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. …