children's literature with their kids. For one thing, WILD THINGS! is a terrific resource for anyone looking for smart, off-kilter, honest books to share with children --- and it also offers an insiders' look at the fascinating stories behind them.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on August 7, 2014

Wild Things!: Acts of Mischief in Children's Literature
by Betsy Bird, Julie Danielson, and Peter D. Sieruta