Friday, September 10, 2010
Enchanted Reading Part 1.
I recently began reading Maria Tatar's "Enchanted Hunters" a facinating examination of the power of stories in childhood. I'm only about 1/3 of the way through but already feel my understanding of children's literature getting sharper.
So much of what Tatar covers in this book would seem obvious and yet it boggles my mind that no one has yet put it in such well crafted, straightforward, and comprehensive way as she does here. She discuss the evolution from familial hearth-oriented storytelling to bedtime reading to children, which on its own is an interesting topic. She makes many interesting points that in modern times, bedtime reading is essentially a conflict zone between parent and child (parent wanting child to go to sleep, child roused by the stories being told), rather than the sweet, nostalgic and idealized vision we have of story time being a period of quality bonding between parent and child. Beyond that, she also examines the irony between the origin of bedtime stories (many intended to frighten the child into obedience, i.e. The Sandman) and the modern genre of bedtime picture books aimed at lulling a child to sleep (in a word, BORING!).
She goes on to stress that many children will passively endure stories that end with "and now it's time for bed," but that what children really crave are stories of adventure, beauty, intrigue, and peril. It's so obvious to me now. Bedtime books exist because parents WILL buy them, NOT because children actually want to read them. This is the case for many genres of children's books. Up until now I had been feeling overwhelmed at the vastness of the field of kidlit, but now it's more apparent to me that within kidlit is an entire sub section of "adult kidlit", books supposedly aimed at children but actually created out of a nostaligia of an adult perspective on childhood, rather than one sincerely intended for childhood appeal.
This is the key to everything to me. I do NOT want to be a poser of a children's illustrator. I want to aspire to connect directly with children rather than some IDEA of what children should like. Think about it: as children, we are captivated by stories that give us that perfect balance of both beauty AND horror (traditional fairy tales, Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, etc). I for one can absolutely remember the types of books I couldn't get enough of: ANYTHING by R.L. Stine!
I plowed through the Goosebump Series all through elementary school. I could not satiate my desire to live in a world where children were constantly at the mercy of their own courage to face dark and terrible things without the aid of adults. To little Courtney, that was as far from reality as it got! I was so close to my family and knew they'd always be there to save me, that the very thought of being alone drew me to those types of stories. I could escape into the pages of R.L. Stine and live in a world that horrified and mesmerized me, all from the comfort and safety of the living room couch.
Even as a child I remember being so THANKFUL that Mr. Stine was AWESOME enough to write those books for us kids---it was like he was saying to us. "Hey, you might be kids, but I know you can handle it." I respected him for respecting us. I didn't want boring, dumbed-down, cutesy and condescending stories---I wanted risk, and the promise that there was no promise of a happy ending. Because even at a young age, I knew that was the harshness of life.
Those early reading experiences were fundamental to me. They really allowed me to escape and become part of worlds unlike my own. And now as an adult, I must NEVER forget that. As an illustrator (and maybe even author someday) I will not let myself forget WHO I am really making my work for. If I go too far in the way of nostalgia I am almost guaranteed to fail in the ways I care most about.
Imagine a world where the authors of our beloved stories didn't give children enough credit. A world where Red Riding Hood faces a fluffy bunny and Voldemort is as threatening as a ladybug. The potency of childhood stories hinges on the tension of radiant good challenged by ultimate evil. To have one, you must have the other. Children feel that truth deep down and connect to stories that allow them to explore that theme time and time again.
Reading is a magical experience for us as adults because it allows us to escape into a life and world somehow different from our own. Imagine then, how doubly powerful that same escape can be for a child who is inherently powerless in their own world on a daily basis. It is thus that much MORE of a necessity for a young mind to experience strong stories that engage their imagination and indulge their fantasy and fascination with the dark and light.