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Archive for the ‘Maria Tatar’ Category

I think one of the most frustrating experiences as a reader is when you know that you’re not getting full value out of a book.  I found Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood by Maria Tatar, an exploration of how stories impact children, fascinating and more approachable than I’d expected (but still clearly written by an academic) but oh how much more I might have gotten out of it if I had been familiar with the more modern children’s books she included in her analysis!  Still, Tatar’s analyses and the incredible variety of sources she draws on make this a very interesting book, though structurally it’s a bit of a mishmash that never quite comes together to form a cohesive whole.

Tatar is interested in how children react to stories they encounter when quite young.   What happens to children when they read or are read to?  What elements capture their imaginations and stay with them into adulthood?  To do this, Tatar relies on the thoughts of adult looking back on their childhoods.  If the book were only that, I would have been perfectly content.  In fact, the lengthy appendix, which is entirely devoted to quotes from authors about how childhood reading has influenced them, was my favourite part of the book and, frankly, the only section that stays true to Tatar’s stated interest.  The rest of the book is a bit of a muddle.  An entertaining muddle, mind you, but a meandering muddle that never quite manages to make a clear argument, preferring instead to jump from topic to topic.  Tatar (unconvincingly) examines paintings of children being read to through the centuries, describing faces as blank or enigmatic when, just as easily, one might see them as utterly engrossed.  She ponders the act of reading a child to sleep while stressing how stimulating stories are for young, active imaginations.   She contemplates death and beauty in children’s books and the shocking, mesmerizing impact those topics have on children.  And then, of course, there is her analysis of the books themselves.  I have no idea how Tatar thought she was linking these topics into a cohesive whole but it still made for a very interesting though not always convincing read.  Touching on so many topics, so briefly, I never felt fully satisfied by any of her conclusions.

The book is full of 21st Century, politically correct judgements that are exactly what you expect from a modern, North American academic but which still had the power to irritate me to distraction: the assumption that any adult conscious of Peter Pan’s “racist and sexist stereotypes”  would “begin to worry about reading it to young children”; her incredulity that a child could find the tale of Blackbeard and his murdered wives more thrilling and imaginatively inspirational than “Cinderella”; her belief that “alarm bells go off in our heads when we read about the beautiful deaths in A Token for Children and the grotesque deaths in Struwwelpeter”, that children need to be shielded from such monstrous horror stories as…”The Little Match Girl”?  Really?  Tatar believes that conscientious parents worry “that the story is likely to rouse more fear than pity” for the little girl’s sad fate.  What bothered me most about these judgements was how little reference was made to how children feel about the stories: Tatar’s views of the value of these stories seemed to be based on her own sophisticated, adult perspective, which in any other book would be fine but it is not quite right for one that is focused on how children, ignorant of the psychological damage they may be doing their future selves, react to stories.

In preference to these classic, grim tales of death, Tatar looks to sanitized, modern children’s books “designed to help children – at various phases in their lives – develop strategies for managing anxieties about darkness, loss, and death” in a more subtle manner.  Which is where she completely lost me because of the three books she examines for this question – Goodnight Moon, In the Night Kitchen, and Charlotte’s Web – I’ve only ever read one.  The power of her other analyses came from my shared knowledge of the books.  Peter Pan, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Secret Garden and any number of fairy tales are all touchstones of the Western canon.  But when she moves on to these modern ‘classics’, I can’t follow her as a reader.  Tatar assumes that her audience is familiar with the books so when you’re not it becomes most confusing (what is this rabbit in Goodnight Moon?).  Also, if I’m going to criticize her chosen books, I must admit that I will always harbour some resentment towards any book about the power of stories in childhood that never once mentions A.A. Mille or Winnie-the-Pooh and only reference Beatrix Potter for her thoughts on Dr. Seuss.  A surprising amount of time is given over to Philip Pullman and J.K. Rowling when there is no Tolkien, no T.H. White, no Enid Blyton or Arthur Ransome, and only a brief reference to Kipling.

Clearly, I had a few issues with this one.  It is short but not particularly satisfying.  The tone can be gratingly academic.  Tatar calls on a huge variety of sources to support her analysis but she overloads the book with ideas and opinions and, in two hundred pages, I never found a persuasive, well-supported argument.   But it is still very interesting and I did really enjoy reading it.  Tatar may not always develop her thoughts with the kind of thoroughness I would have liked but, even in brief, they were intriguing.  And the appendix, with reflections on reading from so many different authors, is an absolute delight.

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