First steps of Estonian children’s literature in the 18th and 19th centuries

Estonian children’s literature emerged in the mid-19th century, in the form of stories for children with religious, moralising and didactic content. This was considered the preparatory stage of children’s literature.

Juttud ja Teggud (Tales and Deeds, 1782), by a Saaremaa pastor, Friedrich Wilhelm von Willmann (1746-1819), is one of the first story books, the texts of which probably reached children as well. The roots of the stories lie in the fables of Aesop and Martin Luther, but range as far as the tales of 1,001 Nights. Willmann himself placed 125 puzzles and various Estonian proverbs among the didactic stories.

In the subtitle of Üks kaunis Jutto ja Öppetusse-Ramat (A Beautiful Book of Tales and Teaching, 1782), home tutor Friedrich Gustav Arvelius (1753-1806) addressed it to “the country children who have learned reading”. Whether he meant only children is not known. The stories and poems within describe the annual cycle of peasant life. The author relied on F.E. von Rochow’s school textbook Kinderfreund (1776-79). Some of the short stories are directly addressed to children; in other tales, Arvelius exhorts the peasants to be God-fearing, obedient and diligent, offers instructions for farming and cattle-breeding, and talks about the benefits of education and learning a profession.

ABC books of the 18th century were anonymous primers-cum-catechisms, and only contained religious texts. The first ABC book to present the author’s name and some secular tales was Otto Wilhelm Masing’s “ABC, or a Primer for Children Who Want to Learn Reading” (ABD ehk Luggemise-Ramat Lastele kes tahavad luggema öppida, 1795). The stories all had a moral message and propagated the idea of “natural” punishment. Those who erred were punished not by parents, but by life itself. For example, the boy who stole a knife from his friend, hid it his pocket and went out to play with other children; in the course of this, the “knife got stuck in his stomach up to the hilt”.

After the above-mentioned works, literature for children went through an era of emptiness and silence until the period of national awakening (1860-70).

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Estonian-language fiction and poetry did exist, albeit with obvious German features. Literature for children largely consisted of translations and a few original works of literature. In the mid-19th century, interest in children’s literature increased. Translations dominated. The first people to write specifically for children were pastors and schoolteachers, more out of a need for suitable reading material than out of creative fervour. Children’s literature was for a long time considered chiefly as a means of instruction, designated to instil piety, obedience and loyalty to the tsar.

Besides school textbooks, Carl Körber (1802-83), a Vändra pastor of German origin, published “Primer for Shepherds” (Karjalaste luggemisse ramat ,1849) and Pähkle ramat (Hazelnut Book, 1851). The first contains 21 didactic tales and an address to parents; or, more precisely, to potential purchasers of the book. The author points out that young shepherds reading a book have no time for mischief and will stay with their cattle. It would therefore be wiser to pay a few kopecks for the book than to lose a sheep to the wolves. (Körber, of course, neglects to mention what happens to the cattle when the small shepherd gets carried away with reading and forgets the animals completely.) As for the didactic aspect, Körber’s tales resemble those of Arvelius. However, his manner of expression is much more creative, and the instructive element has a flavour of literature. “Hazelnut book” is smaller but more artistic, both in content and manner. The stories are partly presented in rhymed prose, and an effort has been made to be child-friendly. The plots usually revolve around animals, and the moral of each tale is more concealed.

The honour of publishing the first secular poetry collection for children belonged to Johann Voldemar Jannsen (1819-90). Eesti Laste-Rõõm. Hea lastele pühhade kingitusseks (The Joy of Estonian Children. A Holiday Gift for Good Children) was published in 1865 and contained 15 humorous verses.

The newspapers of the late 19th century for the first time clearly reflected the interest of the public in the essence and aims of children’s literature. It was determined as a pedagogical-literary phenomenon, and its social function was held in high regard. In 1889, the poet Juhan Liiv prescribed the following requirements for children’s literature in the newspaper “Sakala”, under a pen name: “A child must recognise another child in the characters he reads about; they must be simple, and the language must be easy, but it should have a poetic air; the characters must be virtuous without stating that in so many words like a schoolteacher.”

Juhan Kunder (1852-88) left a considerable imprint on school literature, children’s prose and the theory and criticism of children’s literature. In 1885, he published a prose version of Kalevipoeg for young readers who lacked the patience to read the whole epic. Kunder’s 53 fairy-tale treatments appeared in 1884 under the title “Estonian Fairy Tales” (Eesti muinasjutud); “Book for Children” (Laste raamat, 1884) and “Songs for Children” (Lu’ud lastele, 1885-88) contain his own stories. Kunder was the first writer to abandon natural punishment. An honest confession averts any retribution. In a speech in 1883, “Estonian Children’s Reading Material”, Kunder determined the functions of children’s literature, listing everything that is valued today: “A good children’s book should educate, offer useful instructions for life, entertain and converse.”

A prominent children’s poet in the late 19th century was Friedrich Kuhlbars (1841-1924), whose poems appeared with musical accompaniment. Thanks to him, secular songs successfully reached schools.

During the last quarter of the 19th century, aesthetic aspirations extended further than purely didactic poetry and prose. For the first time in the brief history of Estonian literature, children’s writing was interpreted and defined as a separate phenomenon. However, even in the early 20th century, books for children were mostly regarded as tools of education and instruction. The majority of writers were still schoolteachers and pastors connected with children via their work. They were enthusiastic, but often lacked literary skills. Religious literature instilled submissiveness, a sense of being resigned to circumstances. Some publications even presented to young readers the advantages of life beyond the grave compared to earthly existence. Publishers slowly began to realise that books for children could be a considerable source of profit, especially before Christmas. This brought about the birth of commercial literature: the publication of externally pretty but rather superficial books.

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