ZOiS Spotlight 7/2024

Children’s Literature Under Pressure

by Nina Frieß 02/04/2024

International Children’s Book Day has been celebrated annually on 2 April with readings, exhibitions and fun activities for children and teens since 1967. In some countries, however, there is little cause for celebration. In Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, children’s literature is in a precarious state, for a variety of reasons.

A children's book destroyed by Russian shelling in Kharkiv, Ukraine, in May 2022. IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

Translated from the German by Hillary Crowe.

As young people’s attitudes and values are still being formed, the content and worldviews found in microcosm in children’s literature are often those which societies are keen to impart to future generations. In that sense, children’s literature not only serves to entertain; in many cases, it also performs a didactic function – albeit one which takes a different form in a National Socialist propaganda novel like Karl Aloys Schenzinger’s Hitler Youth Quex (1932) than in Astrid Lindgren’s classic Pippi Longstocking (1945), which appeals to children’s free-spiritedness and sense of adventure. At the same time, the techniques applied in children’s literature, where imagination knows almost no bounds, allow the subversive voicing of criticism of prevailing conditions and hint at alternative models of society. In non-democratic societies in particular, children’s literature can therefore provide a niche for relatively free debate.

Growing censorship in Russia

In Russia, the spaces where free speech is possible have been shrinking for years. This is palpable in the sphere of children’s literature as well: repressive laws, such as the 2021 legislation against the falsification of history which, among other things, makes it illegal to equate the actions of the USSR and National Socialist Germany, are having an impact on writing for children. For example, Olga Kolpakova’s short novel The Wormwood Christmas Tree (2017) was removed from many libraries in the Ural region and its age rating raised from 12 to 18 following a ‘denunciation camouflaged as an expert opinion’. The book tells the story of an ethnic German girl from the Volga region who is deported to Siberia during the Second World War on account of her ethnicity and struggles to survive. The author of the ‘expert opinion’, a lecturer in advertising and public relations at Ural State Pedagogical University, accused the author of falsifying historical facts and vilifying Stalin and other representatives of the state. Kolpakova’s book does not disseminate ‘historical untruths’, but it does paint a picture of Soviet life in the 1940s that contrasts starkly with the heroic narrative about that period prevailing in Russia today.

Authors and publishers in Russia are compelled to consider possible violations of the law during the writing process and before publishing their texts. This leads, almost inevitably, to self-censorship by cultural professionals, but also to sometimes bizarre measures of a formal nature that publishers must take if they wish to avoid criminalising themselves. In 2023, for example, Samokat – Russia’s foremost publisher of independent children’s literature – produced a textbook on democracy entitled ‘Why have you all assembled here?’ whose content and language were clearly designed for a target readership aged around 12 years and above. However, in compliance with the Federal Law on the Protection of Children from Information Harmful to Their Health and Development, the book had to be given an ‘18+’ age rating. The decisive factor here was probably the law’s ban on disseminating information that ‘justifies illegal conduct’. This non-fiction book about democracy informs children about various forms of citizen participation in decision-making and provides historical examples of civil resistance, which is no longer tolerated in today’s Russia. The classification as adult literature makes it impossible to market the book to its intended readership, resulting in financial losses for the publishers: the age limit is likely to deter many parents from buying the book for their children.

Belarus: mass emigration and Russification

In Belarus, too, children’s literature is under stress. Since the mass demonstrations against the rigged presidential elections in 2020, the regime has applied draconian measures against all forms of actual or suspected protest. The list of materials deemed to be extremist, published by the Belarusian Ministry of Information and continuously expanded since 2020, now includes at least two children’s books. One is the 2022 edition of the Soviet Russian classic Ballad of a Little Tugboat (1962) by the Russian-American writer Joseph Brodsky, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. According to the publisher Andrei Yanushkevich, now living in exile, the reason for banning the book, which has no connection to Belarus, is that the authorities considered the ‘colours of the tugboat, as depicted in the illustrations, to be suspect’. In the Belarusian edition of the book, the tugboat is coloured white-red-white – the colours of the country’s democratic opposition.

In response to massive repression by the Belarusian regime, hundreds of thousands of Belarusians have left their homeland since 2020; they include numerous cultural professionals. Publishing houses have moved their operations to Poland or Lithuania, while committed individuals organise children’s book festivals and children’s literature competitions in exile, or work on establishing a Belarusian section-in-exile of the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY). However, this out-migration is reinforcing the already all-pervasive Russification of Belarus’s cultural sector. As it is impossible to import Belarusian exile literature into Belarus through official channels, and travel conditions for Belarusians are becoming increasingly difficult, the majority of readers who remain in the country are cut off from developments taking place in Belarusian children’s literature in exile.

Russian bombs target Ukrainian culture

In Ukraine, children’s literature faces pressure of a very different kind. Russia’s illegal war of aggression frequently targets Ukrainian cultural assets and institutions. According to the Ukrainian section of the IBBY, in the first year of the war alone, 60 children’s and youth libraries were damaged or destroyed. Undeterred, the country’s librarians are working hard to keep services running and thus provide children with some semblance of normality in the midst of war. Even so, in areas close to the front line, where the threat level is high, they often shift their activities to the virtual space and have expanded their supply of e-books and audio books. Of course, cultural institutions and events which are not specifically aimed at children are impacted by the Russian attacks as well. In 2022, for example, the Lviv BookForum – the country’s oldest and largest literature festival – took place in the form of online panel discussions from an air raid shelter. Book production, too, has not remained unscathed – Kharkiv in Eastern Ukraine is the centre of Ukrainian printing, but it is almost impossible to continue operating the printing presses due to relentless Russian shelling.

Challenging though the situation of children’s literature in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia may be, it is clear in all three cases that there are still authors and publishers, librarians and readers who – despite all the difficulties – are committed to ensuring the survival of free and creative children’s literature. They are the people who particularly deserve to be celebrated on International Children’s Book Day on 2 April.

Dr Nina Frieß is a researcher at ZOiS and co-founder and co-organiser of the Children’s Literature Colloquium (KLK). The idea for this Spotlight came to her at the Colloquium’s most recent meeting in December 2023, which was dedicated to this topic. Her sincere thanks go to the participants for their helpful input.