Maria Tatar on Fantasy Worlds Then and Now

I’ve long admired Harvard’s Maria Tatar for her varied work on children’s literature and folk lore. She’s done a number of fine annotated editions of classical books and tales including her latest, The Annotated Peter Pan.  Today she has a very thoughtful article in the New York Times, “No More Adventures in Wonderland” in which she contrasts the older children’s books of J.M. Barrie and Lewis Carroll with more recent ones such as those of Neil Gaiman,  Suzanne Collins, and Philip Pullman, noting that while the older and newer writers are both bridging the line between adult and child, they are doing so very differently.

While Carroll and Barrie were known for spending massive amounts of time with children (something quite acceptable then, but discomforting to us today), Tatar points out that “…Carroll and Barrie knew what children wanted in their stories precisely because they were so deeply invested in finding ways to win their attention and affection in real life.”

She contrasts this to current writers like Suzanne Collins who provide for their child readers,”… an unprecedented dose of adult reality in their books, sometimes without the redemptive beauty, cathartic humor and healing magic of an earlier time.”

For me all these brilliant writers who create imaginary worlds are cross-over writers. It is just that those from an earlier time have a very different orientation than those today. Carroll and Barrie were trying to create worlds of imaginative delight, safe places for readers of all ages to enter. In today’s stories,” writes Tatar,  “those safety zones are rapidly vanishing as adult anxieties edge out childhood fantasy.”

A very interesting read.



Filed under Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Children's Literature, Fantasy, Fantasy Worlds, His Dark Materials, Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman

16 responses to “Maria Tatar on Fantasy Worlds Then and Now

  1. Thanks, Monica. I was a bit disturbed to see some knee-jerk reactions to this article on Twitter, that seemed to assume that any analysis of YA books in the mainstream press that isn’t whole-heartedly ghee-whizz positive a.) has to be therefore entirely negative and b.) must come from purely cynical motives on the part of the writer (ie she has a book to seel). I thought Tatar did a fine job of contextualising the books from different eras she was discussing and made some really important distinctions between them. I found it very thought-provoking myself and am glad to see I’m not alone.


  2. Monica, there was so much to do in the sun yesterday, that I decided to pass on the Times, and would have hated to miss this. Thank you so much for calling it to our attention!


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  4. Judith, I may have been one of those with the knee-jerk reactions you decry. But I read that article, and the problem with it is that it isn’t about YA–it claims to be about “children’s books” generally, and yet it uses 4 examples (all upper MG or YA) as the basis for some sweeping generalizations.

    Is Tatar not aware of the many counter-examples, or did she choose to ignore them?


    • Harold, I just don’t see the ill will in the piece that others see. I think she is orienting from a deep involvement with Barrie and everything else is coming from that. I have her book Enchanted Hunters at home, but seem to recall it references a lot of more recent works such as Harry Potter. That said, it is clear from the many responses that she was unsuccessful (to say the least:) at getting a point across.


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  6. I also didn’t feel the article rang quite true, and I also really respect Tatar’s work. As Nina Lindsay wrote at SLJ, The Graveyard Book mostly felt like it was written in the spirit of earlier era children’s books. And I don’t feel that the YA books today feel so different from what I was reading when I was a teen (way back in the 80s). Though maybe those were books targeted at adults and I just adopted them, such as books by Stephen King and Kurt Vonnegut, along with other sci fi and fantasy.

    And Harry Potter seems to me to be all about worlds of enchantment and childhood, with the lurking menace of Voldemort. Yes, she drew on depression for the dementors. But did these earlier books not also drawn on pyschologically complex imagery?

    But it was a well-written and thoughtful article, worth more than knee-jerk reactions. Always good to get these conversations going…


    • I actually felt The Graveyard Book is very contemporary in tone although it certainly is also a clear homage to The Jungle Book. But the second part did not feel anything like Barrie or Lewis to me, at least, just pure Gaiman. But I feel the point Tatar was trying to make was the difference in the landscape for the writers of these different periods — that Lewis and Barrie were in very different relationships with their audience than Rowling and Gaiman today. That these different interactions and cultural mindsets affect the way these books crossover. But she did admittedly muddy the waters with her clearly nostalgic conclusion.


  7. Leda Schubert

    Monica, Maria Tatar is on “On Point” at this very second talking about Peter Pan’s 100th– you might want to listen when you get home.


  8. I think perhaps the biggest difference between Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and the like is a distance between the worlds of Neverland and Wonderland and our own. Fantasy that takes place in a fantasy world is different from fantasy which takes place in our world. A fantasy world allows a certain imaginative and emotional distance that means dark and dangerous things seem much further away. The author is freer to play when when he or she is further than reality.

    Contrast the earlier books’ fantasy worlds with Harry Potter (set in a version of our world with a secret, wizard underground), The Graveyard Book (again, our world–though a surreal portrayal of it), or The Hunger Games (our dystopian future). These books almost insinuate “not quite, but almost” or “hey, it could happen.” The darkness of Harry’s wizard realm invades our present in the later novels. Nobody’s Jack of All Trades is a horrifying figure on the fringes of our reality. And The Hunger Games is a terrifying alternate future. It’s no wonder that these books seem darker–they smack of disquieting truths about the darkness in our own world. And it’s no wonder readers seem to get so much more lost (occasionally self-destructively so) in these “almost” realities.


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  12. Next time I read a blog, I hope that it does not fail me just as much as this particular one. I mean, I know it was my choice to read, however I actually believed you’d have something helpful to talk about. All I hear is a bunch of whining about something that you could fix if you weren’t too busy looking for attention.


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