Children’s literature in the 21st century

Children’s literature in the current century has been characterised by a surprisingly large number of newcomers, whether young beginners or middle-aged authors who are engaged in other fields or have so far written for adults. The elder generation of children’s writers also continues to be productive. Attempts by a few older writers to move with the times sometimes fail, and their characters still speak, think and act as children did in the author’s childhood and younger years. The effect of a serial is also used. Heljo Mänd’s hugely popular Karuaabits (“Bear’s Primer”, 1971), also televised, has had half a dozen sequels in this century, depicting a new generation of the Bear Forest. Of the older generation, mention should be made of Aino Pervik, who is sensitive enough to capture contemporary issues and tackles them in an easily graspable imaginary language.

Fairy tales still dominate in prose. Sometimes they depict illusory events taking place in fairy lands full of miracles (Henno Käo, “Little Knight Rikardo“ [Väike rüütel Rikardo]) or offer a peculiar brand of magic realism in which supernatural events happen and weird characters wander around a realistic environment (Reet Made, Salaroheline hiis [“Secrets of the Green Grove”]), or depicted the world through the eyes of a child, in a manner not considered realistic by adults (Piret Raud, “Ernesto’s Rabbits“ [Ernesto küülikud]). We find a similar point of view – and some exuberant descriptive fireworks – in Peeter Sauter’s “Children’s Book“ (Laste raamat). Sauter captures the craziest inventions and fantasies of children in an absurdist language that adults can also enjoy. Despite their playful nature, the stories are pithy, with plenty of subtexts. It transpires, for example, that God lived as grandmother of the children on Earth and has now died; an unemployed little boy, on the other hand, must rise from the dead because a kitten needs him; the bored Devil dances with a cow in the stables; and there is an armchair that likes to hug people...

There are ever fewer topics that children’s literature does not dare to tackle. There have been, for example, several stories about suicide in recent years. The idea of suicide attracts a teenager who is bullied at school and a small child despairing about the collapse of the family. The first jumps out of the window, the second stands on the windowsill but turns round at the last moment. A circus artist who was wrongfully convicted and is finally freed perceives the pointlessness of his life and climbs to the top of a tall building to kill himself. Friends get there in time and the outcome is optimistic.

The role of friends has increased in recent books for children. Children long for a friend and, once one is found, receive help and support. A child in a book cannot rely on parents, and even less on teachers or other adults, because they cannot cope with their own lives. Such an adult does not notice or support a child before it is too late. Evil and misbehaviour is frequently explained by neglect, a lack of love and the uncaring attitude of adults. And the fact that an immature child must face problems alone.

To counterbalance the stories reflecting the harsher side of life and inadequate family relations, some books describe a properly functioning, caring and understanding family. This kind of family life is, alas, unknown to too many children nowadays. This is by no means an idyllic family without a single problem. One should be grateful to the writers for producing a family model that the children can follow once they have grown up.

More than in earlier periods, writers are turning their attention to animal stories, mostly about dogs. At the same time, they are adventure stories: a dog looking for its little owner falls in the hands of villains; or burglars stuff the family puppy into their swag bag and the unfortunate animal has to find its way home on its own. Raising a puppy requires the same dedication, love and care as raising a child. A sharp child notices that a puppy has even more rights. When the phone rings, for example, a child is pushed off an adult’s lap so he or she can walk to the phone. When the puppy has settled on someone’s lap, however, the person asks another member of the family to take the phone! Collections of stories about three people working at the zoo are on the border of popular science and fiction.

There seems to be a shortage of books for younger and medium schoolchildren in which a child could recognise his or her life as it is, especially at school. In that sense, the current period resembles the 1920s and 1930s. Fairy tales are able to convey everything that life embodies. However, they are not very good at reflecting and recording the present for next generations or offering the joy of recognition.

Estonian children’s literature is expanding – through publishers, competitions, awards and international co-operation. There are more and more who do, see, notice and worry. Demands on the aesthetics of books for children have grown.

And quite right too. The wealth of each nation is its children. The wealth of children is determined by their childhood, and by how much play and joy of discovery it offers. The extent of each person’s intellectual world is determined by what he has read, and this starts in childhood. Developing children’s literature therefore indirectly influences the entire vital and intellectual force of a nation. The roots of Estonian children’s literature are old and mighty, and changes in society have not been able to cause it any irredeemable damage.

Overview compiled by Krista Kumberg on the basis of writings by Ants Järv, Reet Krusten, Mare Müürsepp, Hille Ojala, Helle Laanpere, Aidi Vallik and others.

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