Discussion: Trends in Lithuanian Children’s Literature (2000-2010)
While on the conference floor crashing an IBBY reception (more on that later) I was handed a copy of the IBBY publication Bookbird. You know there was a time, best beloved, when I momentarily considered naming my own blog in that way, before accepting that it was a word already taken (I would have also have gone with “The Fourth Owl” which is an ACM reference for you library geeks out there). In grad school I had access to all the English language periodicals that dealt with children’s literature and on my lunch break I could spend an infinite amount of time perusing everything from The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books to more scholarly tracts like The Lion and the Unicorn. I always had a soft spot in my heart for Bookbird, though, because the articles were so specific. You might run across a discussion of varying Hans Christian Andersen translations into English, or you could read Helen Frost discussing her book The Braid with kids in Indiana and Scotland.
I mention all this because Bookbird sometimes has a tendency to be so specific that its topics leave you reeling. In the April 2011 edition I was handed there are pieces with names like “Perceptions of Africa in Slovenian poetry for children” and more along those lines. The Illustrator’s Cafes at the Bologna Book Fair work very much in the same manner. Some are so strikingly specific that you cannot help but be curious. Such was my state of mind when I sat in on a discussion of “Trends in Lithuanian Children’s Literature 2000-2010”.
What do I know about Lithuanians? Well, they make great knitting patterns (my mom can do them, should you ask her and there’s more info on their crafts here). And they had a rough time of it under the Soviets (as shown in the recently published YA novel Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Septys). Aside from that, I hadn’t a clue. I have no Lithuanian roots so everything that I was hearing and seeing was new to me.
Now since this was a discussion of Lithuanian stuff and featured a panel of four Lithuanians, I don’t think it was crazy of me to assume that at least part of the talk would take place in that very language. Not the case. As with most Illustrator’s Cafes, if you speak the English language you are in luck. Every discussion I saw over the course of the conference was at the very least translated into English at some point. Most remarkable. In the case of this particular talk it was ALL in English. Every person on the panel spoke it with aplomb. At the start a translator (a woman I mentally dubbed Super Translator Woman for her amazing skills) asked if anyone in the audience wanted the discussion translated into Italian. However she asked this in English and I suspect that anyone who wanted to take her up on it figured out what she was saying a little too late because next thing you know she was outta there. The panelists were on their own.
The discussion was split amongst four speakers. The host was one Vita Mozuraite, an associate professor at Vilnius University (in Lithuania), who informed us right off the bat that she was not Lithuanian. Gotcha. The other expert in the field was Kestutis Urba, an associate professor at the same university and the chairman of the Lithuanian section of IBBY. He was also the editor-in-chief of a magazine called Rubinaitis that “is dedicated to the problems of books for children.” I think that may mean that the magazine discusses problem novels or novels with social issues in them, since that was the topic he seemed to know the best.
On the other side of the equation we had Vytautas V. Landsbergis and Urte Uliune. This duo was sort of held up as examples of two completely different generations of Lithuanian children’s authors. Landsbergis was an old school author, starting his career under Soviet rule, sort of becoming a national star thanks to his books for kids. Urte was much much younger. One of these wunderkind authors who grew up reading Landsbergis and has published two books for kids, though she is still attending college at (you guessed it) Vilnius University.
Each panelist wore a shiny mirror-like pin. After a while I figured out that it was in the shape of Lithuania. It was pretty cool. Apparently if your country is the guest-of-honor at a conference then you get it in mirror form.
Right from there start, there was trouble in River City. Up went a graph showing a distinct decline in the number of books published for kids in Lithuanian. In the last ten years the number of titles has stayed the same but the number of actual books have declined. The reason? Well, when you lose the business of a country as big as the Soviet Union, the money’s gonna go with it. The result? People just don’t make a significant amount of cash off of children’s books in Lithuania like they used to. Now I know that we here in America face that kind of thing all the time. If you would like to take the path to easy street, tread not the children’s author way. Unfortunately this has been taken to a kind of extreme in Lithuania. As we heard, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find young children’s authors these days. So it is that the older generations are the ones writing a lot of the books and problem novels while folks like Ms. Uliune are rarer and rarer. Why is this? Aside from the money there was speculation over the fact that young artists have a tendency to keep clear of children’s stuff. “We don’t keep our childhood in our hearts anymore”, said Ms. Mozuraite as one kind of an explanation. “We come back to our childhood but no one comes back to their youth.” And few young authors take the time to speak to real kids to find out what modern childhood is really like these days.
Lest you feel that the economic crises of the last few years affected only Americans, a quick glimpse at the statistics showed that in Lithuania 2006 was the best year in terms of the number of children’s book titles published. That decreased, and in 2007 67% of the books for kids being put out were translations while 33% were Lithuanian originals.
Then they delved a bit into history, coming up with interesting facts, like the notice that from 1978-1984 children’s literature became increasingly political. Nonsense literature, as they call it, also was on a real rise. That’s where you get folks like Mr. Landsbergis. His books like The Story of Dominic, a Horse in Love (which was actually published in 2006, I think) were heavily influenced by Dadaism and other sources. Discussions were had about the quality of literature under Soviet rule. These days, it’s difficult to find original realistic stories where the kids are happy. During the Soviet years, in contrast, it was hard to find anyone in a book for kids who wasn’t happy. Another contrast stated that during the Soviet years picture books were few and far between (possibly because of the ease which which one could include subversive elements). These days they abound.
There was a great deal of fun to be had when the panelists discussed the big influences on Lithuanian children’s books over the years. Astrid Lindgren appeared to be the most influential. So too were The Little Prince, Winnie-the-Pooh, folktales, Tove Jansson, and Ulf Stork (??). On the older side, Katherine Paterson appears to have been HUGELY important, particularly her book The Great Gilly Hopkins. According to the panel, when they discovered that book the Lithuanians realized that they could do problem novels for the first time. Harry Potter is big, as is Melvin Burgess (particularly Junk, which has been in seven editions since 2002), Meg Cabot, Hortense Ullrich (??), and Louise Rennison.
I was intrigued when Vita mentioned that there is an award in Lithuania for the best picture book of the year. I would love to find a collected list of all the great children’s book awards around the world for the “best” books of a given year. I don’t suppose anyone knows of one, do they?
As for the problem of how to attract younger authors, a Latvian woman who had been seated to my right during the talk said that in her country J.K. Rowling has influenced many to write. She suggested that maybe there should be more competitions to attract young authors.
It’s fascinating stuff, really. I was very pleased to be handed at the end a beautifully produced copy of Twenty Books from Lithuania for Children and Teenagers and a copy of The Best Lithuanian Books for Children 2000-2010. Should you prove curious, let me know and I’ll definitely show them to you sometime. Gorgeous stuff.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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