Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Regarding the 50 best children's books

This is something I wrote five years ago, but which apprently is as relevant now as then. Politicians and educators always want the-best-books-that-all-children-should-read. 

The debate about literary canon has reached Sweden, a couple of years after its neighbour Denmark and twelve years after the notorious volume by Harold Bloom. With my cultural background in a country where everything was regulated by the authorities, I feel ambivalent. Mandatory reading lists of canonical texts we got in school may seem too hard guidance, but it implied that no student left secondary school without having read Eugene Onegin and The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, Father and Sons and Anne Frank's Diary, War and Peace and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Crime and Punishment and Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales, and lots of other indispensable books. There was also an unofficial canon within intellectual circles where people read The Master and Margarita, Doctor Zhivago, Cancer Ward and For Whom the Bell Tolls, the latter forbidden by censorship because it depicts the Spanish Civil War which did not feature in the official history.

Notably, there is something lacking in the Swedish canon debate, the awareness of the existing, non-forced canon that most Swedes share: children's literature. Everyone in Sweden has read at least some children's books, may it be Elsa Beskow, Astrid Lindgren or Enid Blyton. Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings are today canonical works read by young as well as by grownups. I can, with some reservations, imagine never having read Homer, Shakespeare, Molière, Goethe, Dickens and, sorry to say, Strindberg, but my life would have been poorer without Winnie-the-Pooh and Pippi Lingstocking. Isn't here a solid ground for a literary canon, if there is to be one?

I have in front of me the book by my Danish colleague Torben Weinreich, Kanon-litteratur i folkeskolen (”Canon literature in elementary school”, 2004), that summarises the Danish canon debate, continues with some theoretical argument and contains lists of mandatory classroom reading before and after 1960. These lists provide food for thought. Except a handful of international classics, such as Robinson Crusoe, Alice in Wonderland, Tom Sawyer and The Little Prince, the Danish canon is comprised exclusively of Danish books. Maybe this is right? The whole idea of canon is to preserve the national cultural heritage. Harold Bloom was accused of ethnocentrism in his Western canon, but he constructed it for Western readers. (It is another matter that he was also accused of misogyny).

During a conference at the Swedish Children's Books Institute a year ago it was stated that as far as university courses in children's literature were concerned, there was no canon. If every course on an average has 15-20 books on the syllabus, there is merely a couple, if at all, that appear on all lists. During my years at the US universities, I learned that this is called ”freedom of the classroom” according to which each teacher is free to choose texts for their syllabi. One of my American colleagues only had picturebooks in her overview course which was mandatory for teacher trainees. Another colleague only had multiculutural books in the same course. They practised their freedoms of the classroom, which is a direct impact of earlier canon thinking in North America. Words such as ”canon”, ”classic” and ”masterpiece” are no-no words in American universities.

So how should we argue for a Swedish children's literature canon? It wouldn't work to ask all children's literature experts in Sweden to suggest thirty favourite books and choose common denominators. This has been done repeatedly, with devastating results. If we are to have a canon, we must take several aspects into consideration.

Firstly, what do we want this canon for? Is it important for the cultural identity of Swedish children (that is, all children growing up in Sweden)? Yes, I think so. After a quarter of a century in Sweden, I still have gaps in my Sweden-specific education which make me feel as an outsider in certain situations. No child – and no adult – should feel excluded when somebody else says: ”Uncle Melker, why do you always swim with your clothes on?” For me, it is just as self-evident as recognising a poetry line and preferably being able to continue at least a couple more lines.

Shall we include foreign classics that constitute a common ground, within Scandinavia, within Europe, within the Anglo-American culture that, whether we like it or not, dominates the Swedish children's literature market? Can we exclude Hans Christian Andersen who was decisive for the emergence of children's literature in the Nordic countries? If we include him, which fairy tales shall be included? There is already an unwritten Andersen canon within children's literature, fairy tales chosen for anthologies and published as picturebooks: “Thumbelina”, “The Steadfast Tin Soldier”, “The Emperor's New Clothes” (suitable for children?). There is unfortunately a misconception that fairy tales are for small children. Shouldn't high school students read the cruel and dark ”The Shadow”? Maybe if we don't call it a fairy tale, but a short story, like Kafka's ”Metamorphosis”. Further, few Swedes of the younger generation know what “The Little Mermaid” is really about. Likewise, Pinocchio and Peter Pan are two brilliant books totally distorted by disneyfication. Both are about growing up, about the hard work of becoming – or in Peter Pan's case avoiding to become – a mature individual. Are we really happy to let our children enjoy the colourful mass-market products?

Then there is the inevitable question of whether we should have children's canon or adults' canon for children. Shall we let children decide what they want to be included in the canon, inspect library statistics, rely on reader surveys? Children's preferences change quickly. In the '80s, Astrid Lindgren was on top, today it is Harry Potter. Incidentally, shall we include Harry Potter in the canon or it is bad taste, as Roald Dahl used to be?

If we, clever adults, shall put together a canon for our children, what kind of criteria shall we apply? Half Swedish, half foreign? Half multiethnic? Haft by female writers – which is easier than for Harold Bloom, since so many wonderful children's books are written by female writers. However, it may be valuable to dig up 19th-century female writers who are interesting as research objects and make us rethink the history of children's literature – but shall they be included among canonical texts? Wouldn't it be reasonable instead to include a text that can offer readers a more pleasurable experience? Hereby we have reached the decisive question: pleasure or instruction? Pedagogical or literary criteria? Books that preach our adult values (that quickly become obsolete) or books in which the author, as it is often claimed about Astrid Lindgren, takes the child's side? Books for all ages that can also be enjoyed by adults? Books you carry in your mental luggage throughout your life?

Shall we include relatively new books or is it part of the definition of canon that it should contain old and weathered books? Many of us view Johnny My Friend as the best Swedish Young Adult novel ever written. Sadly, it is not read in schools any more, and university students of children's literature have never heard of it. But is is old enough to be included in the canon? With the Danish criteria, definitely.

Finally: who is this canon for? The eternal definition of a classic is a book that everybody knows of, but nobody has read. It is legitimate to include in reading lists for children's literature students books that perhaps are nor widely read today, but that are necessary in order to understand the development of literature. Yet a literary canon is supposed to address a wider reading audience, average readers who put a book aside if it is not engaging. Should a canon include books that are alive and kicking, that appeal to general public and not to a special social group? And even though it may sound like a self-contradiction, a canon must be flexible. What was a classic yesterday may not be so tomorrow.

Published in Swedish in Dagens Nyheter on August 21, 2006

1 comment:

Rosane said...

Dear Maria,

I really appreciate your text. I agree with you when you say:

"Mandatory reading lists of canonical texts we got in school may seem too hard guidance, but it implied that no student left secondary school without having read Eugene Onegin and The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, Father and Sons and Anne Frank's Diary, War and Peace and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Crime and Punishment and Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales, and lots of other indispensable books."

Rosane (from Brazil)