When my son and this blog were newborns, I purchased a copy of Seth Lerer’s Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History and began reading some of the classic children’s books that I loved as a child and/or that have been influential in creating children’s literature as we know it. My project through the classics in that book got rather derailed as my baby became a toddler.
Now he’s a preschooler and I’m expecting another baby. I still don’t have the time (or the motivation, to be honest) to follow a progressive approach to reading through classic stories of the past1, but I certainly enjoy reading literary criticism of literature and the history of the stories that are the foundation for children’s literature today.
Enchanted Hunters, Maria Tatar’s volume on “The Power of Stories in Childhood,” is enjoyable and informative for the reader of children’s literature, for the parent who reads to a child, and for the reader who enjoys fairy tales. She discusses children’s literature from a few different approaches, including literary criticism, history, and personal opinions.
Tatar’s literary criticism of the classics of children’s literature, from The Secret Garden to The Magic Tollbooth, did not always resonate with me, but I still loved reading her thoughts. The great thing about literary criticism is that one can approach it as her or she sees it, and I love getting the different perspectives on favorites. She discusses the characters in novels as representatives continuing the traditions of fairy tales of the past (Charlotte from E.B.White’s classic as the magical “Rumpelstiltskin” like character weaving straw in to gold). She hones in on why Goodnight Moon works (and does not) as a bedtime story. Since my post on Goodnight Moon remains the post on Rebecca Reads with the greatest number of hits, I found is fascinating to read her criticisms (even if I still love it as the best picture book/goodnight book ever written).
On another level, as may be evident by the mentions in the paragraph above, Enchanted Hunters is a history of the development of children’s literature. Although Tatar does not chronologically or topically follow the history as Lerer did in his volume, she does specifically discuss literature’s development for children in chapter 2, subtitled “Storytelling and the Invention of Bedtime Reading.” Further, as I mention above, as she analyses the best of children’s literature, she puts the beloved characters and scenarios in context. I loved seeing the patterns throughout children’s literature, and it got me excited to revisit some of these wonderful classics.
And finally, on the last level, Enchanted Hunters looks at the whys and hows behind children’s literature. Tatar’s book is a light overview of the psychology of children’s book in terms of the child’s needs. Why do children seek stories? Why do they want fantasy stories and alternate worlds? Why do stories with horrific endings, evil monsters, or disturbing characters attract them in the stories they read? I think Tatar puts children’s literature in context:
As a child’s faith in fantasy begins to erode, anxieties about the consequences of growing up, leaving childhood behind, and losing the healing powers of the imagination demand new problem-solving skills. Many of our culture’s classics of bedtime reading … take up and work through connections among childhood, mortality, imagination, and play. (page 119)
Although there is much to consider for each child’s needs (each child is an individual, after all), the classics of fairy tales and other stories provide a different outlet for children to better understand the world around them.
Ms Tatar is obviously well read in not just children’s literature but adult classics and philosophers as well. Because of her wide-reaching discussions and because her book does analyze children’s books on a literary level2, her book may not appeal to everyone. Personally, when I want to return to an overview of children’s classics, I’ll probably be returning to Seth Lerer’s volume: I simply loved his approach to the literature of the ages. But Maria Tatar’s volume also has much to offer, and I’m glad I read it.
What suggestions do you have for books about children’s literature, whether it’s a history of the classics for children or an overview of the whys involved with what makes them great?