The Birdcage Archives

Tuesday 16 July 2019

Contemplating Children’s Literature

Hello Gentle Reader

It is often misrepresented that if you can talk you can write, as if the two activities—orating and documenting—are interchangeable. Sadly or thankfully, they are not. Talking, orating, chatting, conversing, or gossiping is natural and comes with great ease. It has no concern for punctuation, grammar, syntax structure, and the feel of words or the appearance of them. It is simply put, an ease of character in which information is disseminated within an oral and verbal manner. To talk is to be engaged and engaging. It is a performance and an act where two or more people are able to collaborate and converse on a variety of subjects with little to no thought or acknowledgement of logical organization of paragraphs, sentences, thesis, or concluding ideas. There is no need to reference sources, and opinions, perspectives, views, and others matters are liberally shared. Writing on the contrary is more, strenuous. It has demands. It has rules. It has governance. There are periods, comas, semicolons, colons, explanation marks, and question marks. Then there are sentence fragments, comma splices, dangling modifiers, subject-verb agreement errors, and so on and so forth. Writing demands these rules are followed; but it also demands an author uses their pen to trek out their own sense of style and create their own voice; often by disregarding the previously established rules. Where talking is engaging and often requires the assistance of another individual or more participants, writing is an introverted and isolative activity, one that is done singularly and alone. When it comes to writing, it is only the writer and the page, no one else.

Writing creatively is a difficult feat on its own. Readers are a varied group. Their tastes and pallets formed in a peculiar and particular fashion. In a similar fashion, readers are like wine connoisseurs—some prefer it dry, others prefer sweet; be it red or white. They can pick up the hints of nuts or berries, the type of grape; they can disclose its age and the wood used in fermentation. Similarly, they know the stories they enjoy. The prose they prefer—be it lush with dense impressionism, or minimal and scant, to the point with an acerbic decree. They perhaps enjoy the intimacy of romance, or the chill of murder. Others may prefer the academic and the scholarly, the enjoyment of learning something new on a subject they enjoy. Despite this, each one has the most immediate demand placed on the book and the writer: hold my attention. Ultimately it doesn’t matter how witty the prose, how lush the adjectives, how poetic the pageantry, how intimate the characters are drawn, or how striking the story or plot, the reader wants their attention to be held, to be engrossed, and to be absorbed within the material. Then certainly, the most difficult readership to obtain and retain would be: children.

Children’s Literature and the practicing writers of the field are often mistakenly snubbed or viewed as less then. Critics of the field and the authors mistakenly believe their work does not carry the seriousness or the gravity of the human experience, and is not preoccupied with the existential perilousness of life, and the following crisis’s associated with it. Their work is frivolous entertainment. It has neither depth nor weight. No message or preoccupation. All they encompass is the rejuvenating life of spring and the summer light bursting and sparkling abound. There is no foreshadow or warning to the autumnal dusks or the winter dirge, the night frostbitten and everlasting. This is a rather shallow perspective of children’s literature. Of course there are children’s authors, who right only about the good times or the comical or the frivolous. They work to entertain immediately, and they do. Despite this, there are children’s authors who move in more serious directions, subtlety working in their pages the darkness of the world and its existence even when it’s unacknowledged, due to naivety or being sheltered.

In today’s day and age of television, movies, internet, and video games; books, literature, and the act of reading is considered irrelevant or a dying act. Reading as an act, as an enjoyment, as a pleasurable activity, is often instilled at a young age. The benefits of enjoying reading at a young age are often widely stated and supported by empirical scientific and psychological developmental evidence. Despite this, children’s authors, the gatekeepers and the initiates, the first cornerstone of instilling a love for reading and the written world in the young, are still viewed as: lesser then. They are ghettoized by other authors. Fran Lebowitz, the famous social commentator, cultural critic, opinion riddled orator and lecturer, has famously stated the division between adult audience writers and children’s writers, in the publishing industry, as the two camps do not communicate or intermingle at all, and openly view each other with disgust. She famously experienced and saw this feud playout when she ventured into children’s writing with her sole children’s novel: “Mr. Chas and Lisa Sue Meet the Pandas.” It’s a whimsical novel where two children meet two intelligent, pizza eating giant pandas living in their apartment complex in New York City, who have a longing to move to Paris. After the publication of this book, Fran Leibowitz discussed how she had entered the no man’s land of the publishing world. She had vexingly betrayed her orientated side—the side of serious literature, social commentary, essays and criticism—and moved to the state of light and frivolity, a land of fairies and ceaseless whimsy; all the while this land of quaint and charming characters viewed her as an alien, a mere imposter and certainly not of their own pedigree, their toil and servitude to maintain the light in the world. This divide and its borders, is certainly retained to this day; a proverbial demilitarized zone of books, with neither side wishing to concede. Regardless, children’s literature is perhaps mistakenly overlooked and underappreciated. The authors working in the field fight the good fight. They seek to bring in children to the magic of literature, and instill in them an enjoyment of the written word. Show them they beauty in the language, and provide them with a moral compass external to their own immediate environment. Writing for children is then therefore a noble and powerful pursuit, and apparently an overlooked and a somewhat thankless job.

This literary snobbish perspective had even found its way to the Swedish Academy and their deliberations for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Back in the twentieth century, one of the most read, renowned, and critically acclaimed writers in the world was Swedish author: Astrid Lindgren, the author of such classical children’s books such as: “Pippi Longstocking,” “Ronia the Robbers Daughter,” and “The Brothers Lionheart.” Astrid Lindgren, was loved and admired around the world, but poignantly endeared in her homeland of Sweden. Despite this, Astrid Lindgren became a startling voice in Swedish social and political commentary. Her eye and her pen had proven themselves in their versatility; they could entertain and delight on one hand, while in the other they could quickly raise issue and concern with the injustice or the outrageous pilfering of politicians. Lindgren’s pen became a feared critic of public policy. When members of the Swedish Academy are asked about Astrid Lindgren and the elusive Nobel, they bashfully mutter and murmur, almost conceding that denying the author the award was perhaps a grave mistake on the Swedish Academy’s part. Whether or not Astrid Lindgren would have gotten the award or deserved the award for her children’s literature is not entirely clear. The Swedish Academy, slips into its most apologetic clothes when discussing the matter, while remaining evasive when posed with any questions regarding personal opinion of whether or not she should have received the award. Despite this, with or without the Nobel, Astrid Lindgren, had proven herself to being an endearing and powerful writer, one who had delighted children and parents, while also taking a keen interest in them. Her social and political activism and perspectives often made the world of a difference for the most vulnerable in society, especially children.

One man on the Swedish Academy could not be charmed or convinced of Astrid Lindgrens’ talents, and the quality of her work and its powerful idealistic stance in the form of literature. Artur Lundkvist, was a Swedish Academy member, who despised the notion of Lindgren receiving the award. It has been recorded and documented that Artur Lundkvist despised children and by extension children’s literature. He held the opinion that such works were not serious literature, and therefore were not deserving or worthy of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Along with fellow Swedish Academy member, Erik Lönnroth, Lundkvist was able to gather and campaign enough support within the Swedish Academy to ensure that Astrid Lindgren never received the Nobel Prize for Literature, which has left its more contemporary members to take an apologetic air to the matter. Even during the mid-twentieth century, the omission of Astrid Lindgren caused heated discussions and public debate. Similar discussions of equal intensity took place behind the closed gilded doors of the academy. Astird Lindgren did have her supporters within the academy, such as the late Lars Gyllensten and Knut Ahnlund, who believed her work shared a purity of vision and ideals to represent the unyielding kindness and resilience of the human spirit.

Other children’s authors, such as the Finnish-Swedish speaking writer, Tove Jansson, have also found themselves cast aside do their preoccupations in writing for children. Yet, Tove Janssons’ “Moomin,” series were noted for dealing with very adult preoccupations and themes, such as war, catastrophe, depression, loneliness among a host of other topics wrapped up in allegories. Her later work targeted towards adults, carried the same fairytale lightness of her children’s novels and work, but instead fixated and focused on the darkness of the human hearts and existence. As for her famous creation, the Moomins, Tove Jansson found them tiresome and overbearing in her later career and life. The public’s demand for more stories and tales of the hippopotamus trolls often caused the author to view them as needless distraction from her artistic vocations. Jansson had once remarked that her relationship to the Moomins, had become a tiresome marriage. Her later fiction targeted for more mature audiences, was also well received, but one can’t help but wonder if Janssons’ early success in children’s literature had overshadowed her later years, and denied her of greater recognition. Once again, the question of literary prejudices is at work.

Despite no exclusive children’s writer winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, writers and authors of children’s literature do have their own variations of the prize, specifically, the Hans Christian Andersen Award, the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, and the NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature. The latter of the three are relatively new, being formally created during the last decade. Despite their green roots, their reputations and devotion to the field of children and youth literature is astounding and appreciated. This being said, the biennial Hans Christian Andersen Award, is still by all accounts the most prestigious of the three. It is often referred to as the “Nobel Prize for Children’s Literature.” Not surprisingly, both Astrid Lindgren, and Tove Jansson received the award.

The Hans Christian Andersen Award, was first created in nineteen fifty-six, and was awarded solely to author whose work was primarily devoted to children. Ten years later, the illustrative branch was added to the award, whereby illustrators were now included and eligible to receive the award alongside writers. The goal of the award is to promote reading in children, but also expand their imagination, while promoting such simple concepts of peace and solidarity. On such notes, it once again it appears that literature—despite its form—seeks to promote and affirm the simple humanistic ideals, the same ones in which people aspire to attain. Yet always miss the mark.

Previous winners of the Hans Christian Andersen Award include:

 Japanese author Eiko Kadono (2018)
 Swedish author Maria Gripe (1974)
 Brazilian author Lygia Bojunga Nunes (1982)
 Irish author Martin Waddell (2004)
 Chinese author Cao Wenxuan (2016)
 Dutch author Annie M.G. Schmidt (1988)
 United Kingdom author and inaugural winner Eleanor Farjeon (1956)

The above list showcases the international spirit of the award, especially when reviewing other large name children’s literature prizes, such as the aforementioned: Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award which takes a somewhat Eurocentric vision and has a broader appeal to award institutions and not just authors; while the NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature has a minimal if not dismal approach to any notion of international appeal.

A couple of the authors listed above were listed due to their unique literary qualities, when it comes to children’s literature. Others were listed due to their notoriety, renowned, and recognition as childhood favorites and classics.

Last year’s winner, Eiko Kadono, was the author that immediately caught my eye, and is perhaps the sole inspirational reason this column is taking place. The author grew up in Japan during the Second World, and was sent to the north of the country away from her childhood home of Tokyo, which was constantly under threat from bombing blitzes. Her works for children (young and old) compromise of imaginative and powerful stories befit with characters that are riddled with hopes and dreams, but are doubted by their faults. Her work is noted for tracing the strange reality as children begin to cross the barrier into adolescence, where they overcome fears, foibles, and their own doubts. Her characters are noted for being complex, eccentric, unorthodox children and individuals, where these traits assist them to find the courage to overcome the obstacles, the trials, and the tribulations of their lives and continue moving forward. All of this is said to have come from the circumstances of Eiko Kadonos childhood. As previously mentioned she was evacuated from Tokyo during World War II due to bombings. Her mother died when she was a small child, and her farther often soothed her with stories, poems and other word games as a child. Books, in these troubling and difficult early years; removed from her beloved farther, familiar landscapes, and her whole world; became her only comfort. Years later, after an early adulthood spent living in Brazil and having children, Eiko Kadono was encouraged to write. Her first book was about a young boy in Brazil, based off her own experiences in Brazil and the young boy who had taught her Portuguese, and the power and rhythm of language. From there, her writing career expanded to express the unique world of children. A world riddled with complexities, unorthodox perspectives and solutions, and riddled with uncertainty, but also abundant with hope and determination. The language of Eiko Kadono is noted for its unique language, which is riddled with rhythm, rhyme, and musical qualities to engage and delight her young readers. Her work is noted for its empowering nature and promotion of young adults seeking greater autonomy and independence as they overcome difficulties and challenges as they come of age. Eiko Kadonos novels are regarded and renowned for being engaging, enjoyable, and life affirming for young readers. These are the hallmarks of a great writer for children.

Another unique writer and recent winner of the prize is the Chinese author, Cao Wenxuan. The work of Cao Wenxuan is noted for detailing, describing, and presenting a challenging world, which children are not immune from. His work is based off his own rural and at times difficult childhood in China, during the Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward, engineered by Mao Zedong. These often difficult and complex external situations—be it: political, cultural, social, or economical—have lasting impact on the impressionable formative years of children. Cao Wenxuan delicately approaches the subjects with grace and compassion as he outlines the difficulties of life for younger readers, in order for them comprehend and understand the situations, however different or difficult they are from their own. Wenxuan’s work is blunt in the fact that it openly discloses, and discusses the often difficult and challenging situations children are faced with. His characters are noted for being courageous and resilient as they overcome the obstacles they are faced with. Circumstances though, can be tragic, to which, the children are once again forced to overcome and persevere through. With a combination of lush prose, strong characters, powerful personalities, a gentle disclosure and most importantly: hope, Cao Wenxuan is able to discuss the human condition in full and frankly, with his childhood readers. His work is not patronizing, or providing sheltered naivety. It is engrossingly enjoyable and honest, seeking to expand their understanding of the world and life, including the otherwise difficult and tragic, and therefore provide them the ability to move forward and preserve through the unexpected challenges that they will certainly face in life.

Children’s literature then is a medium and media form, where children first begin to understand the greater world beyond their immediate reach or understanding. It helps them empathize and understand the world through the experiences of otherwise fictional characters, while being entertaining, enjoyable, and holding the attention of the readers. Children though as a target audience for any writer would still be the most difficult to retain and maintain their attention. Reading still regarded as a boring activity. It can’t quite compare to playing with friends, or the television, or video games which equally vie for their attention. Yet those that do find themselves wrapped in the pages of a book a world awaits them that is all their own, who could imagine anything quite as personal, private, and enjoyable as that?

Children’s literature is still an act in which one is destined to outgrow. It’s an expectation, where an individual is to move on to more serious novels or short stories, and other aspects of literature, which detail, and contemplate the human condition away from the fantasia and fairytale sunlit grove, which first oriented them to the world of books. Despite this, writers and authors of children’s books have clarity of vision and deftness of spirit to look at the world and provide at times sobering thoughts and observations. They know the importance of being eloquent and precise, while having sober opinions of the world, especially an intuitive understanding towards the otherwise overlooked and vulnerable, such as children. In this example one doesn’t need to look far to see the revolutionary changes a children’s author can orchestrate. Take for example, Astrid Lindgren, her popularity as an author, allowed her in her later years to provide commentary and thought on matters, which would ultimately change social conventions, such as corporal punishment. Her acceptance speech in nineteen-seventy eight (1978) as the winner of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, provided her the platform and stage, to ensure children were free from corporal punishment and abuse by law. Not surprisingly, Sweden was the first to enact the legislative feat, and other countries quickly debated the merits. The story gains further poignancy, when two young orphans living in foster care in Germany, ran away from their abusive foster home and ended up on Astrid Lindgren’s doorstep. She ultimately assisted them in returning home, with conditions that they were treated with dignity and respect. Ideals she longed for all children, animals, and other vulnerable sectors and members of society, who are often at the mercy of more powerful individuals. The New Zealand author and Hans Christian Andersen nominee, Joy Cowley, makes this point explicitly clear, when she states: “Books must always make small the winner.” In this, Joy Cowley states that children often feel powerless to the world around them, their environment, their own life, and the adults who oversee them. Books then should be the safe haven for children to experience a world where they are no longer powerless and in the end become the winner.

Despite it all, children’s literature is still reviewed and viewed with a bit of snobbery, by readers and critics alike. This would include me. Still, the act of writing for children is a noble pursuit. These authors hold a special place in the hearts of children, as they will be the ones who orient them to the world of books and literature. The best books for children should never conceal the world, with all its bruises and pains. These books can instill a strong idealistic stance on young readers, to provide them another perspective on the world, instill in them a strong sense of justice and moral compass. On these grounds it should come to no surprise why some children’s books and authors are the most quick to being banned, or censored, or prohibited from being shelved and included in school libraries. When we speak of injustice by the perspective of a child, it will most likely be more concrete then the abstract forms adults will understand. Injustice can be attributed to adults, who behave with indignity and arrogance, who openly exploit or harm other individuals. This is where individuals such as Pippi Longstocking, who opposed the intolerance and cruelty of others. Perhaps this is why Roald Dahl is often censored and or banned from schools. His work often showcases two worlds: the one of disdainful and careless adults, and often clever as well as rebellious children, who pull elaborate pranks against the adults, who ignore, neglect, and treat them with disdain. Such literary works would most certainly see the world of children revolting against the adults, and though children become adolescents who fight for greater agency, it is the natural course of life.

Though I can’t see an exclusive children’s writer winning the Nobel Prize for Literature now, or in the near future, their work is still admirable on its own. They have a strength in vision, clarity in words, and a special entertaining subject, which delights and entertains children, who would most certainly be the most difficult audience, and fiercest of critics. These authors, become guiding and idealistic pillars of strength and guidance, for children as they begin the slow and pain stacking process of coming into their own in a world that is far from kind, humanistic, or generous. Yet, it is the authors like the late Judith Kerr, who see hope in the faces of children, who believe they are slowly beginning to make for a kinder world, a nicer world, a better world then the one they have inherited. It is perhaps with hope that it is and was the children’s books that they read, which led them to maintain such strong ideals, virtues and values.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read

M. Mary

No comments:

Post a Comment