Marija Todorova


Ethnic Integration in Literature for Children in Macedonia

“Let us give our children hope. Let’s fill them with stories that tell them, over and over again, that peace is important, possible, worth striving for. Let’s give them stories that allow them to understand the differences that separate us, to experience the humanity that connects us.”
 Marion Dane Bauer 

In the wake of the 2001 conflict which brought Macedonia on the verge of an all-out civil war, this Southeast European country has been actively seeking modalities for creation of an applicable and sustainable policy of cultural diversity. The treatment of otherness, i.e. difference, has become one of the most important issues. Bearing in mind the specific role and function of children’s literature, as a source of cultural models as well as one of the key factors in the production of identity of young people, this field of cultural production is called upon to take a leading role in defining multicultural values, respecting differences and their treatment as something natural and productive. They must be understood as the first and necessary step in the building of a society which is not only multicultural, but intercultural, a society which actively promotes the values associated with the culture of peace.

The issue of accepting and respecting difference is one of the key topics not only in Macedonia, but globally as well. In the past four decades, the laws and social norms and practices in developed societies have been constantly evolving as a result of the increasing understanding of the need for a different social approach which would provide equality for all citizens. In parallel with these changes in public opinion and the political sphere, there was a growing realization that the books children read do not always correspond to the changes in society. The question whether literature should be just a reflection of society or try to improve it is one of the oldest points of contention in literary studies. This is especially important in the field of children’s’ literature, having in mind its character, which is primarily educational. Authors of children’s books often transfer to their readers the values that society wants to see promoted, even when that means indoctrinating them.

Since the 1980s, globally there has been a rapid increase in the number of literary works - for all age groups - offering positive examples of equality- related issues. Children’s books have increasingly come to include characters from different ethnic groups, from both sexes, stressing their qualities as individuals, and not the characteristics which make them typical members of a certain social group. This also refers to the way people with special needs or the elderly are depicted.

One of the goals of my research has been to determine to what extent these global trends of equality and respect for differences, are present in contemporary children’s books published in Macedonian language.

Macedonian society is a multicultural one. Macedonia consists of several levels of cultural identities. Firstly, Macedonian society consists of several ethnic groups which have separate cultural identities. According to the last census (State Statistical Bureau, 2005) the national composition of the Republic of Macedonia includes: Macedonians (64.17%), Albanians (25.17%), Turks (3.85%), Roma (2.66%), Serbs (1.78%), Bosniaks (0.84%), Vlachs (0.48%), and others (1.04%).

Despite the multicultural character of Macedonian society, in the period 1991 – 2001 social cohesion was more like a mix of two distinctive substances – Macedonian and Albanian. Although there are some positive elements in the process of structural integration, they are not present in the processes of cultural integration, and they are even less present in the processes of accepting common values and interests (Atanasov, 2003).

The existence of marked tendencies of closing off in distinct ethnic and religious communities in all walks of life, including the political, educational, communication-information, marital, demographic and economic sphere, is a clear indicator of inter-ethnic intolerance and exclusion (Georgievski, 1995). Instead of becoming closer, these two ethnic groups are increasingly growing apart, to a level of creating rigid negative ethnic prejudices and stereotypes for the other group, to a level of a deep ethnic divide where communication between the ethnic entities occurs only through selective contacts, mostly due to economic reasons (Atanasov, 2003). This process has deep consequences for all spheres of society, and as such it is reflected in the literature created in Macedonia, especially in children’s literature.

For the purpose of this study I analyzed books of a widely accepted literary merit: these include books which have received the only award for children’s literature in Macedonia, the Vanco Nikoleski Award, awarded each year by the Writers’ Association of Macedonia for the best children’s book. I have focused only on books that have received this award since 2001, that is after the armed conflict in Macedonia.

The reason why this particular period (2001 onwards) was selected is the fact that the Ohrid Framework Agreement of 2001, the signing of which signaled the end of the bloody interethnic conflict in Macedonia, institutionalized the multicultural character of Macedonian society, effectively turning Macedonia into a multicultural state.

The analysis of these awarded books has lead to the following findings:

1.    There are virtually no ethnic minorities – Of all books analyzed, in only one book (written by a woman author), “Krsta and the Bead” (2003) by Svetlana Hristova Jocić, there is mention of a character belonging to a minority ethnic group. However, that particular character is only a marginal one, and is not worked out in any greater detail. Despite the fact that the action in some of these books is happening in Macedonian cities which are markedly ethnically mixed, like Skopje for instance, the impression the reader gets is that the characters in these awarded children’s books live in a world which is monoethnic, without any trace of other cultures. For instance, in Gorjan Petrevski’s “Memories of Spomenka” (2006), out of a total number of 64 minor characters there isn’t a single representative of any of the ethnic minorities living in Macedonia.

2.    No minority author has been awarded – All of the recipients of the Vanco Nikoleski Award for children’s book of the year in the period 2001-2008 belong to the majority ethnicity.

3.    There are no foreigners – not only there is absence of the ethnic groups living in Macedonia, but there is also an absence of foreign nationals. This paints a picture of a community which is deeply isolated and focused inwards. In part, this can be seen as a consequence of the very strict visa regime imposed on Macedonian citizens by major developed countries, leaving no room for mobility and free exchange with other cultures of the world. Despite globalization, Macedonian readers of children’s book still live in a world patently bound to the local. 

What are the consequences to the readers of the aforementioned findings? The lack of representation of minority ethnic cultures in children’s books has a profoundly negative influence on children, both from the majority as well as from minority ethnic groups.

The fact that representatives of minority ethnic groups in the analyzed children’s literature are absent, or present only in a very small number, leaves children from minority cultures without any positive models of identification. Children of minority ethnic groups do not have the possibility to identify with a character and create an emotional link, nor can they see their own reflection in books. This can convey a message that these children are not important enough to be present in books.

As for children from the majority group, the lack of diversity in children’s books prevents them to learn to respect other cultures and behavior of people different from them.

The most important conclusion is that children have to learn that literature can often contain prejudices. While it is impossible to protect children from the bad influence – in the sense of a lack of respect for all human beings regardless of their differences - that can be exerted by books, movies, television, video-games, or their environment, it is thus all the more necessary for teachers, parents, and policy creators to learn to recognize what’s unacceptable in children’s books, both contemporary and classics. They are called upon to help young people recognize these elements, in order to be able to avoid the influence of negative stereotypes and prejudiced language.

In this chain of cultural policy stakeholders and actors, teachers are no doubt the most important element. They can teach children a lot about the cultural characteristics (and negative stereotypes) of cultural groups represented in their classrooms. Learning about different cultures offers schools with a greater potential than monoculture. And if the analysis of children’s books used in schools shows that a certain book includes negative stereotypes, teachers and parents should point this to the children. They should help children develop critical thinking skills and learn how to recognize stereotypes; and they should learn how to use books, good ones as well as bad ones, to help children learn about prejudices, but to also learn from them, in order to create future generations that will have respect for all members of society.

Publishers, too, play an important role. Unfortunately, children’s literature in the Macedonian cultural production occupies a marginal position, with very few titles published annually, and even less which consciously promotes peace, tolerance and cultural diversity. One important exception is the Vermilion Award for a new book for children that advances the culture of peace. The Award is given to books that encourage children to embrace difference and refuse any kind of discrimination, make them open to other cultures and ways of life, and promote the concepts and ideas of tolerance and peace. The hope is that this Award will inspire both the authors as well as other publishers to focus on producing books for children that not only entertain, but also teach them to become members of a truly intercultural society.

Marija Todorova, FYROM
31st IBBY Congress, Copenhagen 2008

List of recipients of the Vanco Nikoleski Award for best book for children and youth

Year    Title                                     Author                          Genre
2001    Spring Behind My Window    Tome Arsovski                Novel
2002    Grotesque Children              Vase Mancev                  Short stories
2003    Krsta and the Bead              Svetlana Hristova Jocić    Novel
2004    In the Heart of the Bird        Vlado Dimovski               Radio drama
2005    Big-Small Dot                      Cane Andreevski             Short stories
2006    Memories of Spomenka        Gorjan Petrevski             Novel
2007    The Great Adventure            Petre Dimovski               Novel


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