Maria Tatar, the chair of Harvard’s folklore and mythology program, has written a terrible NYT sequel to Meghan Cox Gurdon’s terrible WSJ op-ed. Learning from Gurdon’s mistakes, Tatar does not offer a blanket condemnation of children’s/middle grade/YA literature with grim themes. Instead, she complains that
kids these days authors these days won’t get off her lawn write unrelentingly grim children’s literature, unlike the Good Old Days when there might have been a bit of occasional grimness but it was leavened by humor and joy.
Specifically, she writes:
Children today get an unprecedented dose of adult reality in their books, sometimes without the redemptive beauty, cathartic humor and healing magic of an earlier time.
By way of example, Tatar compares The Hunger Games with Peter and Wendy (better known as Peter Pan because I guess at some point it became unfashionable for a girl to get star billing).
Let me just make a few small points here.
1) The Hunger Games is very clearly aimed at older readers. Peter and Wendy was published long before the current children’s/middle grade/YA categorization system came into existence, but it’s pretty clearly aimed at younger readers. You might as well compare Unwind with Uncle Wiggly.
2) Tatar declares that modern books, such as The Graveyard Book and the His Dark Materials trilogy, “frequently offer expansive meditations on mortality, with heroes on crusades against death… It’s hard to imagine Carroll or Barrie coming up with something like that.” But Peter and Wendy is very much a meditation on mortality; it is a model for science fiction stories about the horrors of living forever, a parable about the unbearable weight of adulthood and its inevitable progress toward death. All children, except one, grow up… and eventually age and die. Peter doesn’t need to go on a crusade against death. It’s clear that he has already faced down death and won–and, in the process, doomed himself to eternal miserable loneliness in a decaying world built out of other people’s abandoned dreams. (I maintain that Peter is Hades and Wendy is a very peculiar Persephone, but that’s a separate post.)
2a) While Tatar is complaining that The Graveyard Book opens with the description of a murder, she would do well to remember that Peter ruthlessly does away with any Lost Boys who dare to show signs of growing up, and Michael, barely out of infancy, is thrilled when he gets to kill his first pirate.
2b) The Graveyard Book is an homage to, and in some ways an adaptation of, The Jungle Book, a contemporary of Peter and Wendy and easily as grim and bloody and existentially dire as anything being written today. Mowgli is the antithesis of Peter Pan; he grows inexorably older, gets evicted from his wild, magical home, and then explicitly rejects his surrogate mother. Not much leavening in there either, unless you count “The White Seal”, which, uh, at least has a happy ending except for all the seals who are brutally slain in front of their families.
3) According to Andrew Birkin, who adapted Barrie’s play Peter Pan for the French stage, Barrie’s working title for the play was Peter Pan, or, The Boy Who Hated Mothers. Again according to Birkin, Barrie suggested that the actress who plays Mrs. Darling should also play Captain Hook–which makes sense, as Mrs. Darling is the real-world antagonist. (At one point in the narration, Barrie snipes, “I had meant to say extraordinarily nice things about [Mrs. Darling]; but I despise her, and not one of them will I say now.”) Here’s just a handful of ways motherhood is treated very oddly in Peter and Wendy: mothers rummage through their children’s dreams, the best mother is a dog, a young girl is recruited to be a surrogate mother to a host of young boys (including her own brothers), and when that young girl grows up and has daughters of her own they are recruited in turn, interchangeably, with their duties summarized as “spring cleaning”. It may not be what we currently think of as an issue book, but it sure is a book with issues.
4) Peter and Wendy is bluntly racist as well as misogynist, and no amount of “redemptive beauty, cathartic humor and healing magic” can make up for that or balance it out.
Tatar, a scholar of no small accomplishment, must know all these things. (Well, maybe she didn’t know about The Graveyard Book‘s connection to The Jungle Book.) So why would the editor of The Annotated Peter Pan be so willing to overlook the book’s obvious faults, flaws, and grimness in order to hold it up as a model of…
…oh, I see. Perhaps I have answered my own question there.
(It’s possible that Tatar’s agenda does not include selling copies of her book, I suppose, but I think it does not look particularly good for either her or the Times that she has written, and they have published, the op-ed equivalent of “Well, in my novel…” the same week that said book hits the shelves.)
The rest of the essay falls apart under its own weight. Most tellingly, only two sentences after complaining about those overdoses of “adult reality”, Tatar quotes Suzanne Collins as having based the Hunger Games books in part on “[Collins's] anxieties as a child about the possibility that her father might die while fighting in Vietnam” (emphasis mine). She goes on to say that no one since Carroll and Barrie has “fully entered the imaginative worlds of children–where danger is balanced by enchantment”. If Tatar thinks that all children’s imaginations–and all children’s lives–have sufficient enchantment to balance the danger, I’d say that she is the one living in Wonderland.