Loreta Jakonyte

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

Speaker: Loreta Jakonyte (Lithuania)


Dr. Loreta Jakonyte

Lithuanian section of IBBY,

Institute of Lithuanian Literature and Folklore


New Reality Challenges Literature: Fiction For Children in Post-Soviet Lithuania

If we believe in a close dialectical relation between the literary field and the social world (as many contemporary literary theories suppose), the theme of this congress, “Children’s Literature and Social Development”, is very favourable to discuss fiction for children's in a broader context as a social and cultural phenomenon, to focus on interactions between texts and their environment. An additional aspect of ethics (especially social ethics) addresses to the central issues of literature (how it interprets child’s life in a family, in a community, in a nation; how it deals with the topics of good and evil, of freedom, responsibility, social justice, etc.) that are of particular importance, since “children turn to books to make sense of themselves and their world” (Laurie Langbauer) .

National children’s literatures of the post-Soviet region present an interesting material for discussions on various social aspects of culture. During the last sixteen years, they have experienced deep changes due to dramatic political, economic, and social transformations of their states and societies. For Lithuanian literary field these years are the first decades of post-totalitarian existence, the first decades without official cultural ideology and censorship, and the first ones with “free market” mechanisms. Therefore it is interesting to question, how this new social reality challenges children's literature, how the imaginative worlds react to the problematic sociality of transitional countries, what topics they cover, what worldviews suggest, what images of child and childhood construct.

Every level of the field of Lithuanian children’s literature - from the economic to textual - seem to be affected by the post-Soviet social changes. New structure, values and habits of the society, different forms of the financing, producing and supporting system of art, the expansion of popular culture, the flow of literary translations have heavily challenged the sociocultural prestige of Lithuanian children’s books among readers, publishers, and critics. However, despite new social and cultural rivals (like show-business, high-technologies, etc.), fiction for children keep the interest of Lithuanian society and nearly four or five hundred new titles are published every year (for the audience of 3.5 million inhabitants of the country), approximately twenty percent of them are new works of Lithuanian authors (usually half-and-half of poetry and prose). The variety of topics, genres, stylistics, and addressees is notably increasing. Literary fairy tales and fantasy remain the most popular genres, but there are also inventive books of short stories, novels, poetry, and picturebooks that exploit realistic, fantastic, psychological, didactic, adventurous, lyrical, historical types of narrative.

The most obvious literary reaction to the social development is a new set of topics (though not unique for the international context of children’s literature, but quite fresh for the local literary history). Paradoxically, the fiction of the first post-Soviet years almost did not reflect radically changing social matters (the dominating tendency was to withdraw into idealistic settings of fairy-tales). The prose of recent years, however, fills in this gap. By interpreting new reality, writers examine such topics as violence in society and the family, drugs, sexual abuse, street conflicts, crimes, and suicide. As particular problems authors emphasize social inequality, poverty, unemployment, and emigration; often create characters of homeless orphans and abandoned children whose parents go abroad to earn money. Disharmony of this new life usually is presented from a highly critical perspective (an example of the most pessimistic, even tragic interpretation might be an extremely dark image of a lonely parentless and homeless teenager girl who experiences the death of her father, violence of her asocial foster-parents family, the escape, harshness of several children’s homes, a murder scene and feels being “very very old”; her only wish is to hide from all the word and that nobody would ever find her ).

The genre of problem novel (mostly for young adult) with realistic literary conventions is not the only one that represents new reality. Many imprints of new social issues can be also seen in recent fantasy or even literary fairy-tales based on the nonsense stylistics. For example, a novel that attracts teenagers’ audience by the settings of a mysterious computer game with stereotyped decorations (zombies and pools of blood), also touches social, moral and psychological aspects: virtual reality as a possibility to escape the real social world or to recreate lost families . Or a book that fuses together profound biblical stories and funny nonsense talk and presents two angels Michael and Gabriel (playful, sometimes waggish creatures with a good sense of humour), who teach Christian verities and discuss complex social problems like violence against children or abortions .

According to Peter Hunt, children’s books tend to portray society, as it wishes to be; they reflect what society thinks is culturally and educationally suitable for its children, from protective, idealistic, or educational motives . Thus, the books that indicate, demonstrate and criticize social world in general or the reality of the post-Soviet Lithuania, at the same time suggest a harmonious social ethics (at least as an ideal or an aim) and send a positive message that friendship, help, attention to others, thankfulness for small mercies is of the most value. In addition, this very fact that literature of nonsense has gained strength during the post-Soviet period refers to the changing understanding both of a child and children’s literature, when direct educational intentions and moralization are replaced by jolly plays.

Alongside the type of problem novel with dark sides of the society, new opportunities of post-Soviet independence inspire Lithuanian authors to launch into modern topics such as multiculturalism, social, cultural, and cyberspace identities, gender roles, power of individuality. For instance, a story that explores diverse social, moral, political themes about a shy and sensible son of a diplomat that due to often movement can adapt neither to a foreign country, nor to the homeland. He stops talking and develops a deep relationship only with his nanny, a refugee from Angola . It should be noted that Lithuanian books of recent years markedly expand the geography of literary landscapes: actions take place in Lithuania, Sweden, France, India, Turkey, America and so on including other planets. This extension opens a possibility to introduce to young readers other cultures, religions, races, exotic lands, etc.

Literature depends on many factors; therefore generalizations have to be made cautiously. However, it might be concluded that in Lithuania the social and literary worlds interact fairly actively. Local children’s literature records new social and moral dilemmas; presents different social structures, family models, and child images; discovers new cultures and creates alternative social ethics.