Follow This Blog: RSS feed
Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

“Where danger is balanced by enchantment”

If you haven’t yet, read Maria Tatar’s opinion in the New York Times, “No More Adventures in Wonderland.”  (And Monica Edinger’s discussion of it here.)   Tatar contrasts the “luminous promise of magic” in Peter Pan and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to the “unforgiving…savagery” in The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, and The Graveyard Book.  To her credit, she’s not denouncing the latter–just noting the shift, and her nostalgia.

However, I have to wonder if she really read The Graveyard Book, which I found to be much more in tone with the books-of-yore she misses, ones in which “danger is balanced by enchantment.”  She sums up Gaiman’s plot as: “It is up to the hero, Bod–short for Nobody–to find the killer.” I read a different Graveyard Book, in which Bod is delighted and sheltered by magic…the enhantments of his unusual home giving him the tools he’ll need to face the danger, when–because he grows older, like everyone except Peter Pan–the danger can no longer be ignored.

What does this have to do with discussion of this year’s Newbery contenders?  I just appreciate the chance to step back and see that what each of us most wants out of a book can change the perspective with which we read.  One book is a different book for each of us.   A possible mark of a Newbery winner might be that it can succeed for readers in multiple ways.

Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at


  1. My sense was she was contrasting two different sets of adult writers, those like Barrie and Carroll who were deeply, deeply immersed in creating imaginary worlds for the real children in their lives and then those who read their books versus those today who have deeper and arguably more complex objects going on. Rowling made an extraordinary fantasy world, but it didn’t come from a place of playing with children. The Graveyard Book is wonderful indeed, but it didn’t come from Gaiman playing in the graveyard with his children, helping them create a fantasy world to play in (though it did come from him watching his child on a trike in a graveyard). Rather, he was creating something outside of any intended audience as was Pullman for that matter. Maybe that is the difference — Carroll and Barrie were very interested in entertaining their child audiences in a way that adult writers don’t do as consciously today.

  2. I think it’s a stretch to say that today’s writers aren’t conscious of entertaining children. Both Rowling and Gaiman had children of their own, and I can’t imagine that their entertainments for their kids didn’t impact their stories somewhat. Granted, Rowling started HP before her child was born, but finished book one after she had become a mother, and then had two more children as she was writing the rest of the series. Also, I she said that she started writing stories as a child which she would then read to her younger sister. So the idea of story as a function of intended audience I think was in place.

    The more I know people who write for children while simultaneously raising children, the more I hear of the strange and wonderful ways in which our entertainments that we make up for our kids on the spot end up informing our daily work on the page – and vice versa.

    And I agree, Nina – I didn’t get the sense at all that Ms. Tatar had read THE GRAVEYARD BOOK at all. Bod is not charged with finding his family’s killer – rather, it is the web of enchantment that protects him, much like the delights of childhood protect us and teach us until we are ready to face the world on our own. Indeed, we look at GRAVEYARD’s source-text, and we see that same web of safety created around the child, keeping the Shere-Khans of the world at bay until he outgrows it.

    And while I think it’s true that a *lot* of the villans that we see in children’s literature lack the humor or the humanity or the ridiculousness that we see in a Captain Hook or a Long John Silver or a Red Queen, it’s certainly not absent. Philonecron in Anne Ursu’s Shadow Thieves was deliciously enthusiastic as he enacted his evil plots. And my own kids delighted in Mr. Curtain’s ill-timed narcolepsy in Mysterious Benedict Society.

    But that’s the problem with these articles about children’s literature that have been tiresomely proliferating – there’s lots of blanket statements, lots of misplaced nostalgia, lots of “writers don’t write books the way they used to.” The fact is, there’s examples and counter-examples for any argument, and in the end, one of the nice things about the literary cannon is that we are not limited by the current trends to define our reading habits. Books have a way of sticking around, you know?

  3. Jonathan Hunt says:

    This article is so irritating on so many levels it’s hard to know where to begin. I just don’t think she’s read enough children’s fantasy to have any business writing about current trends. :-(

  4. I found her saying that today’s children’s fantasy “lacked redemptive beauty” and then later on the same page stated one reason adults may be attracted to these books is the redemptive themes. Is she saying they both have redemption but one version is less beautiful? I for one do prefer children’s fantasy to adult fantasy for that very reason and I don’t find the older works do this any better than the newer ones. I do agree the villains are less absurd and carry more power than they once did but I personally prefer the more real depiction of these characters. Let’s face it, today’s kids are more savvy to the potential evils and that they do have real teeth. I think it’s great that authors are putting them in the stories and showing that they can be defeated.

  5. There should be an interesting at the end of that first sentence. This is why I shouldn’t type things on my iPod. :)

  6. Your comment is very even-handed, more even-handed than I think that article deserves. Tatar isn’t just commenting on a few children’s books–she’s using a very limited number of examples (Collins, Pullman, Gaiman, Rushdie–did I miss any?), all at the upper end of middle grade or firmly in YA, to generalize about children’s books today. Is she not aware of the many counter-examples, or did she choose to ignore them?

  7. I really thought it read like something she’d produced because it was “timely” and would get published, and allow her the byline, and a bit of publicity.

  8. Count Olaf comes to mind as a recently written absurd villain.

  9. Kelly, I have been told often and emphatically by contemporary writers that they do not think about their audience when writing their story, that they do not consider the age of the intended audience, that their focus in purely on the story itself. I recall this coming up more than once on child_lit and Philip Pullman among others saying this. Mind you, I respect this stance, but it seems very different to me than that of Carroll and Barrie who were highly, highly, highly invested in their stories being appreciated by their child audiences, specific children for whom the stories had been created. It being that Victorian “cult of the child” era when there was an imagined concept of the beautiful and angelic child, there was an appeal on the part of adults for such stories too. So the cross-over was of adults wanting to go back to an imagined perfect world of imaginary children’s play as presented by Carroll and Barrie. Today many note that they found Carroll and Barrie’s works dark as children, but I’d be careful about generalizing those feelings as they were not typical when the books were first published and there are many still alive who had different feelings. (er…eg. me:)

    I do think Tatar ran into trouble with her attempt to contrast the earlier time to today. I get her point — that adults in Barrie and Carroll’s time were trying to cross-back into a remembered fantasy childhood (even if wasn’t one they really experienced) whereas today adults crossing into the world if children’s and YA to be entertained differently. And that contemporary children’s and YA authors are working with broad themes in their work. I do think that is what all the authors she cited are doing and they aren’t coming from the sort of place Barrie and Carroll were coming. Of course many contemporary authors are involved with children as parents and otherwise, but Barrie and Carroll for better or worse were involved in their child friends fantasy worlds at a level and depth that I think is rare today, at least with older kids as I do suspect we are with very young ones still. And those older kids who were playing in fantasy worlds with Carroll and Barrie are now doing so online not in the woods the way I did either.

    I think Tatar is on to something here as to different circumstances at different times. I believe it is much about cultural practices and norms as it is about the books themselves, but some how that didn’t get across and the conversation has headed elsewhere.

  10. Nancy Werlin says:

    One thing I knew for sure reading Maria Tatar’s article: She hasn’t bothered to read Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus books.

  11. Jonathan Hunt says:

    The only thing I know for sure is that she’s read Barrie and Carroll, but beyond that, I really don’t know what she’s read. She’s got a nice introduction and a nice conclusion, but as soon as she starts discussing contemporary literature in the middle, the train runs off the tracks. As I mentioned, there are so many things to criticize, but I’ll return to the one Nina mentioned: THE GRAVEYARD BOOK is basically the sort of book that she is lamenting, a riff on Rudyard Kipling’s THE JUNGLE BOOK that was inspired (if not by someone else’s kid), then by his own. A google search yielded this NPR interview–

    Gaiman says the idea for the novel came to him 23 years ago, when he and his family were living in England. At the time, the only safe place for his 2-year-old son to ride his tricycle was in the local churchyard.

    “He would ride … his tricycle, up and down the paths and between the gravestones,” remembers Gaiman. “And I would sit there watching … this incredibly happy kid in a graveyard.”

    One day the author had a flash of inspiration: Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book told the story of an orphaned child adopted by wild animals; why not write a story about a child who is adopted by dead people?


  12. I would assume she read the opening pages of THE GRAVEYARD BOOK. But beyond that, you’re correct, she’s definitely missed something.

  13. Another example of an author who wrote for a specific child is Beatrix Potter. She had sold illustrations and verses for greeting cards previously, but wrote Peter Rabbit in a letter to entertain her friend’s child Noel when he was ill.

    Maria Tatar is highly regarded in her field, but I get the feeling she doesn’t recognize the possibility that she may have stepped out of her area of expertise. (She has mostly written about folk- and fairy tales for the college audience, but has an annotated centennial edition of Peter Pan out this month with Norton.)

  14. Monica – That is fascinating! I’ve had the opposite reports in my conversations. And certainly my own work – both for kids and for grownups – has often been founded in the stories and games with my kids and my students. If our paths ever cross, we must discuss this further.

    As far as the article goes, what bothers me the most is the assertion that since X is true, Y cannot be true, you know? That since the Hunger Games exists, there must not be joyful or kid-focused literature to be found anywhere. Also, since we have these two examples of writers who immersed themselves in the imaginative worlds of specific children (and, in the case of Carroll, distressingly so) that therefore all Books Of Yore were thus. Ummm, not so much. So not only does she grossly misread GRAVEYARD, but she ignores the books that we’ve all read, and the books that my own children have adored over and over, reading them to pieces.

    For example – I think both my daughters read TALE OF DESPEREAUX about a million times each, which was written originally to please a child (the son of DiCamillo’s good friend who wanted “a very small hero with very large ears), AND has a villain who is flawed, forgiven, ultimately lovable, and who just wants a bowl of soup.

    Also, a favorites with my children: Sisters Grimm, HP, Theodosia Goss, Mysterious Benedict Society, and lots and lots of Lemony Snickett and Dianna Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett and Shannon Hale and Anne Ursu and Pseudonymous Bosch and Eva Ibbotson. All of these deliver on “the luminous promise” so extant in Barrie’s and Carroll’s work. All remind us that there is a dark side to the wonders of the world, and that the sheen of childhood is painfully and beautifully brief.

    The point is that the type books that Tatar mourns for still exist. It’s just that there’s lots more to choose from. And that’s a good thing. And honestly? She should know better – and so should her editors!

  15. Jonathan Hunt says:

    It’s not just that she hasn’t read THE GRAVEYARD BOOK either, but she hasn’t read THE HUNGER GAMES trilogy. If she had, she’d never say something like this–

    But neither the Harry Potter books nor “His Dark Materials” has anything to equal the horrors of what Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark suffer in Suzanne Collins’s wildly successful trilogy, “The Hunger Games.”

    Now the premise for THE HUNGER GAMES *sounds* more gruesome than Harry Potter or His Dark Materials, but no horror in THE HUNGER GAMES even remotely approaches the terror of, say, being separated from one’s daemon. And Rowling treats death much more seriously than Collins.

    So now that she’s revealed to us that she did not read THE GRAVEYARD BOOK and THE HUNGER GAMES, I’m left wondering what else she didn’t read. Did she finish all of the Harry Potter books? Did she read His Dark Materials entirely? If my graduate library students handed this paper in, I’d give them an F, because they are required to read all the books they write about, and it’s so obviously clear that Tatar did not.

    Other problems that I have–

    1. Sweeping generalizations. (Too many to name, but I’ll give you one: Because Rowling’s dementors were inspired by her clinical depression, the entire series is inspired by adult anxieties. That’s a pretty big leap there!)

    2. The difference between inspiration and motivation, motivation being what drove you to write the book (your friend’s kid asked for a story, you need money, you have the need for self-expression), while inspiration strikes in various ways. Stephen King said writers never ask each other where they get there ideas because they know they don’t know. I don’t think every creative thing in either Barrie or Carroll was inspired by children.

    2. The lack of a distinction between children’s and YA that presently exists now, but not in Victorian times (if you don’t want to open that can of worms, then don’t trot out THE HUNGER GAMES, but rather stay with children’s novels only).

  16. Jonathan! I thought I was the only person who regularly handed out F’s for bad articles and shoddy journalism! Honestly, I do it all the time. Cheers!

    And really, this just goes to show that a teacher ALWAYS KNOWS when you haven’t done your reading and are just pretending that you have. Always, always, always. Journalists and culture critics and panty-twisters and pearls-clutchers of the world, beware! 😉

    And going back to what Laurel said earlier – this whole article smacks of byline-fishing. It’s an unserious article by an unserious thinker and a shoddy reader. And nuts to the NYT for publishing it.

  17. I think, at the heart of her piece, Tatar is saying that children are more desensitized today. That is true. Society is more “open” therefore the literature produced for children is considerably more “open” and “serious”. Even THE GRAVEYARD BOOK . . . sure Gaiman channeled THE JUNGLE BOOK as his inspiration, but the villain “Jack” is anything but Captain Hook. The stakes do feel more “serious” in THE GRAVEYARD BOOK than they do PETER PAN. But I think that’s more of a credit to society in general than it is to the author. And . . . there’s so much to love in THE GRAVEYARD BOOK and Tatar jumps to too many a conclusion. That’s not a good example for her argument as, in my opinion, it’s pretty obvious who Gaiman’s intended audience is. And, it’s children!

    Maybe what she’s trying to get at, but not doing a very good job with, is the idea of adults writing books for adults through the medium of a children’s book. Now there, I think an argument could be made. Books like A MONSTER CALLS come to mind . . .


  1. […] read some thoughtful responses to that piece from Monica Edinger, Nina Lindsay, and Betsy Bird, along with some insightful comments from their readers. I don’t think I have […]

Speak Your Mind