Ana Margarida Ramos

From Dictatorship to Freedom –
Children’s Literature and History in Portugal

In April, 1974, after almost half a century of dictatorial rule, Portugal regained the freedom it lost and greeted a Democratic government. This also led to the end of the colonial war, which had lasted for over a decade, and was one of the major players in the fall of the fascist regime. This concluded a historical cycle which resulted in independence for the African nations involved and the end of a colonial ‘Empire’ which had governed for over five centuries. This turning point in Portuguese History has been revisited and recreated by some of the most acclaimed contemporary authors, including such auspicious names as José Saramago,António Lobo Antunes, José Cardoso Pires, among others even in the area of children’s literature. The Carnation Revolution, (and the time immediately preceding and following it) has been dealt with, in both poetry and prose, from a number of different perspectives, from a commemorative or pedagogical standpoint to an interventional one, with works on the subject matter published regularly. The aim of this paper is to take a closer look at some of the most important works on the theme, with particular reference to Portuguese literature with a view to highlighting the recurrence of specific themes and forms.

Thus, as far as children’s literature is concerned, several works revisit this particular moment of Portuguese contemporary History. All the narrative texts thematising this episode of national history share the common concern of reconciling both a pedagogical function (be it explicit or ancillary) and an aesthetic intent, thereby providing younger readers with an historical account pertaining to the theme as well as its literary recreation. The more or less active political involvement of the authors concerned may also prove instrumental in accounting for the thematic options they reveal.

Moreover, it is indisputable that there has been a recent increase of publications dealing with historical subjects specifically addressed at a younger audience. The publication of a number of book series, as part of the catalogue made available by several publishing houses, in which narrative texts approach Portuguese history from different standpoints, since the foundation to the present day, appears to have brought to light the importance of such knowledge for younger generations. One notices a recurrent tendency to represent fictionalised historical settings whether by drawing analogies and searching for affinities or by falling back on a pictorial component that, to some extent, seeks to represent characters and decors and enable their visualization by potential readers.

When dealing with the historical period we have decided to focus on, one should mention the volumes Anos de DitaduraSalazar (2007) [Years of Dictatorship – Salazar], A Luta pelas ColóniasGuerra do Ultramar (2008) [The Struggle for the Colonies – The Colonial War] and 25 de Abril – Revolução dos Cravos (2008) [25th April – The Carnation Revolution].

In the illustrations by Carla Nazareth chromatic variation is at the service of the revisited historical period and encompasses a colour palette whose symbolism is evident for younger readers. Hence, the years of dictatorship are represented in black and white – and multiple shades of grey –, thereby underscoring the oppression and censorship widespread in dictatorial Portugal.

The book on the colonial war depicts the mounting opposition and fierce resistance to the Portuguese government fuelled by popular discontent and by the legitimate right of the colonies’ claim to independence.

 These two books function, to some extent, as the pretext for a third volume centred on the actual account of the Revolution considered as the natural historical outcome after decades of oppression, censorship, poverty and war. The volume’s illustrations depict historical characters accurately and in a familiar manner through the insightful pencil stroke of the illustrator. Within the book structure, carnations play a key symbolic function, not only because of the chromatic impact of red, scattered throughout several pages, but also due to the symbolic connotations they trigger because in view of their close connection with the spontaneous popular movement, with life, and with the blooming of a country reborn after decades of profound isolation and asphyxia, with hope in the future and in the generations to come, and with left-wing political trends which paved the way for revolutionary action.

Aimed at older readers, Jorge Ribeiro has, in 2008, published Lá longe onde o sol castiga maisa Guerra Colonial contada aos mais novos [Far away where the sun is harsher – The Colonial War told to younger people]. In this volume whose illustrations consist of real documentary sources, such as photographs, maps, newspaper articles, letters and aerograms, we are given an account of the Portuguese participation in the colonial war reconstructed through the memory of former combatants.

As each new anniversary of the revolution approaches (and we are currently celebrating the 34th) numerous new works appear. By putting forward their ideological and political viewpoints in either a discrete or openly committed way, they enshrine the spirit of liberation which has been handed down since the dawn of April 25th.  

Let’s take a closer look at some of the more recent examples.

Matilde Rosa Araújo had included in her 1983 collection entitled A Velha do Bosque [The Old Woman from the woods] the short story «História de uma flor» [A flower’s story]. The text has been republished in large album format, as an independent volume, in 2008, and to it splendid illustrations by João Fazenda have been added. This enhancement in presentation is certainly justified because of the story’s pioneering approach to the theme, of the quality of the text and of the selected perspective.  

Romance do 25 de Abril [The Romance of April 25th] (2007) by João Pedro Mésseder consists of a poetic revival of the history of the 25th April 1974 with a special emphasis on the background of the revolution. It portrays life in Portugal under the New State rule and it outlines the tragic consequences of what proved to be a long-lasting period in contemporary Portuguese history, such as political persecutions, censorship and the colonial wars, among others.

By pursuing one of his favourite thematic strands Francisco Duarte Mangas in O Ladrão de Palavras (2006) [The Thief of Words] thematises, in an allegorical and penetrating manner, aspects associated with the lack of freedom of speech and with the importance of words as powerful tools in shaping the world. The effects of fear and self-censorship confine adults and children to a state of unrelenting sadness. Only enduring courage, determination and the undefeatable strength of the liberating word can put an end to it.

As regards the literary production specifically aimed at youngsters, mention must be made to several books.

By publishing the short story «Os Barrigas e os Magriços» [The Big Bellies and the Skinny], Álvaro Cunhal (1913-2005), the historical leader of the Portuguese Communist Party, seeks to recount in a language suitable for the intended readers the history of the events contributing to the revolution in April 1974. By making use of a parable and by referring to it to make the chasm between the exploiters and the exploited painstakingly clear, the author goes on to justify the need for change while emphasising the exhaustion deriving from long years of unrelenting exploitation and suffering among the working and underprivileged classes. 
In 2008, Margarida Fonseca Santos published a short-story collection entitled 7x25 Histórias da Liberdade [7x25 Stories of Freedom], including illustrations by Inês do Carmo, which is also more specifically aimed at young adults. The volume gathers seven short narratives that, in an original fashion, give voice to inanimate objects intimately (and symbolically) related to the April revolution or to the period immediately preceding it.

All texts we have analysed, together with other works belonging to the field of Portuguese literature for children and young adults dealing with this theme, share a common concern in articulating an aesthetic dimension, linked to the artistic quality of both text and pictures, and another of explicit or implicit pedagogical nature which considers it as a priority to pass onto younger generations the knowledge of an event that has irreversibly shaped Portuguese recent History. The balanced combination of these two dimensions has produced publications that, without obliterating the historical and ideological context underlying them, clearly prefer to heed certain aspects of reality, namely the importance of freedom and democracy and their manifest repercussion on insignificant daily gestures – at home, at school, in family life – while spurring the young readers’ curiosity about their past and its meaning.

Made up of dialogues and story sharing, the literary narration of historical facts accords particular symbolism to key dates in History, underlining their resemblance with the real experiences of contemporary children and thus ensuring their temporal and emotional relevance.  

Once demystified and unwrapped from their remote and almost fantastic dream-like quality, events emerge as concrete and tangible circumstances resonating in the day-to-day existence of all citizens, regardless of their age.    

Ana Margarida Ramos
University of Aveiro – Portugal

31st IBBY Congress, Copenhagen 2008


ALMEIDA, Paula Cardoso (2007). Anos de Ditadura - Salazar. Matosinhos: QuidNovi (ilustrações de Carla Nazareth)
ALMEIDA, Paula Cardoso (2008a). A Luta pelas Colónias – Guerra do Ultramar. Matosinhos: QuidNovi (ilustrações de Carla Nazareth)
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