Children’s literature amid the turmoil of social change (part II)

To make everything look more contemporary in the 1990s, fairy tales were supplemented with a spirit of enterprise (such as the rabbit’s hairdresser in Arno Kaseniit’s “Sundial” [Päikeseratas]), banking crashes (a bank established by a sparrow, who finally ate all the gathered crumbs, by Jaan Rannap), business transactions – which are regarded as something evil without proof or explanation – selling drugs (Henno Käo’s cloud sellers [Oliüks ärihaide hambus, “Therewas Between the Teeth of Business Sharks” and Napakad jutud “Crazy Stories”]; everybody is doing business, even a hedgerow selling pine needles). New characters emerged – Toompea people (Leelo Tungal, Kollitame. Kummitame, “Spooky! Creepy!”) and, in Henno Käo’s Printsuss (“Princhess”), creatures who live under computers, in suit and tie, asking to press just one little button. If you let them, the screen is goes blank and the computer is wrecked.

Such stories were frankly somewhat feeble. The text did not become any more contemporary or interesting. The books seemed to be written for other adults, who could enjoy the author’s witticisms. A child at a suitable age for fairy tales, however, cannot understand the jokes of grown-up people and does not much care for all those banks and slick businessmen.

Masterfully penned fairy tales gradually appeared, discreetly reflecting today’s world. The best example is Aino Pervik’s Maailm sulelise ja karvasega (“The World according to the Feathered and the Furry”, 2000), a brisk-paced tale in which topics such as losing one’s home, cutting down and selling the forest, living on a scrapheap, marauding, seizing power, drug abuse and remaining true to oneself are natural parts. “Dragons Abroad” (Draakonid võõrsil, 2002), by the same author, describes the fate of war refugees in a language easily understandable to children.

In recent years, there have been more realistic stories about the daily lives of small children (Aino Pervik’s Paula series) and the harsh life of street children (Tea Kask’s “Street Children,” Tänavalapsed). In between these are Kristel Salu’s stories about Viljaküla Brita and some other, predominantly positive stories. Proper school stories for teenagers have yet to materialise. Maybe writers are wary and confused about what exactly goes on at school nowadays. It is much easier to write fairy tales.

Painful issues in family life are no longer taboo. The envious/disparaging attitude towards the newly rich, together with increasing differences in people’s standard of living, fear of being made redundant and hopeless poverty, are also being examined in children’s literature. Some books describe life with an alcoholic father: in Henno Käo’s “The Last Minute” (Viimne minut), Mihkel’s father is mostly unemployed and mostly drunk, sitting at the kitchen table without doing anything useful at all. The stepfather of a character in Leelo Tungal’s “Siri from Sirius” (Siri Siriuselt) is also aggressive. The father of Richardson’s Loser beats him up regularly. Some children have only a mother (Kalju Saaber’s “Atu the Skeleton,” [Luukere Atu]; Reet Kudu’s “Wild Journey,” [Pöörane reis]). The parents’ life is vividly reflected in children’s books – either through unemployment and insecurity about tomorrow or, at the other end of the social spectrum, through rich and successful parents with no time for their children, although that does not necessarily mean they are bad or uncaring. Characters whose happiness lies in consumption are portrayed especially harshly. Andrus Kivirähk, in “Giraffe” (Kaelkirjak), shows such parents as stupid and ridiculous. The writers’ attempt to stick to conventional value systems can leads to clichés. The positive child-hero of the book comes from a simple family with modest financial means. A child from a wealthy family is invariably arrogant, selfish and still unhappy (as in Leelo Tungal’s “Poor Christmas, Rich Christmas,” [Vaesed jõulud, rikkad jõulud]). The depictions of parents are more varied. Wealthy and enterprising parents can be quite understanding, but they have so little time. Only when crisis occurs do they pay attention and support their child (J. Tangsoo’s Hanejaht (“Goose Hunt”); Leelo Tungal’s “Siri from Sirius”). An asocial mother could be an uncaring alcoholic (Tea Kask’s “Street Children”) or a kind and understanding alcoholic (Kati Murutar’s “Flu,” [Gripp])

Thanks to the author’s will, the characters realise that the best solution to their problems lies within themselves. They must stop seeing themselves as losers; they must study, move to town, establish a school in the village, grow cucumbers or find other ways to earn money. Or, in the words of Mihkel, in Holger Pukk’s book Lehepoiss ja tema koer (“Newspaper Boy and his Dog”), when asked what he can do – “Nothing, but I will learn whatever is necessary.”

Children’s literature in the 1990s was dominated by prose. Plays were written and performed in theatres, but seldom published. In fact, none appeared between 1995 and 1999. Andrus Kivirähk published his collection of plays, “Onions and Chocolate” (Sibulad ja šokolaad), written in the 1990s, only in 2002. Plays suitable for performance on school stages, mostly by amateur playwrights, have been quietly appearing in modest publications.

The share of poems remained modest, both in number and quality. Humorous elements, parody and word play dominate (Ilmar Trull’s “Merry Poems” [Lõbusad luuletused], Jaanus Vaiksoo’s “Mrs Watchmaker,” [Kellasepaproua]), as does poetry for special occasions, especially Christmas (Ellen Niit’s “Scarf for the Dwarf” [Kaelasall päkapikule], Leelo Tungal’s “Letters to Santa Claus” [Kirjad jõuluvanale]). Some collections took a look back in time (Lehte Hainsalu’s “School is a Colon” [Kool on koolon], Hando Runnel’s “Growing Up” [Suureks saamine]).

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