Rapid development of children’s literature

The early 20th century introduced new ideas to Estonian children’s literature. The first Estonian-language magazine for children, Lasteleht (“Children’s Gazette”), appeared in 1901 and survived for 40 years, laying a foundation for continuous children’s periodicals. Despite the prevalence of religious and commercial literature, genuinely literary tendencies strengthened, and the best surpassed pedagogical restrictions. Poetry and prose revealed an interest in folklore. Besides the two main genres, drama for children emerged as well. The genre’s main author, August Kitzberg (1855-1927), for the most part dramatised well-known fairy tales rather than producing anything original.

Although most authors were still schoolteachers or clergymen, a new type of writers came forth, many of whom wrote primarily for adults. Conditions for the emergence of professional writers specialising in children’s literature were right only half a century later. In the early 20th century, children’s poetry reached a new level. Unfortunately, no single collection by one author appeared: the poems were scattered in the press and various books. Karl August Hindrey (1875-1947) produced remarkable verses with pictures, which introduced humour into Estonian children’s poetry. Hindrey’s models were Heinrich Hoffmann’s Struwwelpeter (1845) and Wilhelm Busch’s tales of a similar nature, partly known to Estonian readers. The aim was still to offer instruction and advice, but this was done humorously, with artistic exaggerations.

Jaan Bergmann (1856-1916), who designed the “Children’s Gazette”, set the standards and formed a group of collaborators. His ballads became famous and are still known, especially Ustav Ülo (“Faithful Ülo”), which tells of Estonian opposition to invaders and incites national self-awareness.

Karl Eduard Sööt (1862-1950) was the first writer to take an interest in children’s songs from folklore, using motifs from folk poetry in his own verse. Thanks to him, several folk songs were “recycled”. Sööt’s works have been taken for folk poetry, and vice versa. Where earlier children’s poetry was didactic and entertaining, however, Sööt’s verses derived from his love of children.

The prose of the early 20th century included children’s stories in dialect, childhood memories and retellings of folk tales. Jaan Lattik (1878-1967) wrote humorous autobiographical tales in dialect, addressed to both young and old. The jokes were based on the opposition of a child’s logic and an adult’s world-view. Ernst Peterson-Särgava (1868-1958) retold fairy tales about animals, using Estonian as well as other nations’ folklore. Peäro August Pitka ( Ansomardi, 1866-1915) found motifs in folk stories he had heard from an alleged witch, Krõõt Nabbal (“old goat woman”), and his works – grim, thrilling and filled with horror – can be regarded as the first Estonian fairy tales.

Oskar Luts’s two-part Kevade (“Spring”), published in 1912-13, became one of the most significant and beloved books in Estonian children’s literature. Luts did not have children in mind when he penned his recollections of his school years: the book appealed to everybody (and still does), but in the 1920s and 1930s, interest in the book among the younger generation increased so much that Kevade soon became a firm favourite. Colourful characters, popular humour and lively activity, married to a subtle description of the deepest emotions in a human soul, afford the book its timeless value. Works of children’s literature often acquire a special place in a nation’s consciousness. “Spring” keeps offering new impressions and new interpretations, often in symbiosis with other areas of art. The novel is dramatised quite often, and has been turned into a ballet and a film. Many scenes and phrases from the movie have stuck in people’s memory, as they have seen it so many times. The book is still on the compulsory reading list at schools, and is tackled as early as the 4th form.

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