Magda Majewska: What is a good book for kids?
Anna Czernow: The answer to this question will be different for an educator, a literature scholar, a parent or the child itself. For me, a good children’s book is one which is artistic and which is a good piece of writing children truly enjoy.
The artistic value of a book is the most important factor for me and I judge it on the basis of my previous literary experiences. When I am reading the newest books, I’m comparing them to the masterpieces of children’s literature. It might appear unfair, because it is hard to compete with The Moomins or Astrid Lindgren’s books, but one has to compare the new texts to something and those books are simply superb. Moreover, they still appeal to readers, regardless of the passage of time. Besides, I demand that a good children’s book move me, amuse me, stimulate me intellectually and charm me artistically. As an individual, I am not able to get into a reader’s shoes, which is a common practice among the adult readers of children’s literature. They try to figure out if an average twelve-year old — as if something like that existed — would like the book. I never try to do that — because I am not a twelve-year old.
Does this definition of a good book embrace patterns of behaviour or include specific messages?
I do not agree with the theory that children’s literature should include overtly presented educational content. I think that every good children’s book, regardless of the topic, includes ethical benchmarks.
When Pippi Langstrumpf appeared on the Swedish book market, it started a gigantic debate, and was attacked by educators who complained that it created an anti-hero — a girl who does not respect elders, rebukes them, behaves in a way in which no child, according to their standards, should behave, who is an ugly and disgusting creature, who is a voracious eater, etc. The book was immediately accused of introducing children to the wrong behaviour patterns and encouraging them to imitate Pippi and act insolently. However, if we read Lindgren’s book carefully, we notice that she undermines the model of an obedient, child which is a creation of adults, but every action of the main protagonist is aimed at protecting weaker individuals. Usually those weakest individuals are children, but when children beat children, she protects the weaker ones; when an adult beats a horse, she protects the horse, etc. Is it morally reprehensible behaviour to protect the weakest when somebody has the possibility to do so (and Pippi does)? Obviously not. So is it really important that she also picks her nose and gobbles gigantic amounts of food?
I have the impression that asking about values in children’s literature often stops at a superficial level: how does the protagonist act and if he/she will encourage a young reader to do things and behave in a way which we, adults, consider unnecessary or even wrong. I think that a deeper ethical message in most of the children’s books, as well as — I am going to risk that thesis — in most of the literary works in general, is beneficial for the reader. Even if the protagonist is ill-mannered or acts in a way we do not approve of.
It is often believed that a child is such an inexperienced addressee that they need direct commands: “Children should not do this and that”. Otherwise, the child will emulate protagonists who eat too much, pass gas or pick their noses.
I associated Pippi with a book Nice (Snill) written by Gro Dahle and Svein Nyhus. It tells the story of a girl who disappears and has to summon up her courage and scream to dig herself out of a wall which has swallowed her. The book really appealed to me but when I gave it to my friend who has a daughter, she thought that Nice tells the reading child that it is bad to be calm.
This is a great example of what I was talking about. What we see here is this superficial message which could be read as: “Child, do not be obedient, do not be calm, because it is going to end badly”. And there is this real message which tells us: “Fight for your identity! Be!” This nice girl from the book was not herself, she simply impersonated the adults’ expectations. And the adults’ expectations towards the child are peculiar. The protagonist is an ideal impersonator but she cannot find herself in this image — this is what the story tells us. That is why the girl disappears. She is so perfect, she fits into the adult’s world so well that she is incapable of marking her own existence, she never does anything what would be contrary to expectations. Not until she performs the brutal act towards this reality, that is screaming, is she able to come into existence.
An example of a similar message can be found in a Polish book titled Little Red Riding Hood written by Joanna Olech and Grażka Lange of the Niebaśnie (Non-Fairy Tales) series. It retells a well-known story of a very docile girl who always does what her mom tells her. Mommy tells Little Red Riding Hood to keep her path so when she meets a wolf she does not stray from the path, even though she has doubts and as a result she ends up devoured. Although she has some dilemmas such as: “I probably should not talk to him, I do not like this wolf”, she was always taught to be polite towards adults so she kindly speaks to the wolf and submissively tells him where grandma lives. The only thing left of her is the red hood which she did not really like but wore it so as not to distress the adults. Message of this anti-fairy tale is as follows: “Do not be too obedient, or you will end up in the wolf’s snout”. It was interesting how contradictory the parents’ orders and prohibitions were shown to be and how they created an absurd pattern of behaviour, deactivating the self-preservation instinct in this particular girl.
Those books undermine the category of obedience pretty bluntly.
This is a modern perception of obedience, seen as an artificial construct of the adults’ world, which is very limiting. A child is probably the most limited creature in our culture, as it has no chance for gaining its own language. While other groups, which used to be excluded or treated as culturally inferior, are emancipating and gaining their voice, in the case of children this is rather impossible. After all, even the so-called children’s literature is written by adults.
Anyway, I would encourage your friend to read Nice. This book also shows that it pays off to independently release yourself from the wall. For me, this is a metaphor of a child discovering themselves, understanding that they are actually someone. There is this excellent book, pretty old, End And Beginning of the World…
…My beloved book…
Mine too, I come back to it all the time. There is this scene, in which a little girl, a four-year-old, I think, looks at her hand and has this revelation: “This is my hand, that’s me”. Nice is just a different way of telling the same story. Also in The Moomins there is a story of a child who became invisible because of the influence of a cold, ironic aunt and it regains its face — its identity — when it bites into Daddy Moomin’s tail. This too happens during an act of aggression, a brutal act against reality. In a way the authors agree that this act of breaking loose has to be brutal.
Should children’s books broach so-called difficult topics?
There is this strong belief in our society that children have to be protected so they should be given only “nice” books, preferably with cute pictures, containing stories about nothing, in which a child goes out with its mummy and later comes back.
Of course they are also needed, after all we, the adults, read various things as well, so if the child likes such literature, then why not. However, the books which deal with difficult topics and are an intellectual or even emotional challenge are those which develop the child.
The Norwegian authors of Nice, Gro Dahle i Svein Nyhus, specialize in controversial books which are accepted in the Scandinavian market but not necessarily in the Polish one. They created, for example, Mom’s Hair (Håret Til Mamma), a story, which I had read before I discovered the discussion concerning it. If I had read the commentaries before I read the book, I would have thought that this is a very ideological, very harsh book which would most definitely traumatise a child. Yet, the book is unusually subtle and discusses a lot of important topics, e.g. it disturbs the image of an ideal family, which is an integral part of the cultural construct of childhood and therefore has to be perfect in a normative sense: there is a mom, a dad, dad goes to work, mom cooks delicious dinners, the kid is super happy. And very often the situation looks extremely different. In Mom’s Hair there is only mom and one day she does not get up from bed. She sits with her face hidden in her hands and nobody knows what is going on. And the metaphor of the still growing hair, covering the entire life of mother and daughter, perfectly pictures the little girl’s feeling of being lost in this situation.
Then, the book Angry Man (Sinna Mann), written by the same authors, tells a story of a father who uses violence. The visual aspect is very meaningful there: the father is gigantic, mom is little and shrunken and the kid is looming somewhere in the background. Everything around is grey, the flower has withered — it is visible, how the protagonist’s aggressive aura influences and muffles everything around him. In my opinion, this is a very necessary book, because even if a child is brought up in a family devoid of any violence, the world, unfortunately, can also look like this and it should not be hidden from the child.
While reading the book Igor and Dolls (Kenta och barbisarna) by Pija Lindenbaum I caught myself waiting for everything to be explained: Igor wants to play with dolls but he is ashamed of it, so we will receive a message: “Look, nobody needs to feel ashamed, a boy can play with dolls”.
This is not only an expectation of an adult, this is an expectation of an adult with particular views. According to your views a boy can play with dolls. Even more: I would like boys to play with dolls. Pija Lindenbaum and other authors of this kind take a step backwards in their books. This is great, because the question is: Is it really acceptable that a boy plays with dolls? Well, it hasn’t happened yet, such behaviour is still considered bizarre. However, it often happens that a boy wants to play with dolls. In a way, this book introduces the boy into the dolls’ world, but does not tell him: “Yes, very well, play with dolls,” because that would be a lie. Very often ideologically committed children’s books construct a world which does not exist, an ideal world. In my opinion, it should not be done this way.
There is also William’s Doll by Charlotte Zolotow. Here, a boy really wants to get a doll and his father does not want to buy him one. Finally, his grandma does it and explains his dad that she would like William to equally care for his future child as he cares for the doll. This book shows us a broken world, a world which expects from a child, and generally from a man, particular behaviours located within the norm. The aforementioned stories somehow violate the norm, but they do not do this in a cheerful, propagandist way. Instead, they present the problem. They do not tell the reader: “Yes, you can play with dolls, you are allowed to”, but: “You want to play with dolls and the world, including your family, does not accept it. And what now?” I think that this attitude is much more fair towards the child.
How do you assess Linda de Haan and Stern Nijlandal’s book King and King in this context? In this book two princes fall in love with each other and end up married and everything is obvious and trouble-free.
I do not find it artistically exquisite. This book is seriously involved in a social debate and it uses the fairy-tale convention to do this. I think that such books should appear more often. This one is especially valuable because it was one of the first of its kind. It was noticed mainly because of violating the norm. In this case the fairy tale structure carries a particularly important message because this genre is commonly known and strongly embedded in the cultural norm: a prince rescues a princess and they live happily ever after. Using this structure in a polemic way gives the authors a really strong effect: what we have here, instead of a prince and a princess, is a prince and a prince and it immediately induces people to discuss the topic.
The fate of books addressing such subjects that are rarely present in our culture, is interesting. For example And Tango Makes Three, a book which tells the story of two adult male penguins beginning to take care of a little orphaned penguin, which is absolutely non-shocking and describing a real story, found no acceptance because it discussed a non-normative plot.
Is it possible to assess which books are more welcomed by children and more effective: books which are overtly educational, didactic or those also committed but in a less obvious way?
This division does not exhaust the topic. There are educational books, such as this one devoted to poverty, published by the Political Critique. Their aim is to educate readers on particular topics and encourage them to form opinions. Books containing a thesis are another kind. Here, the author decides: “I am going to write a book about intolerance” and dress the topic up in plot and protagonists. Finally, there are books which are born from an artistic need, without any additional purpose, written for “nobody”, like Tove Janson’s books about Moomins. Writers often say that they write for the child that they used to be, as was claimed, by Astrid Lindgren. The fact that those books have no particular educational or didactic aim, or even a precise addressee, does not mean that they do not contain an ethical message.
Educational books usually belong to the non-fiction category. Semi-fictional events are only a pretext, whereas the information is the main input. The way of presenting this information depends on the author’s idea, on his or her talent. For example Anna Laszuk, while writing about homophobia, found a great way of introducing the topic. A dialogue between teenagers is a much better idea than that of Magdalena Środa, presented in her book that discusses the topic of tolerance, i.e., a dialogue between mother and daughter in which mom is explaining the world to her child in an ex cathedra way. On the other hand, Anna Czerwińska-Rydel, the author of many biographies addressed to children, e.g. Hevelius’, Fahrenheit’s and Korczak’s, struggles with the form of biography; tries to present the topic in an interesting way, as well as to hand over some amount of knowledge to the readers.
[quote align=’right’]Children often do not know that they can read for pleasure. From a non-reading kindergarten they go to school, where they are immediately confronted with the essence of coercion, i.e., obligatory readings.[/quote]The second type of books mentioned, i.e., books equipped with a thesis, can also be better or worse, depending on the author’s talent, however, very often the thesis, established beforehand, works in a limiting way. When I read a book addressed to teenagers and I see a protagonist who is an overweight girl with glasses, unaccepted and bullied by peers, everything is clear and I am not sure if this book is worth further reading. Very often plots cannot bear the theses. Thus, I believe in artistic books without any thesis, where a combination of paradidactic and aesthetic elements is rather a universal interpretation of the world, not an intended educational bonus.
A lot has been said about the awarded, visually stunning books. But those still are a minority in the Polish book market, aren’t they?
Once my postgraduate students prepared a presentation devoted to the marvelous children’s books published recently, and one of the ladies checked on the Internet, on auctions and in the kindergartens, which books are the best-selling ones. The difference between the visually and literary stunning books and the other books, usually available in supermarkets, is enormous. On the one hand, a lot of beautifully illustrated books are published in Poland. On the other hand, there is a great deal of publications which are not even registered by specialists, because they are published by anonymous companies producing mainly notebooks and, by the way, series of cheap books for children which are created by using texts from the public domain and illustrations prepared by relatives or acquaintances. Brochure issues which cost about PLN 2. Exactly as in the adult readers circle, there is a qualitative gap between what should be read according to the specialists and what is actually read. As for the parents, price is a very important criterion and good and beautiful publications are usually very expensive, a thin book can cost more than PLN 30.
Are there any good books in the kindergartens at least?
As far as I know, no. It happens that some adventurous types are interested in good literature and want to introduce children to good books. However, most often accidents influence the teachers’ choices. Sometimes an author appears in a kindergarten and asks if he or she could organise a little talk, then the kindergarten agrees and during this meeting the author sells books which they brought themselves, PLN 10 each. Children often bring poor books from kindergartens, e.g. my friends’ daughter brought from her catholic kindergarten a book telling the story of the children from Fatima, in which there were pictured scenes presenting whipping oneself with ropes and nettles. The parents were not really pleased.
In my opinion, libraries should be the first source of good books for children. Theoretically, people who work there ought to be experts in this topic and read trade press, but in practice it does not always look that way.
In the readership debate, the issue of schools and, even more, kindergartens, is rarely present. What if those internationally awarded books were simply given to kindergartens? It does not even occur to us that we could demand that.
And this is extremely wrong because we cannot demand that adults read books, if they did not read when they were kids. Reading is an ability and a kind of pleasure one has to get used to. Of course, there are children who read regardless of the circumstances in which they are brought up because they are simply attracted to reading, but this is a relatively small group. Another small group consists of those kids who will never read, despite their parents having read with them every day. However, there are a lot of potential audiences for literature who would read if someone trained and encouraged them to do this. That is why the earliest age is so important, even the preliterate stage, when a child can go through picture books, listen to their parents reading aloud and when one can get to know the world through books.
“The First Book of My Child”, a campaign organised by the ABCXXI Foundation, could have been a step towards changing the situation. As part of the action, all the parents of newborn children were given a collection of poems. However, the campaign, donated by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, has been unanimously criticised by specialists because of its kitschy visual aspect.
This situation perfectly portrays the peculiar position of children’s culture as a marginal element of adult mainstream culture. An average adult, on the one hand, reluctantly gets to know anything about literature or art addressed to the youngest and, on the other hand, is absolutely convinced that they are an expert on those topics. The ABCXXI Foundation probably fell victim to this mechanism. The project itself, promoting reading since birth as an indispensable element supporting the child’s development, is noble and praiseworthy. Unfortunately, the result was unsuccessful not only in terms of the illustrations, but also of editing and literary value. One could have an impression that the authors of the project, while putting emphasis on the act of reading, neglected the medium, that is the book, assuming that this is not important what exactly we read and what it looks like. The final effect was a bitter impression of a wasted chance which induced fierce reactions in specialists, artists and people interested in children’s literature. In my opinion, “The First Book of My Child” is not only an unsuccessful publication but also a symbol of a distinctive negligence with which children’s culture is treated by our society. Also the reaction of the uninvolved majority, being like: “Why so much fuss, since this is only a children’s book”, is significant. And children’s literature containing artistically valuable messages that can wonderfully stimulate young audiences, since it is created in forms unheard of in the world of adults.
Among other examples from our own market, we could mention the Mamoko series by Aleksandra and Daniel Mizielińscy, excellent for three-, four- and five-year olds. The series teaches children to observe and charms them with numerous parallel plots, despite there not being a single word used. Particular boards are amazingly full of details and children love details. All of those elements make Mamoko books a great fun, also for adults.
Let’s come back to the topic of forming a habit of reading.
Children follow their parents. If there are books at home and the parents read, their child will probably read too. However, there is a considerable group of children who have no natural contact with books (probably this is the reason why the idea of giving every mother a free copy of “The First Book of My Child” appeared) and here kindergartens and schools should prove helpful. Still, in my opinion, schools should avoid forcing children to compulsory reading and instead show them that reading is a nice, pleasurable activity. Children often do not know that they can read for pleasure. From a non-reading kindergarten they go to school, where they are immediately confronted with the essence of coercion, i.e., obligatory readings. While being at school, pupils constantly receive a self-contradictory message – reading is supposed to be fun, but I have to read this dull book which I do not understand, which is written in a difficult language and which I would never choose personally.
It frequently happens that people start to like reading once they grow up – not having read as children, they suddenly rediscover literature as grown-ups. And it can be any kind of reading, even reports, as there are some readers who hate fictional books but honestly love non-fiction. Freedom as an adult allows us to read what we want. Children do not have that comfort. In their case, reading is often identified with carrying out duties; treated differently than adults’ reading; constantly assessed and censored by parents and teachers asking: “Why do you read such rubbish?” A child should be given the right to choose books on its own and, instead of being forced, it should be proposed: “Try it, maybe contact with literature will also become a pleasure for you.”
Indeed, this aspect is missing, the aspect of joy and pleasure. We speak about reading in the categories of “We have to”.
“We have to read, rates of readership in Poland are declining and this is a great tragedy.” Maybe it will not sound well, but I do not think that this is a great tragedy. I agree that outrageously low funding and scandalously few ideas are employed in our country to popularize reading and that has some obvious results. But I do not think that the fact that fewer people read books is a kind of global catastrophe. Maybe we have to accept the fact that the form of information availability has changed greatly and reading literature has become one of the many possibilities of participating in culture – probably not even the main one anymore.
I want to make it clear that these are my views and I understand the motivations and arguments of people who would dream of Poles reading more. Here, however, we have to take notice of a simple analogy: a little reader grows into an adult reader so if we do not take care of reading among children, we cannot expect a sudden explosion of love towards literature among adults. And this care should not be a compulsion but rather a source of pleasure. Thus, let’s teach our children how to enjoy literature.
Translated by Dominika Kotuła, photo by Tim Pierce, cc, flickr.com. Originally published on “Dziennik Opinii Krytyki Politycznej” on April 7th.