- Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood
In light of the furlough days imposed on public schools nationwide in 2009 as a means of cutting state budget shortfalls, Maria Tatar's Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood offers, by fortuitous coincidence, to parents and concerned adults a message of solace: some of the best learning happens outside the classroom, when a child is engrossed in a good book. Tatar argues that reading tales of enchantment for pleasure at home, on the bus, in the park, at the library, or at bedtime benefits children and prepares them for the complexities of adulthood. As the publisher advertises on the dust jacket, Enchanted Hunters thus enters the territory laid out in Bruno Bettelheim's best-selling study Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (1976), although it should be noted that Tatar's interest is not the psychological effects of childhood reading, but rather the "transformative power of words and stories" (10).
Maria Tatar, the John L. Loeb Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures at Harvard University, is renowned for her scholarly works and annotated editions of classic fairy tales, the Brothers Grimm, and Hans Christian Andersen. Enchanted Hunters ventures beyond the dark, thorny hedges that make academic writing a somewhat prickly territory for general readers and saunters into the sunny field of polemic, essayistic writing. Some traces of academic jargon and the urge to quote a bit too copiously from authorities in literary theory remain, but overall Enchanted Hunters appeals to anyone who takes an interest in children's literature, the form and function of childhood reading, and the importance of reading in stimulating children's innate sense of wonder as a pathway to learning about life.
The canon of classic children's stories offers "shocks, terrors, and wonders, as well as wisdom, comfort, and sustenance," Tatar states in the introduction [End Page 350] (5). Her method of investigating "the power of stories in childhood" (the book's subtitle) is to draw upon anecdotal evidence and interviews with Harvard students in her courses on children's literature, her personal experience as a mother of two, her extensive reading of both children's and adult fiction, and her scholarly background. The introduction loosely defines the theoretical framework for her inquiry without actually explicating exactly how Mary Louise Pratt's concept of the contact zone can be meaningfully extrapolated to this study. In spite of veiled as well as explicit references to Walter Benjamin, Pierre Bourdieu, Roland Barthes, and Michel Foucault, no focused theoretical analysis is set up. Nor is the empirical scope of Tatar's methodology clearly defined. Rather, Tatar has a broad agenda that aims to dismantle "the unconscious biases against reading in our daily language" (27), ultimately hoping to turn the negative trope "bookworm" into "enchanted hunter" instead.
Chapter 1 is dedicated to "storytelling and the invention of bedtime reading" (33). To supplement this piece of cultural history, Tatar offers an interpretation of a number of historical paintings and prints depicting children being read to. Chapter 2 explores horror, beauty, and the notion of literature's "ignition power," which Tatar defines as "the ability to kindle the imagination" (79). Chapter 3 heads further into the dark corners of human experience, exploring uplifting examples of children's literature in which death and abandonment threaten the stability of the known world but at the end offer hope through transformation and regeneration. Chapters 4 and 5 are respectively titled "How to Do Things with Words" and "What Words Can Do to You" and discuss children's literacy from the triangulated perspective of wonder, boredom, and curiosity. These five chapters cover two hundred pages. Following Tatar's acknowledgments, an appendix of thirty-four pages titled "Souvenirs of Reading: What We Bring Back" presents observations and thoughts about reading (some of which have already been quoted in the chapters) from famous people ranging from Menander to Sherman Alexie. These "souvenirs" are offered in no alphabetical or chronological order and with no synthesizing commentary. After the...