Children’s literature amid the turmoil of social change

The regaining of independence in the early 1990s saw rapid development and radical changes in every field of life, including children’s literature. It was not easy to survive in the market economy. Producing an attractively illustrated book by an Estonian author was far too expensive for any publishing house, never earning them profit. Children’s authors who had so far been freelancing were no longer able to manage and had to find a day job.

In the early 1990s, the older generation of authors stopped writing: first, because it was hard to get anything published; and second, because they did not understand the new era and had no idea what children wanted or needed to read in the changed circumstances. Publishers, on the other hand, were primarily concerned with sales and did not want to take on the risk of using an unknown author. Potential newcomers were not sufficiently motivated. Why bother writing for children if the pay was poor and no recognition was forthcoming?

Because of a shortage of original work, many translations and reprints appeared. Among the new phenomena in the 1990s were comics, collections of jokes and Disneyfied fairy tales. The first glossy books were published, with little text and blue-eyed little animals and children who never stopped smiling their boringly brisk smiles. Such books were initially welcomed with great joy and no criticism as something extraordinary. Unfortunately, many were hastily and sloppily translated, and thus linguistically clumsy and full of mistakes.

At the lowest point in the early 1990s, there was considerable concern in literary and educational circles. The cultural weekly Sirp (Sickle) published a design for the gravestone of Estonian children’s literature. The situation provoked critical writings in the press and calls for constructive measures from the Estonian Children’s Literature Information Centre. The Nukits Young Reader’s Choice Award was started: held every other year, it looks for the most popular writer and illustrator among children. Together with the publishing house Tänapäev, the centre initiated competitions for children’s literature. It also organised an annual round table to discuss the most acute problems. Another contest, for the Muhv award, was established after a popular character in Eno Raud’s book “Three Jolly Fellows” (Naksitrallid), honours the best and most active critics of children’s literature.

By the start of the millennium, Estonian children’s literature was once again on the rise. We can distinguish trends and new topics, and rejoice in the recently emerged new generation of writers.

The writer Andrus Kivirähk said that during the 1990s, he experienced a devaluation of children’s literature, which insinuated that someone writing for children is like a concert violinist who admits to playing at village weddings in his spare time. Despite all this, new, mostly younger authors emerged in the second half of the decade, writers born during the second golden age of children’s literature. They have been divided into “aunties” and “mavericks” – although auntie can also be an uncle, and the term by no means denotes the quality of a book. Texts created by “aunties” were secure, sensible, home-centred and a bit didactic (Jaanus Vaiksoo, Kaja Prügi); “mavericks” shone brightly but sporadically, and were humorous, childish and sharp-witted (Ilmar Trull, Kivirähk). In the middle of the decade, the “old masters” began writing again, creating fascinating texts on a range of topics (Aino Pervik, Ellen Niit). Cultural endowment swung into action, supporting the publication of Estonian children’s literature.

In general, Estonian writers felt (and still do) most at home in the fairy-tale genre, which was and is prevailing in original literature for children. The majority of books are meant for preschool and elementary-school children. The writers’ age could be one reason why there was virtually no literature for young adults until a few years ago. Depictions of realistic school life are also rare, though two remarkable stories were written by pupils themselves, both describing school as a repressive institution. These are “And if You Don’t Like it Here”, by Tanel and Mihkel Tiks (Ja kui teile siin ei meeldi, 1992), and “Adventures of a Loser”, by S.K. Richardson (Ühe nohiku seiklusi, 1998).

As well as unearthing new authors, the competition devoted to books for young adults gave the whole genre a welcome boost. Works by Aidi Vallik, Katrin Reimus, Helga Nõu, Jaan Tangsoo and others tackle problems facing young people today, from poverty to drug abuse, as well as the more traditional self-searching and aspiration for independence. Literature for young adults contains a fair share of misfortune and unhappiness, though the bad always lose in the end. It is nevertheless a pity that hardly anybody depicts the kind of optimistic, merry youngsters we see, for example, at the folk-music festivals. A kind of standard book for young adults has emerged, containing drugs, violence and solitude.

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