Torben Weinreich

How children’s literature has reflected actual history
– and how historical experiences have influenced on stories for children

First of all, I would like to thank The International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) for asking me to speak about children’s literature in a historical context.

In my talk I will deal with the interaction between society and children’s literature, the effect society has had on children’s literature, both with regard to form and content and the way society has endeavoured to promote children’s literature – often a particular type of children’s literature – through libraries, schools and other institutions.

Before I come to this particular interaction, and assuming we all agree that society and its institutions do exert a great influence on children’s literature, I would like to draw your attention to the fact that this influence has not been only from society to children’s literature, but also from children’s literature to society. Children’s literature has indeed influenced society.

Let me give you concrete examples right away, starting with the best known of them all in terms of major social issues and decision-making: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin from 1852. This book, with its moving account of the wretched conditions suffered by black slaves on plantations in America, became an enormous success and, after having been published in the magazine The National Era, sold more than 300,000 copies of the book in its first year alone. It was the kind of book that set an agenda. Legend has it that when the US president Abraham Lincoln met the author, he greeted her as "the little lady who made this big war", in other words, the American Civil War.

Of course, other examples of the direct influence of children’s literature on the course of society can be found, but undoubtedly the greatest influence it has had has been on our view of the child. Throughout history there have been various examples of books which have been regarded as controversial because they saw children in a different way from the dominant view at the time. You just have to think of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking. Not to mention Hans Christian Andersen, who set a completely new agenda as far as children’s storytelling was concerned, notably with his idea of using children’s own language and re-shaping it in an artistic context. I will come back to this later in my talk. I am sure that all of you here today, from so many parts of the world, can think of examples with corresponding significance from your own literature.

By focusing at the start of this talk on the influence children’s literature has had on society, not the other way round, I would like to emphasise that children’s literature is not a frail, little dinghy tossing around out of control on society’s stormy waters. No, it is not a case of ‘poor’ children’s literature; it has had huge significance both for individuals and society as a whole. For our ways of thinking and behaving.

But let me focus now on society’s significance for children’s literature and underline my most important point: children’s literature has always been situated at the intersection between art and pedagogy. Society, adults, in other words, have always had their own motives with children’s literature. Let’s start at the beginning.

In the beginning was the story. Language was used to communicate information and to retain experiences. In addition, man was able, through language, to explain the immediately unexplainable and to see things in a larger context.

In principle everyone was productive; everyone was able to tell their story or contribute to existing narratives. And all narratives were constantly changing, not only as they went from mouth to mouth, but also in the narrative situation itself when the listeners could intervene with corrections or new elements. One has to imagine that there were hierarchies of narrators, such that some were listened to with greater interest than others, partly because of their general status and special insight and partly because of their ability to tell a story.

It is also possible, if not probable, that there was a range of narrative sub-cultures: women told stories to women, and children to children. In any case, children acquired the necessary knowledge and skills not only through first-hand experiences but also through listening to stories.

However, just as everyone was principally a producer, they were also consumers. They were listeners. And, what is more important, in the narrative situation they were in the same room at the same time.

If we compare this with the situation today, we see that there has indeed been some immense changes. Even if the classic oral narrative and the native communities still physically survive in certain environments, today we encounter most narratives in a completely different environment and they have quite a different purpose. We find them in books, magazines, comic strips and newspapers, in other words in the printed media, and on radio, TV and the computer. And – not to forget – these narratives are available all around us twenty four hours a day.

And the narratives are no longer tied to the narrative community itself. We are not producers to anywhere the same extent as before, but we have become consumers to an overwhelming degree. There has been, so to speak, a specialisation: some people tell stories, while others listen and watch. At the same time the narrator and those narrated have moved away from each other in time or space in most cases, or – and this is usually the case – in both time and space. In the process the narrative underwent continuous development, but there were some sudden surges along the way. The first forward was the development of written language, at first very simple, but gradually becoming more complex. The next stage was when people began to write on paper, such as the monks of the Middle Ages did. A simple form of mass communication was under way, one which received a great impetus when Gutenberg in the 15th century made it possible for us to print many copies of the same book, a technology which has constantly developed through the following centuries. The result was reducing the cost of printing books and what you could call a democratisation of reading. Other factors in this democratisation of reading were the introduction of schools and later on libraries, which also lent books to the public free of charge. The state, the community, paid.

We have through history moved from a simple to a more complex form of communication, which is often bound up with a loss of something mere genuine and original in return for something superficial. You can say that what we once had, has been a “Paradise Lost”. Throughout this process, there has at the same time been a development in narrating itself. Here I have in mind particularly books as a medium and literature. This is because the development of a written language has enabled us to work with language in a completely new way. We can alter and add; we can change our minds and correct. We can be more precise and refine without the consumer even finding out what has been changed. This is in contrast to oral narration.

As a result of this, an elaborated written language was developed. To a large extent narratives became literature. They became art. Folk tales were no longer merely pre-existing narratives which were retold to others. Folk tales were now something which was created in this special, elaborated language, either entirely new tales or those based on old tales, perhaps collected and written down. One only has to consider the way Hans Christian Andersen wrote his fairy tales in the nineteenth century.

The above is a brief summary of the history of the narrative, literature and book. The gap between the producer and the consumer has become greater, especially over the last century. New media have emerged and all media have become mass media. In more and more places throughout the world, people, children included, have access to an enormous range of narratives. Where it was once the spoken language which dominated, and later the written language, today it is virtual narratives on TV, for example, which supply us with most of our fiction, especially in the form of films or TV series. The book is still there, but it is only one medium among others.

In some countries, primarily the so-called welfare states, which consider it important that children have free schooling and free use of libraries, attempts have been made to steer this development which otherwise would be completely controlled by commercial interests. To this end, educationalists, teachers and librarians have been appointed to introduce children and others to literature. This commercial control has been counteracted, sometimes directly via legislation, sometimes by facilitating access to fiction in book form.   

Let’s concentrate on the child for a moment. When we choose to think of children as something special, we, of course, attribute instinctive characteristics to them in doing so.

We decide, that  1) the child needs to learn something, in order to develop into a full member of society and a mature and independent individual, and at the same time 2) that this child needs protection, and here we – parents and among others teachers – are responsible.

The general view is that there are some things which children should not be confronted with or learn until they have reached a certain stage of development, a certain age. The child can be harmed if no attention is paid to these considerations.

Children’s literature has always, throughout its history, been required to consider the child’s special needs. Here two types of consideration are identified:
    - Firstly, literature (or at least literature designed to be read by children themselves) should be of a kind a child can actually read. This means that it should be suited to the child in both form and content, what we researchers into children’s literature usually call “adaptation”. This may mean shorter sentences and fewer difficult words. It also means that the book must include thematic content which is interesting to children and is understood by them.
    - Secondly, literature must be such that it takes account of both the child’s needs and society’s needs. The child’s needs may be, for example, a need for security, which in some people’s eyes would rule out description of some aspects of human life. Society’s needs may be to inform the child about the world it is living in here and now, and what it means to be an adult in this society. I must emphasise here that what is referred to as “the child’s needs” are defined by adults who produce, that is, write, publish or distribute books, and that, therefore, it can be immensely difficult to distinguish whose needs are being taken care of: the society’s or the child’s.

We are living in a time when the essential nature of children’s literature is the subject of much debate, also in a research context, inspired by, among other things, new currents in modern children’s literature. Perhaps we are heading towards an era where we find two types of children’s literature:
    - A children’s literature which is closer to the original narrative, also in an aesthetic sense, whose intention is still, to varying degrees, to inform and to educate. It is a literature which seeks and frequently finds a broad readership and which is often used in schools, for example.  
    - And another children’s literature which has a more elaborate language, and which seeks to a greater degree to be recognised as art; at the same time it is a form of children’s literature which in some cases consciously tries to appeal to, and does in fact attract, adult readers. Some commentators talk openly of “adulteration” as a tendency in recent children’s literature, others talk about its “ambiguity”.  

Now I would like to return to the more concrete interaction between society and children’s literature, that is, the way in which society influences children’s literature and the way children’s literature reflects the society in which it is created.

Society sets the backdrop for children’s literature. In society the technology is developed, that is a pre-requisite for the medium of the book (and children’s magazines) to evolve. I can give you an important example. Very early on in the history of children’s literature there were books with coloured illustrations. However, there was still not the technology to print books with colour illustrations. That did not happen until the mid-nineteenth century. Up to that point, every single item was coloured by hand or “illuminated”, as it is known. By the way, it was often children who carried out this work. Hundreds and hundreds of children sat colouring in the black and white drawings, one book after the other, especially in the large factories in Germany where the children were called “Malerbatzen”. When the technology to print books in colour arrived, it was a genuine revolution, as indeed it was later when machines were developed to print books in much greater and far cheaper runs. This led to a democratisation of book-reading, which was later underpinned by the founding of public libraries from which children could borrow books.

It is also society that ensures, via legislation and regulations, that children’s literature does reach children and that it has a place in libraries, schools and kindergartens. In many countries, Denmark included, it is laid down that children must engage with good literature and there must be dedicated libraries in schools. At the same time, young people who train to become librarians and teachers must study children’s literature. It is stipulated in the syllabus. In other words, society has decided that children’s literature is important and that requisite resources should be made available for the purchase and promotion of children’s books.

It is obvious that a framework of this kind has even greater significance for the impact and reputation of children’s literature. However, it also has significance for the type of literature that is published in the respective country. The situation is such that society not only promotes children’s literature in general but also a particular brand of literature. One could say that, in this way, children’s literature is in service to society. And that is not necessarily a good thing. One only has to look at how totalitarian regimes have used children’s literature for political purposes throughout history.

At last we come to the significance society has for literature itself, that is, the what and the how of writing. Literary content and form. We see the value of society at its clearest in those historical novels which are used to teach children about historical events and to strengthen national solidarity, for good or ill once again. In general, however, the society – that any literary work is written in – will leave its mark, regardless of whether it is the author’s intention or not. I said earlier that society had some significance for literary content and form. And we must not forget form. All the way through history there have been many discussions about how we can and should write for children, not only about what we can tell children. A good example, here, is the work of Hans Christian Andersen.

When Hans Christian Andersen’s first fairy tales came out in Denmark in 1835, he was criticsised on a number of accounts. The stories were said to be immoral and potentially harmful for children. Andersen wrote in a style unaccustomed for readers. He used the spoken language, including the spoken language of children. One critic wrote: “One may not put words together in print in the same disorganised way that one does when speaking.”

In 1842, when Andersen was firmly established as a writer of fairy tales in the public consciousness, another critic wrote: “To write fairy tales for children or common people in some peculiar manner, or to imitate in art the common people’s natural but also long-winded and clumsy, incoherent style, or what we recognize as a childlike style and tone is to corrupt children in a tasteless way.”

Despite this criticism, Andersen continued to write in his own style. He described his style as “natural”. He wrote in his diary: “Let me follow my natural instinct. Why should I follow a fashion or go at a trot? If I amble around, it’s because it’s my natural pace.”

It is frequently overlooked that one of Andersen’s great virtues as an innovator in children’s literature is his issue of the spoken language in the written genre. It was a revolution! Andersen put his feelings into words himself, almost as a kind of poetics:
“You should be able to hear the narrator in any writing; therefore the language should reflect the spoken form. The stories are for children, but adults should be able to listen, too.”

As far back as New Year’s Day in 1835, Andersen told a good friend that he was writing some fairy tales: “I am trying to win over the new generations you know!” he said.

You see: Andersen was very much aware that his fairy tales would be read aloud to children, and that adults would be present. In a letter to another Danish author, he wrote in 1843: “Now I tell stories from my own head, I take an adult idea and then tell it to children while remembering that mother and father are often listening, and you have to consider them.”

In modern research on children’s literature, we would talk about the “ambiguity” of a children’s story or perhaps “double address”, that is, that we can have more than one reader or listener inscribed in a work for children.           

If we turn our attention to modern children’s literature, to the thousands upon thousands of children’s books published every year all around the world, is there anything we can learn from H.C. Andersen? Notably, his demand that writers should go their own way, choose their own stories and write them in the way they desire. If we don’t have writers who challenge our understanding of what good literature is, both in terms of form and content, children’s literature will lose the social significance it, in fact, has had. Remember that the children’s literature we still read often has a popular dimension and a more elitist and experimental function, as we see with Hans Christian Andersen. Children’s books that were once regarded as odd and perhaps controversial, we see today as literary classics and we still read them.

Does that mean that we should write and publish all sorts of children’s books?  The answer is yes, at least so long as they do not infringe others’ copyrights or break the laws of democratic countries. The principle of freedom of speech also applies to children’s literature.

But is that the same as saying that all published children’s books should be compulsory reading for children? No, not necessarily. On a day-to-day basis, it is adults who are responsible for children, that is, parents and, among others, teachers who have to assume responsibility for selecting books, especially when they are read aloud. As important as it is that books can be published freely, it is just as important that adults and children can select from those available. That also means that they can reject titles.

I do not doubt that different countries or cultures have different concepts of what constitutes good children’s literature. And nor do I doubt that it is important to challenge social norms and rules. Let me give you an example – let us imagine a book with a very particular plot: two children, a brother and sister, are alone at home after the father has left for work in the morning. They are bored and start smoking Dad’s cigars. Then they play with his chain saw and cut all the furniture to pieces. Unfortunately, the boy also saws off the girl’s arm, but they stick it back on with glue and plasters. Then they drink petrol, set light to it and breathe out huge flames from their mouths. In the end, they play with the oil-fired burner and blow the house sky high. When the father comes home, he merely confirms that the house is no more and invites the children to a burger bar. Can you write and publish a book like this? The answer is yes, because it already exists. It was published in Denmark and is entitled “Lars and Lone Alone at Home”. A few years ago, when it was chosen to be part of a European travelling exhibition called “Europe – a dream in pictures”, it caused quite a stir.

In reality, of course, the book is a parody of the so-called “bad luck stories” of which there were many in the late eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was the kind of book that, similarly, the German writer Heinrich Hoffmann in 1844 made fun of in the world-famous Der Struwwelpeter [Shock-headed Peter]. In fact, this is what is done in the Danish book I have just mentioned. Some may fear perhaps that, after listening to this story, children will smoke cigars, drink petrol or blow up the house. Others say that children will be amused by the obvious exaggerations and see them as precisely that: exaggerations, not representations of a potential reality. At any event, this is a book which cannot fail to challenge our concepts of children’s writing and its techniques.

Today I have chosen to set my sights on children’s literature in the past and  present, especially the interaction between children’s literature and its social background, and I have stressed that society in very many areas has great significance for children’s literature, both literature as such – its form and content – and its promotion through schools, libraries, etc.

If we look into the future with all its new technological advances, even for children’s story telling, there is good reason to pose the question that many occasionally do ask: Will people still write, publish and read children’s books ten, twenty or fifty years from now?

The death of the book has been announced many times since the end of the 19th century; in fact, every time a new medium has appeared. First it was films and comic strips, then radio, then TV, then video, then the computer, and now the internet. Despite all this, the book has survived, also as a medium. Literature has survived, also as art. And that is the way it will continue in the future.

Let’s look at the world we are living in here and now – the bookworld. There have never been written so many books before. Never been published so many books before. Never been sold so many books before. And never been read so many books before. This also applies to children’s books, if we look at both the reading in schools and kindergartens – and in the children’s spare time. When the numbers of children-readers constantly increase, one of the explanations is that we have had success in the struggle against illiteracy. Never before – according to Unicef – have there been so few children, who do not go to school and do not learn to read. Let us hope that this struggle against illiteracy will continue. And let us in particular hope that all the girls around the world will come to school and learn to read, too.  It is a human right.   

The simplest explanation for the success of the book is – that it is a superb technology. It is practical in a lot of ways, a great deal more practical than modern media. As an eleven year old girl said to me when I was researching children’s reading habits: “Books are good, because they don’t make any noise, and you can read them under the duvet and take them with you to the toilet.” That is why the book, even as we know it today, will survive. A factor to this is of course that strong social forces, especially within the school or library systems, and book enthusiasts all over the world, like you, members of The International Board on Books for Young People, will ensure its survival.

Thank you!      

Torben Weinreich, 31st IBBY Congress, Copenhagen, Denmark.

September 2008