This is a study of child readers, including the very young to whom parents read stories at bedtime, and of the psychological interactions between child and story. In the later chapters especially, it is also a critical appreciation of some major texts in children’s literature. The author is a distinguished scholar (Professor of Germanic Languages and Literature at Harvard) who teaches children’s literature at university level and has published authoritative editions of Grimm and Hans Andersen. In this book she attempts to put aside the academic constraints of modern children’s literature studies, and re-engage with the primary magic of children’s encounters with books, confessing rather guiltily that ‘it was that magic that I had, for so long, been determined to shut out of my scholarly writings’.
The purpose is admirable, but the achievement mixed. Tatar writes intentionally not only as professional critic but as parent, teacher and remembered child. This is a very personal book – enthusiastic, appreciative and lyrical. But it falls between two stools. Tatar is rightly defensive of children’s literature against present-day threats to its place in children’s lives, and there is a need for academic specialists with the ability to address and enthuse a wider public. But Tatar’s style, engaging as it often is, is also verbose and repetitive. Her general points and arguments will seem mostly obvious and banal to those who work with children’s books, while a study with 30 pages of notes is still too tied to academic practice to reach the general reader. Let loose from scholarly formalities, Tatar commits herself to curious assertions (‘ecstasy and kindness cannot coexist’), strange readings (Mrs Darling in Peter Pan is said to be ‘dismissed as a repellent control freak’) and statements of the ultra-obvious (‘“A man came into a room” – all you have to do is to read that sentence to conjure the man and the room’). There are some fine analyses of individual texts, notably a chapter on the enactment of the power of language in The Wizard of Oz, The Secret Garden, and The Phantom Tolbooth, but overall the book demonstrates the need for what it tries and fails to provide – a guide which mediates the strengths of children’s literature studies to non-specialist readers engaged day by day in bringing up children.