Culture

Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult with Fresh (Tear-Stained) Eyes

Pooh and Christopher Robin, ‘Winnie the Pooh’ film © Disney 2011

Editor's Note:

Bruce Handy is currently a contributing editor of Vanity Fair. A former writer and editor at Spy and Time, 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, Vogue, The Village Voice, and The New Yorker. His book, Wild Things, explores the joys and revelations in reading children’s literature as an adult.

I am a famous crybaby, at least in my own family. Like many people, I am made misty-eyed by graduations, weddings, sentimental commercials (especially about loyal pets), and most Pixar movies outside the Cars franchise. Where I truly excel as a weeper is in my ability to cry in public settings, as I once did while reading The Man Who Walked Between the Towers to my son Isaac’s kindergarten class. If you don’t know the title, it’s an award-winning picture book by Mordicai Gerstein about Philip Petit, the French aerialist who in 1974 walked on a tight rope between the World Trade Center towers. What broke me up was a line near the end of the book: “Now the towers are gone.” When I was reading this to Isaac’s kindergarten, it was only three years after 9/11. I had to stop and compose myself, while my wife finished the book and the class wondered what was wrong with Isaac’s dad.

But that was only an audience of 25 four- and five-year-olds. I once cried in front of 500 adults while interviewing Roseanne Cash on stage for a school fundraiser. The talk went fine. But then she sang the plaintive old folk song “500 Miles,” which she had recorded for her then most recent album. What can I say? She sang it beautifully, and the loneliness of the lyrics (“Lord I’m one, Lord I’m two, Lord I’m three, Lord I’m four/Lord I’m five hundred miles from home”) really got to me. Thankfully, it wasn’t “Cats in the Cradle” or “Puff the Magic Dragon,” which would have also made me cry, but with far more shame.

When I wrote the proposal for my recently published book Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult, I included an anecdote about reading my kids The House at Pooh Corner. The last chapter of A.A. Milne’s book revolves around the news that Christopher Robin is “going away.” No more explanation is given; I infer that Christopher Robin is being sent off to boarding school. Anyway, he has to tell Pooh that they will no longer be able to spend time with each other. Pooh, being a bear of little brain, doesn’t understand what it is happening to him: that, in essence, he is being broken up with. It’s a terribly poignant scene, and as I wrote (in what became my book’s introduction):

I couldn’t help but weeping as I read this aloud. It’s a story, of course, about leaving childhood behind, which for poor baffled Pooh, the one being left – the one who really exists only in Christopher Robin’s imagination – is a kind of death. I naturally thought about my own kids growing up, which for a parent is another kind of death, or, more to the point, an intimation of one’s own. Isn’t it really ourselves we’re mourning when we say, Oh my god, they grow up so fast? (My wife counters with a vehement “No.”)

My editor told me to limit myself to two episodes of tears in my manuscript. This was wise advice, and I followed it, holding off any more weeping until my final chapter, where I discuss E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. Of course you can’t escape waterworks with that one. I invariably cry reading the passage where Charlotte dies, a single paragraph, which I decided to quote in its entirety in Wild Things. You may remember that Charlotte, a spider, has saved her friend Wilbur, a pig, from being turned into bacon by weaving a series of miraculous words into her web. She has also produced an egg sac that will eventually give birth to her many sons and daughters—five hundred and fourteen all together, White notes with characteristic specificity. But those labors finished, she is done for, left behind to perish on a deserted fairground. The line that really gets you, or gets me, is, the final “No one was with her when she died.” I cried at home when I read that aloud to my kids and I cried in public when I read it to myself while working on my book at New York City’s Society Library. I cried again when I read it while working on edits of Wild Things. I cried one more, after my book was published, while discussing Charlotte’s death on the NPR interview program On Point. That was my first time choking up on live radio, I’m 99.9 percent sure.

The real challenge was getting through Charlotte’s death while recording the audio version of my book without tears. It took me three takes to get a workable reading of the complete passage. Fortunately I was working with a very understanding and patient engineer. Only later did I learn that White himself, when recording his magnificent reading of Charlotte’s Web, needed 17 takes to get through his heroine’s death—14 more than me. So I can now say there is one literary thing I did better, or at least more efficiently, than E.B. White. As a writer, I will happily take that to my grave.