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Childhood stories draw hundreds to her course at Harvard

10-01_maria_tatar_1“Why do we tell stories?” asked Maria Tatar, Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures and chair of the Program in Folklore and Mythology at Harvard University. Professor Tatar was the 2010 Margaret Johnson lecturer.

As many revered writers have hypothesized in numerous ways over centuries, stories help us make sense of what goes on in the world. Professor Tatar’s research interests include children’s literature, and with students she explored the development of story telling from the 17th century through the 21st—the progression from oral stories around the hearth to the format familiar to us: an adult reading to children, or a child with a storybook. Children’s stories, fairy tales, are cultural expressions, global expressions, mythic expressions Dr. Tatar explained. They confront elemental questions such as mortality, violence and sexuality. They demonstrate an interplay of light and darkness, and can be comforting and consoling as well as fearsome and moralistic. The oldest tales are still being rewritten and reapplied; nostalgia for the spell of the story continues unabated.  Immersing themselves in this fiction, as is true for adult fiction, Professor Tatar asserts, children (and adults) do not escape reality, but rather confront it. They “escape” into an opportunity to consider what it means to be human.

The Margaret Johnson Lecture Series was endowed in 1981 by a group of graduates of the Milton Academy Girls’ School to honor Ms. Margaret Johnson on the occasion of her retirement, after she served Milton for 31 years as principal of the Milton Academy Girls’ School. The women who launched this lecture series wished to memorialize Ms. Johnson’s leadership and dedication to a life of service.

The Johnson Lecture series makes it possible for students to spend time in the presence of a woman who is distinguished for her professional achievement. Past recipients have included the Governor of Vermont, Madeleine Kunin; Cokie Roberts, correspondent for National Public Radio and ABC News; Katherine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post; Nien Cheng author of Life and Death in Shanghai; Pat Mitchell, president and CEO of PBS; and Liz Walker, award-winning journalist and documentary producer.