By Ursula K. Le Guin
June 14, 2009
The Power of Stories in Childhood
W.W. Norton: 296 pp., $26.95
"Enchanted Hunters" is a well-intended book, but I'm not certain for whom it was intended (though it might do some real good in an education curriculum). Its argument is, I think, inept and often unclear, but it's at least lively, in contrast to the gray hash, the mud porridge most writers of education texts make of thought and language.
Maria Tatar's discussions of themes such as magic and horror are well illustrated by examples and quotes from other theorists, and her analysis of beauty in children's books -- emphasizing color, brilliance and radiance -- is interesting. Strangely, however, she seems to expect our expectations to be so low that we'll be surprised to find literary power in kiddie lit. Discussing human "fear and fascination with mortality," she writes: "And, unlikely as it seems, the authors of children's books share that fear and fascination, communicating it, if not openly, between the lines."
Why on earth should this be unlikely? Are authors of children's books not human? It's been years since anyone interested in what children are reading assumed that it was all happy pap devoid of serious content and moral urgency.
A book about "the power of stories in childhood" can't refer to all the classic and familiar children's books. But partiality, if extreme, should be explained. The Brothers Grimm, Renault and H.C. Andersen figure as largely in Tatar's discussions as is to be expected; F.H. Burnett, J.M. Barrie and Lewis Carroll each has a sizable section, as does L. Frank Baum. "The Wind in the Willows" goes unmentioned, though its lesser descendant "Redwall" is included. There is no discussion of George MacDonald, Beatrix Potter, Pooh or Bambi; one finds E.B. but not T.H. White; she includes a lone Kipling tale, "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi," a name Tatar describes as "side-splitting" -- could she have meant "ear-splitting"?
The Narnia books and the fantasies of J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman are cited frequently, admiringly and at length. I might whine about my "Earthsea" being left out, except that that's nothing compared to the omission of "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings." Now, that is bizarre. It's talking about relativity without mentioning Einstein.
The reader will find, in the book's introduction, several paintings of children being read to, and Tatar writes how their faces are "enigmatic," unrevealing, even hostile, though they just look like kids being read to -- utterly absorbed, rapt. The author's interpretation may reflect her willingness to believe that kids who read are "isolated" and cut off from "real" experience. She then discusses, in the first chapter, various aspects of storytelling and bedtime reading; the second turns to narrative techniques, particularly our attraction to the fearful; the third chapter, on death in children's books, raises interesting issues in a haphazard fashion. The last two chapters, subtitled "How to Do Things With Words" and "What Words Can Do to You," involve various possible effects of narrative on young readers. In all of this, however, I was unable to discern an organizing principle at work.
Occasionally the prose is alarming. "Authors of fantasy literature relentlessly advertise the enormity of the word," she writes. She cannot mean that fantasists, with callous indifference to the feelings of others, hire billboards to display how monstrous a word may be. My translation is tentative: Fantasists often talk about the power of language. A little later, she writes: "Despite the fact that they have only words to play with, the creators of fantasy worlds for children repeatedly market their books as vehicles for mobility, visual opportunity, and exploratory energy." I think she means that writers use the various powers of language, but what has "repeated marketing" got to do with that?
And yet, an advance publicity claim that this book is "in the tradition of Bruno Bettelheim's landmark 'The Uses of Enchantment,' " is, on the whole, fair. Tatar wants to explore "the creative and cognitive effects of reading from infancy through adolescence." Her primary interest is in usefulness, to which she sees the aesthetic as subsidiary -- "fun" or "thrills" are added to the hard lesson like sugar to coat a bitter pill. This misses the essential connection of art and morality, the bond that distinguishes the real stuff from pious or commercial schlock. In a work of art -- and the classic works of children's literature are very considerable works of art -- the lesson itself is the reward, the learning is the thrill. There is no bitter pill to disguise. Disguise, indeed, is what falls away. What a child enters, reading a great book, is the world as seen through the eyes and words of a great storyteller. It may be a dark world or a bright one, beautiful or awful, but it is larger than the child's small world, and it truthfully promises both fear and hope.
That such books can vastly enrich a child's mind and heart, we all agree. And Tatar, less theory-ridden than Bettelheim, is willing to allow such books to be navigational aids -- guides to a greater breadth of being for the child reader -- without saying where exactly they should go.
Le Guin is the author, most recently, of the novel "Lavinia" and "Cheek by Jowl: Talks and Essays on How and Why Fantasy Matters."
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