May 31, 2010

A.S. Byatt on Children's Books

My bookclub is reading Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass right now, which is super fun.  And Spoon discovered this great article by A. S. Byatt on this masterpiece of the imagination: 
A child reader's imagination inhabits the world of a book in many different ways, depending on the book. She walks deep into imaginary forests; she saves desperate beasts; she flirts with brave boys. The Harvard academic Maria Tatar has observed wisely that children do not usually "identify" with fictional children – they stand a little apart inside the fictional world and intensely observe the people and the action. But Wonderland and the world through the Looking Glass were, I always knew, different from other imagined worlds. Nothing could be changed, although things in the story were always changing. There was, so to speak, nothing going on in the hinterland of the clearing with the Mad Hatter's tea party, or beyond the Red Queen's garden gate. Carroll moves his readers as he moves chess pieces and playing cards. This is not to say that the reader's experience of the world is not vivid, enthralling and ­entirely memorable. It is just different.
If you care about children's literature, you should also read her fascinating review of the new Enchanted Hunters: the Power of Stories in Childhood (which has been sitting at the top of my amazon shopping list for some months now). 

And, there's her look at J.M. Barrie.  The article was published when Johnny Depp played him in the film Finding Neverland.  (That film inspired me to write my thesis on Peter Pan and the moral imagination.)  She addresses the fascination with the pagan in the male writers of the Golden Age of Children's literature, as well as questions of innocence and the fairy worlds:
Beyond adventure, there was a fashion for what was called the "pagan", which included a kind of earth-mysticism about the great god Pan. Grahame published Pagan Papers in 1893, The Golden Age in 1895 and The Wind in the Willows, in which Pan makes a mysterious appearance, in 1908. Related to this Pan is Kipling's earth-spirit, Puck of Pook's Hill, who takes Dan and Una on various adventures...
...Depp, whose charm is very different from what must have been that of the Greedy Dwarf (another Barrie game-hero), makes the playwright into a handsome, boyish dreamer. But he does suggest a certain incomprehension of adult emotions, a certain incompleteness. The failure of Barrie's marriage, to the actress Mary Ansell, is not explained - it was widely believed that the marriage, like Ruskin's, was never consummated. The real Barrie fell romantically in love with actresses - the stage being an archetype of Neverland, as Hollywood is, in which people are surreal, not real.
I find much to disagree with in the article, but I also find it completely fascinating and compelling, so I encourage you to read it all here.  (She has a wonderful few paragraphs on the question of peadophilia too, which I really appreciated, since the sentimentality of Barrie is often misunderstood in our stoic and paranoid age.)
Byatt's most recent novel, The Children's Book, will be my airplane/vacation reading this week.  It's heavy stuff.  Literally.


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