Nov 14, 2011

Enchanted Hunters by Maria Tatar

Enchanted Hunters by Maria Tatar

In Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood, Maria Tatar attempts to answer the question, “What happens to children when they read?” As Tatar explains in the introduction, her attempt to answer this question is based on the recollections of adults looking back on their experiences as child readers rather than on insight from current children. The former does not replace the latter, but it is valuable and telling in itself.

What Enchanted Hunters does, then, is attempt to
track those enchanted hunters, focusing above all on the question of affect and effects. To be sure, I will not ignore questions about morals, message, and values in childhood reading, nor will I neglect aesthetic issues touching on style and structure. But I want first and foremost to get at how literature touches us when we are young, moving and transforming us with its intoxicating, enthralling, and occasionally terrifying energy. How do the stories that constitute our collective cultural inheritance change our lives, defying the laws of time and space by resonating within our minds long after we have put them down?
The result is a mixture of literary analysis, cultural history, and insight into what drives young readers, which is reminiscent of the works of Francis Spufford and Jerry Griswold. Tatar’s style also slightly reminded me of Alberto Manguel, in the sense that both are extremely learned and are very successful at bringing together unlikely threads of knowledge in ways that generate new insights.

When applied to literary analysis, Tatar’s ability leads to unlikely connections between, say, Maurice Sendak and Marcel Proust that are as surprising as they are a joy to read. Tatar’s perceptive analyses were probably my favourite sections of Enchanted Hunters. The books she covers here include classics such as Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, The Phantom Toolboth, The Wizard of Oz, Charlotte’s Web (this section in particular made me appreciate E.B. White’s work more than ever, in that unique way good critics have of making you see familiar books in an entirely new light), The Secret Garden and the works of Dr Seuss; but also more recent works such as His Dark Materials and Harry Potter.

A.S. Byatt said of this book:
Perhaps Tatar's most original contribution to thought about children's stories and what they do to their inhabitants is about how the addicted readers are also learning (most of them) to deal with growing up. The great powers of the mind in the world of children's books are a capacity for wonder, and an insatiable curiosity. The writers feed both with colours never seen on sea or land, with moons and stars and gold and silver and monsters and dangers. But they are also teaching mastery of language which is the stuff of thought and necessary to growing up when the time comes.
Which sums it up perfectly, really. There is a deep appreciation here for what stories do not only as narratives, but as novel and exciting ways of using language to make sense of, organise, and expand our world.

Maria Tatar was recently the focus of a lot of attention in the book blogging world due to an article which I agree misrepresents contemporary Young Adult literature. But I do hope readers will not let their opinion of that piece keep them away from Enchanted Hunters — this is a perceptive, informed and extraordinary book.

Memorable passages:
If there is a lesson to be derived from these meditations on childhood reading, it lies in the power of words to serve as magical wands. Words have not just astonishing capacity to banish boredom and create wonders. They also enable contact with the lives if others and with story worlds, arousing endless curiosity about ourselves and the places we inhabit. Such passion promises to keep us, at least intellectually, forever young.

Deeply invested in creating sensory stimulation that enlivens, animates, and transforms, the authors of children’s books stockpile arsenals of beauty and horror to construct “peak experiences” – memorable moments that offer up the exquisite, the terrifying, and everything in between.

Our curiosity about the interior lives of others, coupled with the exhilarating sense of fathoming the complex minds of those who are not at all like us, keep us reading.
More akin to wanderers and creators than to gluttons and addicts, readers lead a nomadic existence that requires mental agility and the capacity to pursue leads and follow trails. Not all hunter return from those literary travels with their creative instincts sharpened, but they all bring back some kind of quarry, souvenirs of those lures that keep them hot on the trail. They preserve those souvenirs as precious talismans that are memorized, burnished, and preserved until they become their own. As they appropriate and internalize words, readers use those same words to construct their identities, changing them in ways so subtle that they often escape conscious attention.
(Have you posted about this book too? Let me know and I’ll be glad to link to you.)


  1. I so agree with those passages you quoted. And yes, maybe the fact that it is adult recollections informing her opinons colors it a bit, but maybe also children would not even realize the benefits they are deriving from the "magical wand" of books. It would be interesting to find out!

  2. Jill: Yes, that's exactly what she goes on to say in the introduction, and I agree. But I think it would also be interesting to read children's thoughts on their reading experiences, even if they aren't as self-aware and articulate as an adult's. It would be an excellent way to complement a book like this! I wonder if something like that exists - if not, I hope someone writes it :P

  3. I literally just finished reading this yesterday! I saw it in Claire's library loot and had to give it a go. :) I loved the first half, and almost-loved the second (I got a bit restless during the analyses of individual books, probably because at heart I'm not a lit studies girl). I had no idea she'd written a controversial article...but then, so has Laura Miller, whose book I just loved. It's not that hard to stir up the internet after all.

  4. I just went and read her article, and it didn't really bother me! It seemed like it was just looking at one strand of YA lit, the dystopian, which I'm not a huge fan of anyway. ;) I didn't get the sense that she was saying *all* contemporary YA lit is too dark...I could be wrong though! And I do think it's funny she mentions Graveyard Book without any reference to The Jungle Book, with her focus on 'classic' children's lit. Anyway, I'm rambling in a pre-caffeinated state and my fibro's a bit cranky today, so if this comment doesn't make sense/offends those who know far more about YA lit than me, etc. I'll just apologise now!

  5. Oh, this sounds so good! You hooked me when you said her style reminded you of Alberto Manguel.

  6. Eva: Don't apologise! I don't seen how anyone could find your comment offensive at all! I disagree with Tatar in general even if her points are restricted to dystopias, but I think that the reason why people generalised and were upset was because there have been several "YA corrupts young minds" articles over the past few months (there was one in the Wall Street Journal that was particularly infamous), and in that context this seemed like more of the same. I liked the post about it at Educating Alice, which offered a balanced and nuanced reading. Confession: I was going to post about this book the week that article was out, but didn't want to come across as someone taking advantage of a controversy to get traffic or anything like that :P Anyway, I look forward to reading your thoughts on the book if you do review it in full!

    Stefanie: Manguel's stuff is just amazing, isn't it?

  7. I bet this would be a fascinating read, and I would love to check it out. I once came across a book about how reading changes the brain, and what happens to the brain when we read, but I forgot the title of it, and that saddens me, because I love books like this one. Great review today, Ana!

  8. Weeeeeird, I just picked this up from the library two days ago after coming across it randomly in the catalogue.

    I didn't clue in that she was the same person as the author of that article, which makes me wince a bit. But sometimes I like reading things I disagree with, if the points are well-made, and this book looks fascinating. Your review sways me towards reading it, too.

    What did you think of the cover, btw? This may seem shallow, but I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have picked it up if I was just browsing, rather than subject searching through the OPAC.

  9. I remember the WSJ controversy: it makes sense that coming after that people were annoyed! I'll go read the Educating Alice post. :)

  10. I read this last week but had no idea about the article or any controversy! I started to drift when Tatar got into the analysis of specific books - especially when she was assuming familiarity with books I've never read, like Goodnight Moon - but I really enjoyed the book as a whole. I thought the appendix with quotes from various authors about their experiences as readers was an absolute treat.

  11. Oh this does sound really good! There's something that's just so magical…even more magical than it is now, about reading a book as a child. I wish I could recapture that experience!!

  12. Sounds like a fascinating read. There is something special about the books you read in your childhood that is hard to recapture as an adult!

  13. Sounds fascinating, sadly sounds like it would of been perfect back when I was doing my dissertation!

  14. Zibilee: If you remember the title, I'd love to hear it!

    Kiirstin: I understand the wincing but I don't think you'll disagree with much of what she says here. There's none of the cautionary tone from the piece. As for the cover, I think it actually looks better "live" than in pictures, as the decorations around the edges are prettier and more intricate than they seem in pictures. But they could have done a better job, especially as there are so many nice illustrations inside!

    Eva: It was probably a matter of it being the last straw for a lot of people!

    Claire: I can't believe I forgot to mention the appendix! It was a delight indeed. I'm looking forward to your review :)

    Chris: I know. It makes me a little wistful to think about, especially as my access to books as a child was a bit limited.

    heidenkind: Yes, exactly, and she captures that well.

    Jessica: Funny how these books only appear when you're done, isn't it? I keep coming across stuff I could have used for mine.

  15. This sounds so fantastic! I've been hearing about Tatar in context of children's lit for years but hadn't read anything yet. Adding it to my "for later" list!

  16. I really must read Maria Tatar one of these days. I have had her out from the library before, but not read her.

  17. Rebecca: I think you'd definitely enjoy her work :)

    Kelly: Do! I'd love to hear your thoughts.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.