Each children’s literature has its collections of traditional and classic stories which, along with linguistic, graphic and historical markers, serve to distinguish it from other nations. Up to the end of the 19th century, despite disputed territories and wars, the upper and growing middle classes of Europe travelled abroad as a matter of course. In such a climate, the children’s books of each nation became known throughout Europe. Thus the fairy tales of Perrault published in Paris in 1697 were translated and published in most other European countries appearing in England in 1729.
But in these European Community days is there such a thing as a European children’s literature? And if so, what defines it? The Centre National de la Littérature pour La Jeunesse and La Joie par les livres inaugurated a fascinating debate on this theme with a conference in Paris at the end of last year, ‘European Encounters on Children’s Literature’, which brought together children’s book specialists from all over Europe.
Understanding and defining European identity, let alone the identity of children’s literature, involves wrestling with contradictions and uncertainties. To begin with, how do we define Europe? In cultural terms membership of the EC as a criterion is too limiting and particularly so for children’s literature. What about, for example, Russian folklore or the graphic styles of Eastern European children’s book illustrators?
Divergence and difference are central to a concept of European culture. There has never been and perhaps never can be a single definition of Europe. It is its diversity that constitutes its richness. Despite their differences, European nations are bound by close and complex ties, a shared history and common cultural traditions. While the viewpoints of individuals and groups may be at variance, nevertheless they share the same cultural and historical reference points. It is within this wider debate about European identity that the role and identity of children’s literature must be placed. And if European children’s literature has trouble defining itself, its books by definition explore the endless complexities of that problem and thus become part of the identity it seeks.
European children’s literature is inevitably a reflection and articulation of European cultural identities. It provides us with expressions of the national and regional. Until now discourse about children’s literature has for the most part privileged the nation-state as the creator of culture and identity rather than attempting a cross border, pan-European view. However, while we cannot speak of a European children’s literature as a cultural monolith we can perhaps begin to identify trends and characteristics of European children’s literature. Hopefully the Paris conference (which will be publishing the papers presented) has started a dialogue that will be ongoing.
The Campaign for the Book
Enraged by Doncaster Council’s proposal to make cuts in its library budget, writer Alan Gibbons organised an authors’ protest letter. Word got round and Gibbons found himself on the receiving end of a flood of horror stories that revealed cuts in services and libraries all round the country. While 2008 was the Year of Reading, ironically it was also a year that saw shrinking book stocks, libraries being closed and staff sacked or down-graded. Aware of the need for an overall response to this cultural decimation, Gibbons has launched a campaign against library cuts and closures, ‘Campaign for the Book’. To read the campaign’s statement and list of signatories visit www.alangibbons.net. To join the campaign email: firstname.lastname@example.org
As Alan Gibbons says, ‘We can shame local councils by arguing publicly for our future and our children’s future… It is time to stand up for the book.’