The politics of children’s literature

Why is modern Hebrew children’s literature so different from the poems and stories written in the pre-state era?

Yael Darr: ‘Today, people make a face if anything involving children has a political slant.’ (photo credit: RAANAN COHEN)
Yael Darr: ‘Today, people make a face if anything involving children has a political slant.’
(photo credit: RAANAN COHEN)
Over the years, a number of characters from children’s books became the unsung heroes of Israel – and have no intention of giving up their place for new ones. These characters have been part of Israelis’ lives for three generations now and, unlike us, they refuse to grow old.
Miriam Yellin-Steklis’s Dani is courageous in that he has the ability to feel pain and be sad. Peretz, the sharp-tongued boy from Kadia Molodowsky’s “Reincarnations of a Coat” succeeds in drawing out of us a tear-soaked, sweet smile. Fania Bergstein’s butterfly doesn’t follow the laws of nature, which would condemn it to a short life.
So what is it about these childhood heroes that make them so timeless? Prof. Yael Darr, who researches Hebrew children’s literature, answers this and many other questions in two new books in Hebrew, Nobody’s Aunt (publishers Sal Tarbut Artzi and Am Oved) and Canon in a Few Voices, The Labor Movement’s Children’s Literature (publisher Yad Ben-Zvi), both of which debuted during the annual Book Week fair.
Darr researched stories written by famous Israeli authors from the early years of the state, such as Natan Alterman, Oded Burla, Bergstein and Yellin-Steklis.
She was interested in questions such as: What is the relationship between children’s literature and the building of a nation? Who was responsible for choosing which works children read in the early years of the state? Which ideas were borrowed from other cultures, and which were considered untouchable? Which stories and poems were soon forgotten? “In my mind, the most important thing was that the children were trained to listen,” Darr explains. “Children today hardly listen. They are moving around all the time, and the only form of interaction they learn is how to engage a smartphone.
“Listening to a children’s story requires listening on a few levels simultaneously.
Firstly, they hear the words of the story as the adult reads. Secondly, they hear the distinct style of the writer and see the style of the illustrator. Thirdly, they are introduced to the characters in the story.
This is an action that requires the children to give their undivided attention to one person who is reading, and to listen to the reader’s unique voice; it is a very rewarding activity.
“There is the issue of language. In a lecture she gave in 1956, [Hebrew-language author and literary researcher] Lea Goldberg referred to a derisive comment someone wrote; how in his opinion, a course should be opened in which children’s writers can learn how to simplify their language. But this is where they’re wrong – their base assumption is completely off-base. The comment is accurate – children’s literature was written in high language – but what he’s wrong about is that children love that. If stories are written in language that children don’t hear every day, it’s not bad – it’s terrific!” According to Darr, anyone who has spent time with children knows they have a hard time understanding lots of things.
“This is the nature of being a child. But this doesn’t upset them; on the contrary – they find it intriguing and challenging.
We adults think that we need to spoonfeed children and explain everything that isn’t crystal clear. And this is such a shame, because words you don’t hear every day have a special charm, and hearing them arouses children’s curiosity,” Darr explains.
“Goldberg understood this perfectly; she took her young readers very seriously.
She knew that children need fine literature, and that it was her responsibility to assist them in developing and expanding their literary tastes. In the 1940s and 1950s, most writers composed beautiful, ideological stories. Goldberg, however, chose to write in a humanist style instead.
As the literary editor of Davar Layeladim, and later as the children’s literature editor for Sifriat Poalim, Goldberg exposed her readers to a large variety of Hebrew and foreign literary texts.”
What role does children’s literature play in Israeli leisure culture? “In general, as kids grow up, literature plays less and less of a role in their lives.
But if they see that their parents read literature on a daily basis, they are more likely to continue reading on their own as adults. As long as stories are written well, it shouldn’t matter how old the reader is.”
Darr fell in love with children’s literature when she became a mother and dis-covered the incredible potential of this form of expression. “With my daughters I discovered this powerful experience, and together we turned it into a family ritual. By reading children’s books that were written in different periods, I realized we can learn from these texts about the culture of that time period, and what people’s lives were like back then.
“For example, if you look at the main characters in stories written today, you’ll discover that parenting and grandparenting have taken over our lives to such a degree that children no longer have much of a childhood.”
How does the fact that you critique children’s literature affect your own personal reading experience?
It intensifies it, of course. Sometimes I find myself falling in love with the writer, but other times I get quite angry. I’m never indifferent to something I read.
Do you think the next generation will recognize any of the characters we know from childhood?
It’s very hard to predict, because in addition to needing a talent for writing and illustration, there are a number of other cultural conditions that need to be present which have nothing to do with the book itself, in order for a story’s shelf life to last. It’s impossible to know ahead of time.
The Lion that Loved Strawberries has been a best-seller for decades, but if you were to have asked Tirtzah Atar which of her books would become the most popular, she never would have picked this one. Most of the book is written in exquisite lyric poetry. Atar was just looking for a way to get kids to eat, and so she created a story about food – and it became a best-seller.
Do Molodowsky’s poems “Reincarnations of a Coat” and “Open the Gate” still make readers depressed?
Molodowsky did not intend to write sad poetry. She wrote the poems in the early 1930s, and her intention was to portray the children as strong, capable individuals with great imagination and joy. When the war broke out and her book was published for the first time in Israel in 1945, the publisher added a preface by [Ya’acov] Fichman that spoke about placing a gravestone for the girls who had died. Without realizing what he was doing, Fichman set the stage in such a way that the poems were viewed as sad.
The poems were meant to be very upbeat – “Open the Gates” is a happy poem that was meant to be recited at weddings. When she writes about this person who died and this other person who also died, she’s painting a family portrait.
“Reincarnations of a Coat” is about a coat that is passed on from one poor person to another. But the poverty in the poem describes the people’s joy, creativity and friendships.
Are there any writers today who are on the same level as Levin Kipnis, for example?
It’s hard for me to imagine that a modern-day Kipnis might jump out of the woodwork, simply because we don’t have a need as a society for such writing now. Kipnis started a tradition in pre-state Israel, when the Jewish community here needed to create a new tradition that was different from the one they were used to in Europe. Kipnis was so successful as a writer because he filled a void in the field of Hebrew children’s literature. Kindergarten teachers clamored for any material that was relevant for this age, and the stories, poems, novels, riddles and proverbs Kipnis wrote fit the bill exactly.
For years, children were considered an inseparable part of Zionist activity, and as such, were treated as political beings. How did this affect the type of literature that writers created for them? Was the ideal for it to be beautiful?
One day while I was researching the Labor movement’s children literature, it finally dawned on me that because people considered children to be politically involved, it made sense for them to be involved in the politics of whatever group they were members of – be it a soccer league or youth group or kids’ magazine.
Today, however, people make a face if anything involving children has a political slant. Which way is good and which bad, I do not know.
What I do know is that we might be cheating our children of their right to know what’s going on, and to make decisions for themselves. Not that I think modern children’s literature should become more political again. I just think it’s a shame that it’s been simplified.”
As hard as it is to believe, even Come to Me Nice Butterfly by Bergstein is political.
It might not be explicitly political, but you understand that when you see the children walking around the kibbutz barefoot, as if they are at home and there are no adults around. This is a political statement: the kibbutz is the best place in which to grow up.
It’s politics for toddlers. We just don’t see it this way anymore.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.