Gay and Innocent and Heartless

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.

16 thoughts on “Gay and Innocent and Heartless

  1. Hope

    I think the biggest flaw in her argument is the assumption that The Hunger Games is in any way a current equivalent of Peter Pan. Look to Laurel Snyder or a similar writer for that. No one would seriously argue that the existence of Patricia Cornwall’s books mean that there just aren’t any Miss Marple-like stories anymore. Why would any one say that The Hunger Games, or any book, should stand for all the books written for children and young adults today?

    “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.”

    I see this as the same response as was offered to Gurdon’s stupid op-ed. Oh, but there are Real Kids Lives are Very Bad! That’s why we must write these things!

    Could we please not make this argument? Yes, some kids have terrible lives. Yes, books can change lives. But I think that argument leads to endless debate about whether this book or that book is “justified” in its content and I don’t think we should be in the business of justifying books. Writers get to write what they want. Readers get to choose what they read. Somebody should have told Megan Cox Gurdon to put that in her pipe and smoke it.

    Someone should reassure Maria Tatar that those children who want the safety zones she’s looking for can find plenty of them in books other than The Hunger Games.

    1. Rose Fox Post author

      Oh, I’m not talking about children having unhappy lives and unhappy thoughts as justification for anything. I’m just refuting the notion that all children’s minds and imaginative lives are the same.

  2. lauren simpson

    Why don’t you read more carefully? She does not condemn the new turn at all, she just says it’s different:

    “No one is about to slam the brakes on these new engines of storytelling, nor should they. There is much to say in favor of the move to obliterate the divide between books written for children and adult fiction. “There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction,” Mr. Pullman once declared. “They can only be dealt with adequately in a children’s book.”
    And she does not “complain” about the Graveyard Book at all; she just states how it opens. And Collins based her book not just on childhood memories but on channel-surfing adult tv. Lots more but I’ll stop now.

    1. Rose Fox Post author

      Tatar says below that she’s lamenting the shift. “Still, it is hard not to mourn the decline of the literary tradition invented by Carroll and Barrie…” and she refers to books of a different tradition as offering children “savagery”. It’s difficult to see that as laudatory.

  3. Maria Tatar

    I think you miss the point of my op-ed essay. I am writing about 2 different models, one used by Barrie and Carroll, the other used by writers today. Children’s literature has been described as “impossible,” in part because of the classic double bind of writing for children. You either pay too much attention to them and their needs or, as a former child, you are caught up in the adult world, either looking back to childhood trauma or using the child to save the world. I don’t condemn one mode or another, I am merely lamented the loss of one.
    I spent 5 years researching Barrie’s life and work. Why is it wrong for the NYT to publish an op ed piece on the 100th anniversary of the novel? And who are they supposed to ask on the occasion of the centennial of the story?

    1. Rose Fox Post author

      I know very little about the state of modern children’s literature, but I am fairly certain it is not monolithic, nor is it lacking in books that “pay too much attention to [children] and their needs”. I would also venture a guess that the needs of children have changed–and, separately, that adult perceptions of the needs of children have changed–in the past 100 years. (And I’m not sure why books that pay “too much” attention to a particular topic are so worthy of being lauded and lamented.)

      I don’t think it’s inherently inappropriate that a noted Peter Pan scholar wrote an op-ed for the Times on the book’s 100th anniversary. I do think this particular op-ed came off as an advertisement.

  4. Pingback: Won’t someone think of the children? « Twenty Palaces

  5. Paul Riddell

    In a way, I’m reminded of the only complaint I had about the film The Nightmare Before Christmas. At the ending, when Santa went through the world and replaced all of Jack Skellington’s presents with friendlier ones, all I could think was “And you didn’t have one kid, ONE KID, who cried until Santa gave back the wonderful horrible present he got from Jack?” The fact that Nightmare still sells remarkably well on DVD, and merchandising sales from Nightmare outstrips that of The Lion King, tells me that a lot of kids felt the way I did.

    The funny part? Much like the children in Saki’s “The Storyteller”, I was inundated with sickly sweet stories given to me so that I’d automatically want more. It didn’t quite work that way, as even at the age of six, I gravitated more toward Poe than Terhuene. After years and years of reading happily-ever-after stories, I craved one story where the bad guys won. This explains, of course, why I still bawl my eyes out at the end of Alien, when the only interesting or well-developed character besides the cat gets blown out the airlock.

    1. Rose Fox Post author

      Paul, I love that when I read your comments I don’t have to check the signature to see who wrote them.

    2. mm

      Now I’m curious. What’re the sales comparisons for Nightmare and Lion King? Although it might be hard to say what’s what for TLK right now because the Blu-Ray just came out last week and hasn’t had much time to sell yet.

      1. Paul Riddell

        Sorry, MM: I meant longterm, steady sales. I realize that with “The Lion King”, we’re comparing apples and oranges to depleted uranium sabots and chicken gizzards. It’s just that I note that “Nightmare” keeps selling consistently, no matter the format. The same is true of the soundtrack albums: in an age of incessant filesharing, it warms my heart to see some nascent gothling insisting upon buying a CD of the “Nightmare” soundtrack.

    3. E.

      Of course at least one child cried!


      “Vincent Malloy is seven years old.
      He’s always polite, and does what he’s told.
      For a boy his age, he’s considerate and nice
      But he wants to be just like Vincent Price.”

      (For my part, the first book I ever bought with my very own money off the Scholastic book sale table was a volume of Saki stories (“Humor! Horror! and the SUPERNATURAL!”), which I still own. I must have been seven or eight.)

      Bringing Peter and Wendy into a discussion of modern YA and children’s books demonstrates less than sincere interest in modern YA and children’s books. (For one thing, most modern kids are not going to read, or see, or be read, Peter and Wendy and I write that knowing that seventeen exemplary parents are going to pop up and contradict it. They will still be the exception.)

  6. Joris M

    What is interesting in this discussion is the cherrypicking of the examples. What makes Alice or Peter and Wendy good examples for nice ‘old-fashioned’ healthy books aimed at young people? Are they typical for the books published at the time, or is there a reason we still read those while so much else is forgotten. What were the actual best-sellers at the time? How do the penny-dreadfuls fit in, or Pinocchio?
    And then there is of course the selection bias in the modern writers. It is easy to pick some books that seem to be written from a different idea then the old examples, but are they aimed at the same public? How typical are they for current publications?

  7. Jack

    You know, whether a book is aimed at older readers or not, as the Hunger Games is, the fact is that it gets marketed as YA, an age group that runs from 12-18 (and often, kids will read above their age level; I started in on adult SF when I was 14). There are no stickers to say that a book has content that some might find offensive; there is no great book ratings society to rate a YA novel as PG or PG-13 or even R (and there are plenty of YA novels which contain content which would warrant R ratings in movie theaters), and yet while we will ban kids under a certain age from watching R-rated films without adult supervision, we’re fine with letting all this stuff fly in books.

    As a coda to that rant, I would also like to say that The Hunger Games or His Dark Materials are far from the most graphic series out there. Thirteen Reasons Why, while it is not SF and thus not something I would have expect anyone on this blog to have read, contains a whole lot of ugly material including sexual assault and suicide. These are issues that kids have to deal with today- I understand fully, and in fact I would recommend Thirteen to many parents in order to aid their comprehension of such bleak facts. But fercryin’outloud, an 11- or 12-year-old doesn’t need to be reading about that.

    Why don’t we just market Special Topic in Calamity Physics as YA as well, eh? Seriously, the only thing that seems to seperate large portions of YA from adult is the vocabulary the author uses.

  8. Hope

    Actually, I think Special Topics in Calamity Physics *is* YA. But if it had been marketed as such the YA reviewers would have been far more harsh with its cardboard character teenagers.

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