”Blaze new trails ... Day after day ... new trails.”
By Oscar K.
THE DREAM OF A YESTERDAY’S CHILDHOOD
The vast majority of the children’s books published in Demark today follow in the wake of the hydra-headed entertainment industry that calls itself “child culture”.
A book is a commodity to be sold. It must be simple, easily accessible, targeted and classifiable, theme-oriented, suspense-filled and entertaining. There are easy-reading books, series books, watered-down classics, theme books, and copiously illustrated, low-cost foreign fact books. Moreover, there are republications of sure-fire neoclassics and nostalgic reprints of series from when (grand)dad and (grand)mom were children. Recent series of books may again be divided into boys’ books and girls books; books about football and horses are taking the market by storm, a trend that makes you think of an era before the watershed year of 1967, when Cecil Bødker, Ole Lund Kirkegaard and Flemming Quist Møller, among others, broke with the conception of the good little girl and the brave little boy with the Silas books, Lille Virgil ('Little Virgil') and Cykelmyggen Egon ('Egon the Bike Gnat').
It may be that in all this harking-back to the good old days there is the well- meaning intention of keeping an often harsh reality out of children’s books and packing problems away into simplified theme books about divorce, bullying, racism, etc., but the question is: for whose sake – children or adults?
A CHILD’S INTUITION
Until I was five, I lived near the railway in one of those big, dark buildings with empty, windowless facades that were hard to tell apart, except for the bronzed, pretzel-shaped bakery sign that hung over the door of my grandfather’s shop. From the back, the buildings gave rise to constant confusion. Once I had entered a stairwell and gone up the jumble of stairs, I would usually lose myself in a labyrinth of strange apartments and hallways and unexpected doors leading to distant courtyards and forget all about the original goal of my expedition. Only after the course of several days in some grey dawn did I pick up the scent of a bakery and remember my way back through the wire fencing and the cracks in decaying billboards.
Our house was full of large cupboards, pale mirrors, heavy ceramic ashtrays and vases painted with otters and deer by lakes covered with lily pads. On a shelf was a photo of my father as a boy together with his big sisters, Hedvig and Else, and their dog Pussy, who was stuffed when he died and now sat in a corner, staring into the air with his brown glass eyes.
Else married a man who was sitting in jail for fraud. Every now and then, she schlepped home a lover to one of the available rooms. She would call me in afterwards, knowing that I was always somewhere nearby. Else would be sliding on her stockings when I came in and, beneath the edge of her girdle, I could glimpse the pubic hair between her bare thighs. "Would you go pick us up some napoleons?" she would laugh. "I’ll give you a big kiss."
One day, I found myself on a broad stairway in front of an open door with a flesh-coloured poster depicting a pregnant woman in a profile cross-section, so you could see the unborn child in her belly. The locale was filled with medical placards showing cross-sections of foetuses and torsos, with disturbingly accurate drawings of veins and arteries. It was like being in church. I didn’t know what it was all about, but I couldn’t help but think of Else.
Much later, I found out that it was a sort of church, a Freemasons’ Lodge, which had made the hall available for an exhibition against abortion. And I suddenly understood the connection to Else, who used illegal abortion as birth control.
I think children very often intuit and understand more than we care to believe. Even though normal children can mimic their parents’ smile shortly after birth, walk after a year (more or less), and are capable of communicating rather adroitly with two or three years under their belt, many children’s books speak to them as if they were mentally deficient (minus-minded) or not very bright.
STRANGE, WONDERFUL BOOKS
With the constant focus on economics and the golden mean in the children’s book market, it might be feared that all publications would be conformist, that experiment and innovation would disappear in self-censorship. But there are niches. And among more traditional storytellers, there is also a desire to update the concepts of the book and reading for the 21st century, because it makes sense to tell stories to children in 2008 that are different from those told to children in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Every so often, books appear that are hard to categorize, because they are not aimed at a particular age group but at readers in general; they do not have monochord themes and plot sequences but are complex; they allow the dizzyingly incomprehensible to become the object of a reader’s wonder – books that do not invite rapid and comfortable reading but require effort and contemplation. Strange, wonderful books that are game for being ironic, subtle, and multi-faceted and have a wry humour. Books that can be read many times, because there are always new, exciting words and things to discover in the text and pictures. Books such as Halvvejen til Rafael ('Halfway to Raphael'), Hundrede helt og aldeles firkantede historier ('A Hundred Squared Stories'), Grænsebørn ('Border Children'), To knapper i hånden ('Two Buttons in Hand'), Engelbert H og den sidste chance ('Engelbert H and the Last Chance'), Mørkebarnet ('The Dark Child'), De onde byer ('The Cities of Sin'), Den sorte bog ('The Black Book'), Mustafas Kiosk ('Mustapha’s Kiosk'), Slangehund ('Snakedog'), Et hjem med gevær ('A Home with a Gun'), På jagt ('A’hunting'), Gaven ('The Gift'), Sisdæ sjangsæ ('Lasd Shanse'), Øremanden ('The Ear Man') and Hr. Lykke ('Mr. Happy'). These books have great artistic quality, and this is a problem, because they can be difficult to fit into the framework generally laid out by adults for children’s books. And they aren’t just about football or horses, divorce or bullying but about life and death in general and in particular. There is no limit to what they can be about.
“CAN IT GET ANY WORSE?”
asked reviewer Steffen Larsen recently, describing the series De tre ('The Three'), "which hitherto has dealt with such topics as ultra-violence, bad manners, and made fun of marginalized groups like black and autistic children." And he supplied the answer himself: “Yes, absolutely! Still, it is hard to imagine any new taboo to be broken that is more extreme than Børnenes bedemand ('The Children’s Undertaker'). But Karrebæk and K. will find one, I’m sure. There is always the Holocaust!”
And he’s right about that. If I could depict the Holocaust with such gentle grace as Roberto Benigni does in his comedy 'Life Is Beautiful', I wouldn’t hesitate. I would take on the Holocaust, or anything else, if it made sense.
Bjarne Reuter, Louis Jensen, Lilian Brøgger, Bent Haller, Dorte de Neergaard, Els Cools, Kim Fupz, Cecilie Eken, Peter Mouritzen, Dorte Karrebæk, Jakob Martin Strid, Helle Vibeke Jensen, Cato Thau, Rasmus Bregnhøi, Søren Jessen, Kenneth Bøgh Andersen, Hanne Bartholin, Ida Jessen and Hanne Kvist do it. With great love, subtlety and humour, they depict offbeat characters, lonely children and adults, death and hope and love, they talk about incest, lies, violence, God, sexuality, alcoholism and drug abuse, abortion and euthanasia … everything that belongs to a more accurate description of the world shared by children and adults. A world many adults believe we should spare our children – at least, in books. A pleasant thought. And somewhat mendacious, when one considers the things that children encounter every day – on television, films and on the Internet.
IT'S NOT THE FACT THAT IT IS SAID
Yes, it is. Because it’s said. Journalists wallow incoherently through terror, war and destruction, sex scandals, raw violence and bestial murder. There is not much gentle grace there – at most, quickly pronounced judgments and titillating warnings about clips with bloody scenes.
But a book can be something else. A nuanced, artistic presentation of characters and worlds – without condemnation – can provide a completely different and complex experience from that of the disjointed assaults of the news. It is not about what you say but how and why you say it. It is not about provoking or offending someone but telling a story that means something. Books should not necessarily be understood but elicit a desire to understand.
And, fortunately, there are still books like this, albeit with limited space in the Danish children’s book market.