Jan Hansson

Speaking Time and Room No.: 2006-9-21 14:00-15:30 Room I

Speaker: Jan Hansson(Sweden)


IBBY, Macau, China, 2006

Ethics in Swedish children's literature and the promotion of Swedish literature

Jan Hansson, Sweden

Director of The Swedish institute for children’s books

In Sweden, promotion of literature, the educational system, children's literature and ethics are all intimately intertwined. This has been true since,1591, the year the first book for young readers was published in our country. One of our great contemporary children's authors, Mr Lennart Hellsing, once put it very well: "All educational art is poor art. All good art is educational." This formulation pinpoints the difficulties of disseminating values, the pleasure of reading and critical awareness in aesthetic contexts. And of course it also highlights a dilemma, both for decision-makers and for the individuals whose job includes the promotion of literature, such as librarians and teachers. My intervention will focus on the work done in schools in this respect, as well as on values and the role played by ethical issues in Swedish children's literature. There is, of course, an intellectual challenge in relation to reading fiction, because reading fiction encourages the reader to write. I dare to claim to have put the link between reading and writing quite well myself: Reading is to thinking what rain is to crops, while writing is to thinking what the earth is to a growing plant. This interaction between reading and writing is one of the distinctive features of reading promotion activities in Swedish schools.

Both preschools and schools follow a curriculum that specifies goals and guidelines for their activities. School attendance is compulsory for all children and young people in Sweden, which means that all children have both the right and the obligation to attend school up to and including the spring term in the year they turn sixteen.

Swedish public libraries play a decisive role in promoting literature for children below the age of six. They create a foundation on which teachers of reading and literature continue to build. Although librarians work without specified guidelines by which the children they reach have to account for what they have learned or how their values have been affected. Library work, like all activities for children in the public sector at local and national levels in Sweden is permeated by efforts to promote the development of democratic values, including the universals to freedom of expression and freedom of the press, the contents of United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the principle that all human beings are created equal.

Once school attendance was made compulsory in Sweden in 1842, it did not take long for a standard school reading book to be produced, depriving the church of much of its power over literacy and reading, as well as over reading promotion activities in Sweden. The goals of these activities have, however, changed over the centuries.

Over time, the stipulations regarding literature promotion and reading in the Swedish school curriculum have also changed. The objectives, as they are formulated at national level today, include following:

Schools are to actively and consciously bring an influence to bear on pupils, and encourage them to embrace the shared values in our society and to express them in their everyday lives.

Schools are to strive to ensure that all pupils:

• develop the ability to consciously form and express ethical standpoints based on knowledge and personal experience,

• respect the intrinsic value of others,

• reject oppression and abusive treatment of others and offer support to others who need it,

• learn to empathize with and understand the situations of others and develop the will to act with the best interests of their fellow human beings at heart,

• show respect for and safeguard their immediate environment as well as for the environment in a wider perspective.

Everyone who works at a school should:

• contribute to developing the pupils’ sense of community and solidarity as well as their sense of responsibility for people outside their immediate group,

• contribute, by their actions, to the school's reflecting a spirit of human solidarity and

• actively oppose persecution and oppression of individuals or groups.

• show respect for the individual pupil and organize daily work on a democratic basis.

Teachers should:

• clarify and discuss with the pupils the basic values of Swedish society and their consequences in terms of individual actions,

• openly present and discuss a variety of values, ideas and problems,

Swedish teachers have played a key role in literature promotion for the last century. For decades, the government has also financed the low-price re-publication of high quality literature for children and young people, at about four USD per copy -- a very low price for a book in Sweden. This same publishing house has also had a long tradition of giving all children a copy of an anthology of children's literature when they start preschool, and sometimes even earlier, by visiting well baby centres and distributing the anthology to parents .

In addition to this low-price state financed publication activity, several of the large Swedish publishing houses publish a variety of high quality literature for children and young readers. In Swedish schools, it is very common that a class has a collective reading project. The teacher may read aloud for the whole class, or the children may all read a book at the same time. Such reading and the discussions that follow during and after the reading of the book provide truly excellent opportunities to teach ethics and morals. The choice of literature will, of course, affect the subjects discussed, teachers are very aware of the importance both of their choices of books and of how they can guide the conversations in class. This makes it of interest for us to examine the values and norms disseminated in Swedish children's literature.

Before I go on, however, I want to add that I know that not every student gets to speak in classroom discussions. Teachers are, however, aware of the need to be both democratic and attentive to each individual, and this they try to be aware themselves and to make their students aware that children are different. They come from different social backgrounds and classes, and there are also gender differences. The children in the class can use their reading to discuss ethical issues in a way that respects all their differences.

All children in Sweden attend school, as I said before, and almost of them also have access to other ways of acquiring knowledge. Virtually all Swedish households have access to the Internet and also consume large amounts of information from television. The quality of this information varies, of course, but it does offer the viewer some knowledge. In this arena, the teaching of Swedish literature plays a key role in enabling communication of the norms and standards of society, as well as in contributing to each individual’s personal development opportunities.

Compensatory strategies are included in the fundamental principle of the Swedish educational system, which is to ensure every child the same preconditions for acquiring a good education and good language skills, cultural competence and values irrespective of their economic and social backgrounds. Since literature is used to implement this principle in the classroom, we can see that the promotion of literature is based on similar goals.

The Swedish state allocates 6.5 million USD annually as support to projects for the promotion of literature and to the distribution of books so that Swedish public libraries have at least one copy of approximately 50% of books published every year. The Swedish parliament has been forceful in expressing the ambition of the parliament and the government to strengthen the role of reading. There are several reasons, some of them contradictory. Fundamentally, literature is about opposition; about reflecting, examining the problematic aspects of and questioning the prevailing values and structures of society. Literature also has an element of reproduction of values, as mentioned above. When we consider ethics, we must also examine what it is that drives the authorities to subsidize literature. Supporting the promotion of literature for children and young readers is in itself an example of good ethical principles on the part of the Swedish government. Decisions regarding how the funding is disbursed are made by independent experts who work in high-level groups. The government also funds the annual publication of a catalogue presenting most of the literature for children and young people published during the year. It is distributed free of charge to all schools and preschools in Sweden, as well as to the libraries and the general public. There is also the national annual Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, when the state awards a prize amounting to some 700 000 USD. Mrs Katherine Paterson, the most recent recipient of the award, is with us here in Macau. The objective of the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award is also to promote reading – even beyond our Swedish national borders.

The shortcomings that also mark Swedish literature promotion can be classified as "education and knowledge". Unfortunately, many young teachers today know less than we would like them to about children's literature and about the pedagogy of literature. Another shortcoming is that Sweden does not have a training programme in children's librarianship. However, there are various projects ongoing within the area of literature promotion, though most are of an instrumental rather than an aesthetic nature. The same applies to research to a large extent, although aesthetic research on children's literature is beginning to increase.

Sweden also has its Swedish Institute for Children’s Books (the SBI), of which I am currently the director. It is a foundation with a special library open to the public and an information centre for children's and young people's literature. The aim is to promote Swedish children's and young people's literature both in Sweden and abroad.

What values are reflected in Swedish children's literature? From the point of view of content, hardly anything is taboo in Swedish literature today, although I cannot say there are many if any books where the hero is a happy, greedy corporate executive. Children's literature is almost always written from the perspective of the child, and expresses solidarity with children, often in relation to adults, as well as containing fictional adult characters who are wise and who can support children in combating injustice, oppression and abuse. To generalize, I think we can define the ethical stance in Swedish children's literature as "secularised Christian ethics". The authors penetrate serious moral dilemmas, balancing good against evil in a way that means that the good almost always prevails. On occasion, they portray criminals or morally dubious characters who either get away with their crimes or with whom the author or narrator appears to feel so sympathy. Every year a small number of Swedish and Nordic books for young readers appear in which the narrator is morally fallible. These books tend to provoke strong reactions, depending on the attitude of the reader to both literature and ethics. And these are the books that place the highest demands, in terms of knowledge, on the part of the promoters of reading, as well as their ability to involve young readers in dialogue and to react sensitively. Much Swedish children's literature contains elements with a critique of civilization, and/or a questioning of authority. There are, of course, the books that only question these things in a mechanistic way, or which are only trying to appeal to readers but without any artistic quality. Those books can be disregarded, but there are also Swedish books that reflect deep awareness both social injustice and the imminent threats to our environment. Contemporary Swedish children's literature also often comments on the ways in which Sweden has become a multicultural country in recent years.

We who work with children's literature in Sweden have been deeply influenced over the past few decades by British author and pedagogue Mr. Aidan Chambers. I think he may be more of a known name in Sweden than in the UK or the US. His methods for disseminating and promoting literature and the power of literature use dialogue (or book-talking, as he calls it) as a key tool. In his view, literature fulfils its true potential through dialogue that takes place in the extension of discussion of a book, once the original promoter has completed his or her task. Such dialogue triggers a new desire to read, and so the interplay between dialogue and planned, conscious literature promotion comes to benefit the individual, society as a whole, and all human and intellectual development as well as knowledge enhancement.

When literature promotion is successful and a society therefore consists of independent, democratic, reading individuals, society gains a greater capacity to gain international market shares in all sectors. So the market economy also stands to benefit from good promotion of literature, and from children learning to reflect, on the basis of reading, about human dignity and ethics.

I would like to conclude by telling you a little story by Astrid Lindgren, Sweden's most prominent and internationally renowned author:

It is the tale of a young mother who still thought that children would grow up spoilt if they were not given regular beatings with a birch rod. Deep down, she did not really believe it, but one day, when her young son had done something wrong; she decided that the time had come for his first beating. She told him to go outside and pick out a birch rod for her to use. The little boy went out and was gone a long time. At last he returned in tears and said: “I couldn’t find a birch rod, but here is a stone you can throw at me instead.” Suddenly seeing things from the child’s point of view, the mother promptly burst into tears as well. The child must have thought: “My mother wants to hurt me, so a stone will do the job as well as a birch rod.”

The mother wrapped her arms around her son and they both cried. Then she placed the stone on a shelf in her kitchen, where it remained as a permanent reminder of the promise she had made to herself – no more violence ever again!

I leave you with those words of Astrid Lindgren's.

Jan Hansson