Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood by Maria Tatar

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Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood by Maria Tatar

Category: Home and Family
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: ademic study of the importance of reading at a young age, that has some interesting ideas but doesn’t quite live up to expectations from a general reader’s point of view.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 304 Date: April 2009
Publisher: W W Norton and Co
ISBN: 978-0393066012

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Like most avid readers, I don't remember the time before there were books. We were brought up with books. There are family tales of my father as a child eating his breakfast with one hand, while trying to tie his shoelaces with the other and still contriving to read at the same time. They were a poor family, and books weren't just expensive, they were valuable. They were dear, in every sense of the word. Likewise my mother remembers her early school-years when every day ended with a chapter from one of the classics.

For our part my brother and I were taught to read at a young age, and before that we were read to. Every night, I remember. It was part of the bedtime ritual as it is for many children today – but for us there was no pretence about reading us to sleep. We didn't go to bed before story time. It was part of the settling ritual, the calming down, being forced to sit still and pay attention. Paying attention was however expected…drifting off was not allowed.

Then we were joined at the library – oh the bliss of being able to choose your own reading material week after week.

We read, and read, my brother and I. Our tastes crossed and diverged and came round again. And still we read.

The real power of stories in childhood doesn't necessarily lie in the stories. It lies in the reading. The discovery of the alchemy which turns base ink into gold.

This fundamental difference is where I found Tatar's work stumbles. Although her subtitle is the power of stories in childhood, her analysis wanders between the stories themselves and the act of reading them, without either making the distinction or trying to grasp which of the two holds the real power.

As interesting as Tatar's analysis is, I cannot say that it chimes with my own experience. She starts with two concepts that are totally alien to me.

The first is the child chided for reading. Various members of her class (and some famous people surveyed) talk of being scolded or worse for being caught reading. We were encouraged to read everything we had a hope of understanding, and then some. We read at home, in the garden, on the bus, in the back of the car, on the beach, in bed, in the library. I don't ever remember being told to take my nose out of the book. Nor did I ever find reading an isolating experience…even in junior school my friends and I shared our thoughts on the books we'd read. It was part of our social glue rather than the opposite.

The second is the failure to capture in adulthood the innocent, all-engrossing, totality of the reading experience that we had as children. I vividly remember in my twenties sitting in a nightclub, fretting and worrying about the dogs out on the moor (The Plague Dogs). Later still The Scallacrig didn't just have me in tears at the end of every chapter – I sobbed. Discworld books don't merely make me smile, or chortle, I laugh, sometimes long and hard, and relive those jokes with anyone that will listen. Some books have become so entwined in my personal history that I can tell you what was happening when I read them. We were scraping paper off the walls of the hall, stairs and landing when I read The Cat in The Hat. I was house-sitting the January my parents had their windows replaced and I read The Hitchhikers Guide for the first time. I had measles for Naughty Amelia Jane and a broken heart for Killing Me Softly (twice!). I will stay up late, get up early, miss trains, forget to eat and all manner of other things to stay in a story. The power of reading, if you truly grasp it, never leaves you. It isn't individual stories that matter; it is the spell of the written word.

It's unclear whether this indicates a difference of culture between the US and UK, or simply that Tatar's sample should have been larger.

So much for what I didn't like about Enchanted Hunters.

There is still much of interest. Her consideration of the 'bedtime story' takes in its origins of the tales told around the camp or hearth fire in ancient times, when the stories weren't intended for the children, who would simply happen to be there, and follows this through into the truly vicious and horrible realms of traditional fairy tales. These stories may often have a germ of a moral within them, but they are laden with death and destruction and demons and all manner of things designed to give even the most well-adjusted child nightmares if they stopped to think about them.

Thankfully we are born with the ability not to pay that much attention. Whilst there are quotes from those traumatised by the Struwelpeter stories of hands being chopped, I don't really remember being even slightly fazed by grandma-impersonating wolves or axe-wielding giants. It does however make you reconsider the nature and purpose of the tales.

These she contrasts admirably with the modern picture-book, which is invariably warm and fuzzy and comfy-cosy.

It is clear that the purpose of reading to children has changed. Whereas it was the sharing of a literary experience, that they may have been expected to contend with, even fight against, now it is about calming and soothing and 'please-go-to-sleep'ing.

From books aimed at the very young, Tatar moves on to those destined for older children. From the classics she quotes books that I would argue were never specifically intended for children (although young people were the focus of them) such as Tom Sawyer, The Secret Garden but more legitimately (to my mind) also looks in detail at Alice, Peter Pan and Charlotte's Web delving into literary analysis that is of value in its own right, but casts little light on how this impacts upon young minds.

No exploration of this kind would be complete without a quick wander through Oz and Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory… but are the excursions in Kafka and Dickens just as valid? I do wonder.

On His Dark Materials and Harry Potter the jury still seems to be out, whilst as an adult reader of children's books I love these to bits and know precisely how enthralled I would have been at age 8 or 9.

Enchanted Hunters is clearly intended as an academic work, and as a general reader I have to say I did find it heavy going. Of course, that may just be because I disagree with so many of the basic arguments. On the other hand, I was fascinated by some of the linguistic analysis: Time Flies Like an Arrow being freakily timely coinciding as it did with a conversation on that very subject. Snippets of publishing history are welcome for leavening the text but again add little to the debate.

This is not the book I expected it to be, and so I was disappointed by it. For those with a more academic interest in the subject, it may be just the job – but for me, the most enjoyable part was the appendix labelled Souvenirs of Reading… which gives insights into the early reading memories of authors and other public figures.

The one thing upon which I do agree with Tatar is that children who grow up in houses without books, will ever after be the poorer for it. It matters not whether they are read to; it matters that books are seen as an integral part of life…that parents are seen to read for their own edification or enjoyment, and not just to fulfil a duty to their children: this is what will get the real power of the written word across to those young enough to emulate. The ability to read is the key to all knowledge…but the passion for reading takes you so much further.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Buy Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood by Maria Tatar at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood by Maria Tatar at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood by Maria Tatar at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood by Maria Tatar at Amazon.com.


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