Book Review: Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood by Jane Yolen

Title: Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Foklore in the Literature of Childhood
Author: Jane Yolen
Genre: Essays
Publisher: August House
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Source: Print copy from my personal library

I had the delightful experience of reading Touch Magic along with Vasilly and Kelly. Below you will find part three of our discussion. Visit Kelly’s blog for part one, and Vasilly’s blog for part two.

Carrie: It did make me want to read a lot of the books and stories she mentioned – especially the myths. I just purchased D’Aulaire’s Norse Myths and D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths to use with my kids in our new homeschooling year. I also want to get a collection of fairy tales so they can hear the originals that all of their favorite Disney movies are based on.

The other main thing I took away from this book is that I will no longer feel like reading fantasy is a “guilty pleasure.” I don’t know why I let other people’s opinions bother me so much, but I will argue forcefully now that reading fantasy (and science fiction) is just as legitimate as reading any other genre. I’m really glad that there is so much brilliant fantasy and science fiction being written these days for the middle grade and YA audience – since those are the ages of my children. I read aloud to them as part of our homeschooling day, and have always felt a bit uneasy that the majority of our read alouds are fantasy. Not any more.

Kelly: I am someone that really enjoys fantasy novels, so I enjoy reading more about the genre as a whole. I think it is sad that people think of it as a ‘guilty pleasure’ because it is such a wonderful genre. I am happy that it made you change your mind on the genre, Carrie! I think it should get a lot more credit than it does. I think that is why I enjoyed this book, though, because it celebrated the genre that I love so much. I think it is just as important to have an imagination as an adult than as a child, but yet people seem to forget about that. I think there should be no age on believing in the slightly unbelievable and experiencing a whole new world. And, I do appreciate how fantasy deals with real life issues. I just recently read a short story collection by Charles de Lint that very fittingly dealt with all sorts of serious issues and with a fantasy background. It made for great reading as a result!

I always want to add more books to my wish list when I read good books. I guess that’s the sign of excellent writing!

Yolen is an amazing wordsmith – here are my favorite passages:

From the essay “The Eye and the Ear:”

Of course the story in the mouth is different from the one on the page. The tale apprehended by the ear is different from the one taken in by the eye….

In bookmaking, one must try to please the ear as well as the eye, but it is often a compromise. There is a subtle plan of text and type, illustrations and design, that can change a story just as surely as a new telling. In science, when one puts a specimen on a slide, there is a change in the specimen. So, too, putting a tale onto a page and dressing it up with full-color illustrations provokes a transformation….

The eye and the ear are different listeners. Each storyteller has the ability to select: to select those characters who are just right, to select those details that set the stage, to select the glass mountain that must be climbed, the thorny bush that must be passed or the ring or sword or crown to be won. The storyteller is an artist, and selection is essential to art. There are thousands upon thousands of characters, thousands upon thousands of details, thousands upon thousands of motifs. To know which one to choose requires a kind of magical touch, and that is what characterizes the great storytellers….

But the eye and the ear are different listeners, are different audiences. And the literary storyteller is one who must try to bring eye and ear into synchronization. But it is a subtle art. Just as the art of typography has been called “the art invisible,” subliminal in the sense that it changes or manipulates a reader’s perceptions without advertising its own presence, so, too, the art of storytelling in the printed book must persuade and captivate. It must hold the reader as the spoken tale holds the listener, turning the body to stone but not the mind or the heart.

From the essay “Touch Magic:”

The tales of Elfland do not stand or fall on their actuality but on their truthfulness, their speaking to the human condition, the longings we all have for the Faerie Other. Those are the tales that touch our longing for the better, brighter world; our shared myths, our shaped dreams. The fears and longings within each of us that helped us create Heaven and Elysium, Valhalla and Tir nan og.

This is the stuff that dreams are made of. Not the smaller dreams that you and I have each night, rehearsals of things to come, anticipation or dread turned into murky symbols, pastiches of traumas just passed. These are the larger dreams of humankind, a patchwork of all the smaller dreams stitched together by time.

From the essay “The Mask on the Lapel:”

A child who can love the oddities of a fantasy book cannot possibly be xenophobic as an adult. What is a different color, a different culture, a different tongue for a child who has already mastered Elvish, respected Puddleglums, or fallen under the spell of dark-skinned Ged, the greatest wizard Earthsea has ever known?…

The fantasy novel presents a world of poetry, of dream-making and sometimes of dream-breaking….

The fantasy novel speaks many times to the listener. Once in the ear, and again and again and again in the echo chamber that is the heart.

From the essay “Tough Magic:”

Unless in a story an unlikely hero or heroine dares to take the last chance, the hard path unknowing, stoops to bear the burden of a magic too hard to bear, saying as Frodo does, “I will take [it] though I do not know the way,” then the story loses its power to move us….

The fantasy book pushes the reader on to a confrontation with life’s greatest mysteries, the great unknowns that frighten us all.

From the essay “Story in Ten Fits:”

While books meant for the adult market have gone through years of experimentation with things like minimalism and post-modernism and stream-of-consciousness and even stream-of-unconsciousness; with flash-forwards and flash-backwards and flashes in the pan; with multiple viewpoints and singular viewpoints and no viewpoints at all; children’s books still rely on that old standby – story.

From the essay “An Experiential Act:”

What Hannah learns, what the child reader learns, is that history is full of heroes. We are all heroes here. Maybe not like King Arthur. Or Robin Hood. Or Joshua at Jericho. Or Rambo. We are small heroes. That is, after all, what history is really about – the small heroes. The ones who go across the mountains on faith and despite fear. The ones who get into a boat, believing the world is flat. The ones who gave their lives in the camps that others might live, and the ones who died in the camps just wanting to live another day.

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8 Responses to Book Review: Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood by Jane Yolen

  1. Aarti says:

    I think yours is the only one whose is up right now! I’m so glad you three read this book as it sounds absolutely fascinating. I think Vasilly and I were looking at a Native American essay similar to this one to read, about spoken word stories.
    .-= Aarti´s last blog ..Review: The Sparrow =-.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies

      Aarti – yes, I think there was a mix-up about the post date, but I don’t want to un-publish it now. 🙂 Yolen has a great essay in this collection about the way we experience spoken stories as opposed to written stories.

  2. Kathleen says:

    What a wonderful post. Thank you for sharing all of the excerpts with us. I love the one that says a child who reads fantasy will not grow up to be xenophobic. That alone is a reason to read fantasy and make sure our children do the same!
    .-= Kathleen´s last blog ..WINNER of Storm Prey and Shadow Prey =-.

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