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12 October, 2012  ▪  Olha Kupriyan

Literary Infantilism

Ukraine lacks adolescent books by local authors and those writing for teenagers avoid controversy and depict the world through rose-coloured glasses.

Ukraine has only recently started discussing the issue of “adult” themes in modern Ukrainian children’s literature.

“Nyamlyk and the Talkative Flower” by Lesya Voronyna was entered on the 2008 BBC Book of the Year  shortlist. The LitAkcent 2009 book rating included “Dzhury” (the term relates to Cossack arms bearers), the famous trilogy by children’s writer Volodymyr Rutkivskiy. Later, “Syni Vody,” his new teenagers’ two-volume edition, won that competition. Rutkivskiy and Petro Midyanka, a poet, received this year’s Shevchenkivska Award. Finally, the first laureates of the independent children’s literature award entitled “Big Hedgehog” (Velykyi Yizhak) were chosen at the end of May. Several weeks later, Volodymyr Rutkivsky established Dzhury, a new award for children's writers.

So children’s literature, a marginal domain for the past 20 years, which had been of no interest for critics or researchers, has asserted itself. It now shows variety in both genre and style and boasts scores of new names, while many “old,” “adult” literary men have focused on younger audiences. Still, the popularity of books for teenagers’ has its benefits and drawbacks. On the one hand, this literature is almost the only product still bringing money to the book publishing business, as people will always buy books for children. These books are usually printed on quality paper and well-illustrated. On the other hand, unfortunately, texts do not always match the quality of the artwork.

NO TEENAGERS?

Based on the range of Ukrainian children’s literature for different age groups, Ukraine lacks books for young adults. While bookstore shelves are overloaded with books for preschoolers, primary school children and juniors, the teenagers’ niche is sparse. Almost all Ukrainian-speaking literature for high-school children is limited to translated bestsellers by Stephenie Meyer, Suzanne Collins, Barbara Kosmovska, Christine Nöstlinger, and so on. The Ukrainian story by Oleksa Bilobrov “At the Edge of Feasibility” stands out against this background. It is a modern action story, full of thrills and suspense and contains problems and parenthetic remarks of the kind both boys and girls will enjoy. Even the naïve sentimentalism in portraying “Ukraine, land of Roxolana” does not hamper the reader’s willingness to digest the book.

Another Ukrainian “problematic” and up-to-date book for 14-18-year-olds “Disguised by ICQ” (Ludyna v (m)astsi) which, the publisher points out, has “no author”. The book tells of difficulties in communication on the internet and attracts teenagers with its unusual form — the plot is written with the help of ICQ dialogues. Literary critics have already called this publishing method the implementation of Roland Barthes thesis on “the author’s death.” Meanwhile, the book provides teenagers with new proof of the plot’s truthfulness, because anyone could hide behind the user names PASTO, Kaj or Ice Queen, and this makes the reader believe that anyone can be a writer.

CHILDHOOD THROUGH “ROSE-COLOURED GLASSES”

The key defect in Ukrainian books for high-school children is that they are conflict-free (at best entertaining and humourous). There is no controversy in the children’s story “Adventures on Klavaren Island” by Iren Rozdobudko, and Oksana Lushchevska's books lack tension, too. For instance, “Friends by correspondence” tells of a Ukrainian schoolgirl fluent in English and her travel to an American summer camp. The book’s message is  positive – one must thoroughly learn foreign languages to be able to see the world. Strangely, the teenager protagonist Ksenia has no troubles in adapting to an unfamiliar environment – everyone helps her, she has no problems with the language and meets no bad people… Is this how things are in the real world? Teenagers are cruel and anyone who has been to summer camp at least once could recount enough horrors to write another “The Lord of the Flies!”

Another book by Oksana Lushchevska “Seva and Co. School stories” has similar defects. From the start, nice well written stories about three junior school pupils – Seva, Yurko and Nina – promise to be intriguing detective stories like “The Famous Five” by Enid Blyton, but the author deceives the reader and closes the intrigue at the most interesting moment, giving banal explanations and endings to every story. Oksana Lushchevska’s characters are dull, overly-proper children, their thoughts seem to be those of adult teachers or overachieving pupils. Instead of playing football late at night they would rather ask mum and dad to visit a parents’ meeting to talk with the teacher about their children’s bad scores, tardiness and unfinished home-work! The author forgets children might sometimes be capricious and naughty and that it is normal for them to be restless and curious like Pippi Longstocking, instead of always having good manners and being polite.

A destructive and not-so-proper child, though “suspiciously” polite, appears in Ivan Andrusiak’s story “Eight days of Burunduk’s (Chipmunk) life.” The book surprises the reader with an episode chosen by the author to “educate” his character. Ivas Bodnaruk (an overachieving pupil) decides to grow a “pocket devil" in order to get everything without any effort. The story’s conflict is close to a fairy-tale, but the characters are rather real. They have the thoughts of real people and normal children, meaning they make mistakes and skip class. People usually remember their own mistakes better than those “put in their heads" by the wisest teacher, the most caring parents or the most well-intentioned authors of children’s books.

Halyna Tkachuk in her story “Window to the Dog” treats the same topic of “a royal road” and dangerous wishes. Her characters Petko and Ivas wanted to have summer in March. Tramp dog Laslo Zdobych tries to make their wish come true, but it turns out nature has its own laws which are to be followed. The book also has two mirror characters, the sparrows Ptushko and Ivitsa, who decide to turn into boys and steal a toy. Their crime also leads to a series grave consequences, wisely solved “on the top”.

The story “Is it Harmful to Walk on Garage Roofs?” by Maryna Pavlenko is also rather intriguing. In spite of the fact that the book is limited to notes of a young teacher, the author depicts topical problems, namely life in a disadvantaged family, orphanhood, poverty and a father’s hard drinking. The story is written in a true and touching manner, though it would be more convincing, if the author had told of children’s worries instead of a young teacher’s reflections.

Kharkiv writer Valentyn Berdt has written a deeper story, “My friend Yurko Tsyrkul and others,” which earned him a “Big Hedgehog” (Velykyi Yizhak) Literary Award. Junior characters in the book change naturally as the pages turn. They reconsider their actions after the words of a caring teacher and live through inner tension.

Unfortunately, three or four or even 10 books cannot change the overall situation. Ukrainian children’s authors often avoid sensitive issues and publish very few texts for children in puberty. They seem to be deliberately avoiding the topics inhabiting most modern teenagers' minds. Stories for 15-year-olds make the world seem like a perfect place where nothing bad ever happens. Consequently, we must ask: do our authors even know the children for whom they purport to write?


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