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
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.
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.)