1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 39
Maria Tatar, Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood
Maria Tatar, a professor of German who has worked heavily in German-language fairy tales, became curious about the phenomenon of “bedtime stories.” The idea of reading children into sleepiness makes little sense; she writes: “Nothing keeps you awake like a good story.” How, then, do children consume stories? Given access to books, kids read voraciously, tell one another stories, play make-believe, and enact impromptu plays. Stories are endemic to childhood.
Children find themselves pulled between conflicting forces, the eat-your-spinach wholesome reading grown-ups demand, and the deep, sensory experiences of stories they actually seek. As Tatar notes, children read with great aplomb, disappearing into books because they love the experience. And “experience” certainly describes it: kids embrace books that create rich sensory detail and muscular action. Children have opportunities to enjoy reading as grown-ups, with jobs and mortgages and responsibilities, cannot.
Presumably, the reading experience, which elides unnecessary content, feels more real and intense than ordinary life, with its long, inactive stretches of workaday banality. Children, who lack lived experiences, become seasoned through their stories. Because reading lets us experience a range of pleasures—different identities, different time periods, different nations—we absorb it deeply, particularly when we don’t have conflicting ideas or pressures attempting to limit and control our thoughts.
Knowing this, Tatar’s overview of pre-Twentieth Century “children’s literature” is downright chilling. In Tatar’s telling, adult scholars once sought to stifle children’s curiosity, numb their desire for experience, and reduce kids to mere moral instruments. Not for nothing did teachers foist “primers” on kids, a learning apparatus first devised for monastic devotion. The enthusiasm, joy, and wonder we associate with childhood, teachers once unabashedly strove to squelch.
Tatar lavishes praise upon writers like JM Barrie, of Peter Pan fame, or Wonderland creator Lewis Carroll, grown-ups who didn’t have children of their own. Freed from responsibility for children’s moral upbringing, they immerse themselves in what it means to be young. Carroll’s colorful, nigh-psychedelic otherworld, and Barrie’s adventurous utopia, transcend age, era, and nation. No wonder their Victorian fairy stories retain massive, imitative popularity generations later.
Consider the “literature” adults insist children should consume. From the highly moralistic parables in elementary schoolrooms, to the belletristic art writing favored in high school and college courses, it’s hard to imagine writing more incisively designed to alienate avid readers. Twenty-some years removed from 11th Grade English, I’ve finally begun appreciating Hemingway’s and Fitzgerald’s true accomplishments; but reading because we’re “supposed to” generates a dry, joyless experience.
No wonder authors frequently dismissed as “young adult” writers, like JK Rowling and Suzanne Collins, have dedicated adult audiences. Their immersive storytelling is essentially bilingual, having both the sensory, theatrical content children love (and adults too, if we’re honest), and the subtlety and nuance adults seek. Seven-year-olds, seventeen-year-olds, and seventy-year-old can all lose themselves in Harry Potter, while having unique, sophisticated experiences appropriate to their age range.
Yet, in perhaps Tatar’s most telling passages, children feel openly guilty about reading. Besides her own students, Tatar cites influential sources, from Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Robin Williams, on this duality: making and consuming stories is children’s greatest joy, but we mock “introverts,” “addicts,” and “bookworms” for reading. Some never outgrow this. Tatar quotes Oprah Winfrey recounting her mother berating her for “think[ing] you’re better than the other kids.”
No wonder adults shift reading energies onto other tasks. From work addiction to family responsibility to even just reading books they “ought to” read, adults divert their attention to putatively useful purposes. Yet Tatar notes adults read to children, at least partly, to recapture that intense “theatre for the imagination” they remember from childhood. I suggest grown-ups read paperback romances and spy thrillers (essentially grown-up fairy tales) for similar purpose.
Tatar recaptures the way we read during our childhood, seeking sophisticated experience and sensory richness, not intellectual heft. Whether society steals it (as I believe) or our psyches cannot generate images internally anymore (as Tatar implies), we adults lose this pleasure in reading, and spend years of adulthood second-guessing ourselves. We intellectually seek meaningful themes and critical complexity, while longing to simply vanish into somebody’s lavishly felt story.
Stories, Tatar declares, create the experience of childhood. Between the sensory pleasure of Wonderland, and the complex experiences kids only have vicariously, childhood remains the unique domain of stories. And while Tatar doesn’t craft a writing guide for children’s literature, nor a discursus on adulthood reading, her message lies behind every grown-up’s reading experience. We spend adulthood seeking to rediscover that wonderful, magical story.