The first golden era of Estonian children’s literature

The independent Republic of Estonia (1918-1940) encouraged the development of a national culture. The precondition of intellectual advancement was a rising standard of education and culture, including literature for children.

During the 1920s and 1930s, literature for children and young adults underwent considerable development in both quantity and quality. Many world classics were translated, and more attention was paid to how the books looked. Extensive, good-quality periodicals for children were published. Besides “Children’s Gazette”, a magazine called Laste Rõõm (“Children’s Joy”) appeared in 1921, along with several other magazines for children and young adults. Children’s literature became a significant cultural phenomenon.

Alongside the boost in children’s literature, especially new works, theoretical and critical ideas spread more vigorously as well. The early part of the century saw the shaping of the main genres of children’s literature, and their contents were developed further during the 1920s and 1930s. Children’s literature blended into the general process of literature.

Verse collections were not frequently published during this period. The best children’s poetry, the work of Ernst Enno and Jaan Oro, remained scattered in periodical publications. Mention can only be made of Karl Eduard Sööt’s Lapsepõlve Kungla (“Childhood Home”) and Agnes Taar’s “Clack-Clack” (Klu-klu, 1928). The latter was appreciated more as a book about children than a book for children.

Among the serious and melancholy work of Ernst Enno (1875-1934), a school inspector, poet and editor of the children’s magazine “Children’s Joy”, his poems for children emerge as bright and sunny. Enno depicted things in life that are essential to a small child, such as nature (animals, birds, insects, wind, bubbling spring) and play. The author called his work for children “flowery fluttering”. Julius Oengo (J. Oro, 1901-41) was a prolific author who wrote in every genre. His popular poems talk about Christmas, the changing seasons, sport and games, all with verve and humour.

N.K.L.05.05.06 Proosa, lugeja rõõm Prose occupied the biggest and best part of children’s literature of the 1920s and 1930s. The topics and manner of depiction became more diverse, with realism prevailing. The autobiographical children’s literature characteristic of the earlier period was replaced by depictions of children in their present time and place. The authors put children at the centre of their work, presenting events from his point of view. The children mostly live in the country: depictions of urban life and going to school there are rare. New works appeared primarily via competitions organised by the publishing house Loodus (“Nature”), which placed certain restrictions on its authors: focus on topics related to the homeland, and show life in a positive light. The 1930s were characterised by the blurring of the boundary between didacticism and pedagogy. Increasingly, the aim of a children’s book was to bring joy to readers and offer them support. Play and imagination, the theory held, expanded the world and shaped evaluations more than straightforward words of instruction, which did not touch the soul. From now on, children’s literature would perceive itself as art.

Books were distinguished according to children’s age and gender. Most writers wrote for small children and teenagers. Three topics prevailed – nature, history and children’s life. Of these, nature was clearly the most popular, especially depictions of animals, in realistic, fairy-tale and popular scientific form.

Marta Sillaots (1887-1969) wrote for and about toddlers in the four-part “Noughts and Crosses” (Trips-Traps-Trull), a book about five-year-old triplets (part one was published in 1935). Although gender distinction is not essential in addressing literature, the topics and books favoured by boys and girls were clearly different. The initiator of boys’ books was Jüri Parijõgi, with his “Cement Factory” (Tsemendivabrik) collection (1926). Other important works included Richard Janno’s “Footballers” (Vutimehed,1935), which has been compared with F. Molnár’s “Pál-street Boys”, and books by Helmi Mäelo, Karl August Hindrey, Arnold Tulik and Mait Metsanurk.

Two main approaches could be distinguished, based more on the authors’ pedagogical views than on whether they wrote fairy tales or realistic stories. One tried to create a near-ideal world to comfort and support the child, one where goodness and justice always win. The other, most prominently represented by Jüri Parijõgi (1892-1941), held that children’s literature had to rely on real life and avoid embellishments. An optimistic view was deemed necessary, but not at the expense of distorting true life. The children in Parijõgi’s stories must stand up for themselves at an early age and start earning their daily bread. Their life is not at all easy, but the children are more aware of their achievements. The author depicts the world of adults through the eyes of 7- and 8-year-old boys, exploring their daily lives and social relations. Behind the humour, the reader perceives the worries of children and their opinions of an old person. Richard Janno (1900-42) depicted the life of boys living in a slum. The children live in poor conditions. They are brought up honest and dignified. Gangs of boys match themselves against one another, mostly on the football field. The author reveals the simmering feelings of hostility between German and Estonian boys.

In children’s literature, fairy tales became dominant, as many followed the example of Ansomardi at the beginning of the century. In Oskar Luts’s ever-popular Nukitsamees (“Bumpy”, 1920), a little boy with horns is brought from a witch’s cottage in the forest to live among the people. Children teach their strange friend using the educational methods that their parents employed with them. Goodness and patience are a great help. However, the horns fall off only when the boy learns to read [sic!]. Nukitsamees is known to young and old, thanks to a film adaptation and the fact that the book is compulsory at schools. One of the most sparkling works in the fairy-tale genre is “The Land of the Green Sun” (Rohelise päikese maa,1936), by Irma Truupõld (1903-80), in which two abandoned dolls live among the tiny creatures in the forest and finally find a home. The work of the productive Juhan Jaik (1899-1948) is characterised by smoothly flowing narrative and a vigorous imagination that derives material from folk heritage. What the author means to say often remains in the shadow of extravagant invention.

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