Children's Books Come of Age
Kuntz, Lucia Iglesias, UNESCO Courier
Children are being told the facts of life by a new wave of authors, but there's still plenty of room for Prince Charming, fairies and witches.
For years children's literature was the Cinderella of literature, languishing in the shadow of a cantankerous stepmother. Today the maiden is ready to go to the ball. Didacticism and moralizing are fading away into the past and writing for children is becoming an art-form in its own right, a genre whose borders now stretch far beyond the classroom, the library or the nursery. Book production for young people has also become an industry which is attracting more and more attention in the shape of conferences, prizes, book fairs and university theses all over the world.
"A children's book isn't a schoolbook any longer," says Leena Maissen, head of the Swiss-based International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY), whose offices in 60 countries are trying to make more literature and art available to the world's children.
"Books for children are certainly valuable teaching aids, and they're especially useful for giving children a taste for reading. But new trends are coming in. Taboos are being broken, children are being taken seriously and being treated like real people, and long-avoided subjects are being tackled."
Fairy stories still have a place, of course. Children still dream about witches, bears, princesses and elves, but in a different way. Colombian writer Gloria Cecilia Diaz says that in children's books these days, "the world isn't always seen through rose-coloured spectacles. For many people, talking to children meant using diminutives, talking about little houses and little girls, and avoiding subjects like disease, violence and death."
Manuel Pena Munoz, a Chilean author of children's books, agrees. "Some teachers think they've covered children's literature once they've told the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," she says. "What's more, some authors simply tell stories about princesses and gnomes, add a bit of moral icing to the cake, and that's it. But that's not enough, these days."
The illustrator's magic wand
A number of recent books have reworked subjects, forms and narrative techniques. Today's children read stories about divorce, death, drugs, air pollution, political extremism, violence and racism. And all kinds of books are being published which rely on the magic wand of the illustrator or cartoonist.
Before they know how to read, babies can play with books made of fabric or books made to take in the bath. Later on, they are given picture books that may be cubical or triangular, outsized or miniature, possibly bilingual. They also like work-books which come with watercolours and paintbrushes, and comic books crammed with detail where they have to spot a figure hidden among thousands of others.
Not that the traditional children's book is being sidelined. There are still storybooks where the pages pop up when they are opened, to make a forest or a castle. Among the latest ideas are interactive stories where readers choose the plot or ending they want, and books on CD-Rom, which are very popular in rich industrialized countries.
The public has enthusiastically greeted the wealth of ingenuity displayed by publishers. "Previously, giving a child a book was almost seen as an insult," says Canadian author Marie-France Hebert. Her books, published by the French-language Quebec publisher La Courte Echelle, sell like hot cakes, in hundreds of thousands of copies. "There's a real appetite for reading these days and I try to get across to children the passion for reading which is food for the mind and the heart, like a medicine or a vitamin."
Updating traditional tales
Robert hates maths - he can't make head or tail of it. But one night he dreams of meeting a sharp-tongued little goblin who promises to teach him all about it. Of course, he thinks it's just another bad dream. But actually he's being taken on an exciting journey into the world of maths by The Number Devil, a book published in 1997 by the German poet and essayist Hans Magnus Enzensberger, one of a growing band of authors who are writing these days for children as well as adults.
Morocco's Tahar Ben Jelloun (Racism Explained to My Daughter), Spanish writers Fernando Savater (A Father Addresses his Son on Questions of Ethics) and Carmen Martin Gaite ("Little Red Riding Hood in Manhattan"), Chilean Luis Sepulveda ("The Story of the Seagull and the Cat who Taught him to Fly") and Austria's Patrick Suskind have all updated traditional stories or tackled topics like racism and ecology.
The Cuban writer Joel Franz Rosell says this renewal of children's literature is partly because school programmes have been revamped to include modern works. "Publishers see an enormous market here and are very keen to profit from it," he says. "The thing about the market for children's books is that children don't buy the books themselves, someone else does parents, teachers or librarians. The child doesn't know or care whether there's an author. Some researchers have even described children's literature as texts without authors. But parents are amazed by the fact that their children can read authors that they like too."
Some authors say they don't switch styles when they write for children. Others, such as Jasmine Dube, from Quebec, say they write in a totally different way. "When I write for adults," she says, "I feel like I've got less spirit, that it's more cerebral, that I'm censoring myself more. I don't give such a free rein to my imagination and I'm less direct. I think other writers do it much better than me. But when I write for children, all my passion and urgency return."
Children's literature is not developing at the same speed everywhere in the world. "In some places, like India, books are still written for children in a very traditional way and change is very slow in coming," says Maissen. Yet from India sprang the first-ever children's book more than 2,000 years ago - a collection of tales called the Panchatranta. The country, which has 18 official languages and more than 1,600 dialects, publishes books for children which mostly draw on tales, legends and heroic past eras.
The most daring publishers and authors are in Western Europe. In Eastern Europe, the new market economy leaves little room for quality books. "The Czechs, Slovaks and Russians used to be top of the league for children's books," says Maissen. "But the economic crisis has pushed their highly creative people into illustrating books published in the West."
Between books and television
Books for children and teenagers have a healthy share of the market. Figures available at the 1998 Frankfurt Book Fair showed that 7.5 per cent of the 78,000 books published in Germany in 1997 were for children, a percentage which has remained steady over the past few years. In France, children's books have held up better than other titles in the publishing crisis which began in the early 1990s, and in 1997 represented 8.3 per cent of all sales. In Brazil, 31 per cent of books published in 1997 (including some schoolbooks) were written for children.
But such figures should not hide the fact that reading is competing with television, films and electronic media, whose audience is growing faster than book readership. A UNESCO-sponsored survey carried out in 1995 by Utrecht University, in The Netherlands, showed that in regions where there was electricity, 93 per cent of schoolchildren spent an average of three hours a day in front of a television. Given a choice between a book and TV, most of them chose TV.
Building a youthful following
Publishers have risen to the challenge by bringing out written adaptations of the latest Disney film and telling the story of the sinking of the Titanic from all kinds of angles. Of course such products don't have a very long shelf-life, lasting only as long as it takes for the big transnational film companies to come up with another money-spinner. To survive such fads, publishers have to build up a loyal following among the reading public. "It's important to publish for different age groups, to respond to feedback from readers and keep them when they become adults," says Norma Sturniolo, editor of the Espacio Abierto series at the Spanish publisher Anaya.
The major children's classics, which are always being republished, seem to last forever. At the latest publishers' ball, Cinderella continues to whirl around with Jules Verne, Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain and Saint-Exupery. Will she one day lose her glass slipper? Will she continue to enchant her readers whatever their age?
Gloria Cecilia Diaz voices what many of her colleagues think in private, that "one of the nicest things is that grown-ups read my books as well."
Tolerance told to children
Every two years UNESCO awards a Prize for Children's and Young People's Literature in the Service of Tolerance. The 1999 laureates, selected by an international jury, are the Ghanaian writer Meshack Asare and American author Anne R. Blakeslee, who died recently.
Blakeslee's novel A Different Kind of Hero, which came top in the category of books for young people aged 13 to 18, is the story of a boy who teaches his father to show tolerance towards "foreigners" who arrive in a Colorado mining camp in the 1880s. Meshack Asare's Sosu's Call, which is illustrated by the author, tells how a disabled boy wins the respect of everyone in his village by saving it from flooding.
The prizewinning works, which were chosen from more than 300 books by authors from 42 countries will receive the award (a diploma and $8,000 donated by the Fundacion Santa Maria/Ediciones S.M. of Spain) at a ceremony which will be held in April during the Bologna Children's Book Fair (Italy).
RELATED ARTICLE: Fairs and prizes galore
I Just like books for adults, children's books have their own prizes, fairs and critics. The most important specialized body in this field is the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY), which was founded in 1953. It promotes children's books, publishes a quarterly review Bookbird, draws up a biennial List of Honour of the world's best children's books, and every two years awards Hans Christian Andersen Prizes to an author and an illustrator. The prizes, which carry so much prestige in the world of children's literature that they have been called "little Nobel Prizes", have been won by such authors as Astrid Lindgren (Sweden, 1958) and Gianni Rodari (Italy, 1996). The 1998 winners were American writer Katherine Paterson and French illustrator Tomi Ungerer.
Authors and publishers of children's books also get together at major international gatherings. The Bologna (Italy) International Fair is to children's literature what the Frankfurt Book Fair (held annually in October) is to books for adults. This year's Bologna Fair, to be held from 1 to 8 April, is expected to attract 1,400 exhibitors from 80 countries and some 20,000 visitors. In addition to the Bologna Fair, there are specialized fairs at Montreuil, on the outskirts of Paris, and at Mexico City and Nairobi.
In Spain, the Salamanca-based Fundacion German Sanchez Ruiperez is an International Centre for Children's and Young People's Books which sponsors seminars and studies. At California State University San Marcos Professor Isabel Schon runs a centre for the study of books in Spanish for children and adolescents.
The Book Bank in Venezuela, Fundalectura in Colombia, Brazil's National Foundation for Children's and Young People's Books in Rio de Janeiro, and the Centre de Promotion du Livre de Jeunesse at Saint-Denis (France) are among other organizations that are trying to help children and books to become firm friends.…
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Publication information: Article title: Children's Books Come of Age. Contributors: Kuntz, Lucia Iglesias - Author. Magazine title: UNESCO Courier. Publication date: February 1999. Page number: 40+. © 1984 UNESCO. COPYRIGHT 1999 Gale Group.
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