When it comes to literature in digital media there is a lot going on – and especially for kids the playing field is fascinating. But that should come as no surprise since kids really are like sponges and much of the technology seems to be very intuitively adapted for point and play mode. YouTube has been overflowed with different kids playing iPads * taken and encouraged by proud parents (mostly dads) – and it is quite fascinating to see how quickly they pick up on the choices at hand, but I will not dare try to go into the debate on the cognitive benefits and learning curves. Suffice to say that the interactive literature the technology enables often seems to be targeted at children and young adults. Maybe it’s because the combination of reading with the rest of your sensory system is often thought of as a pedagogical tool for learning and when you are an adult the ideology becomes that you read not to learn but to reaffirm or contest what you have previously learned.
My latest encounter with interactive fiction is the wonderful world of Mr. Morris Lessmore (alas, only second-hand, as I have no iPad). I would love to hear from others who have actually tried it, from what I can gather it seems quite interesting.
“The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore” is a short film and app by Moonbot Studios (although of course, the film is only available in US iTunes godblastit) and created through a combination of stop motion, 2D and miniature. Just like other narrated apps Morris Lessmore gives you different possibilities to explore like repairing books and flying through a world of words etc. It is literature in game play – however, the Morris Lessmore website says it ‘reinvents digital storytelling’, which I would call a smart-ass sales pitch, because from what I can gather the app stands on the shoulders of and joins in on the same track as other lit-apps before them. Think of “Alice in Wonderland” for example, restricted as it may have been in relation to Morris Lessmore, but still, reinvention is a big word.
* And other electronic devices, I’m sorry for singling out the iPad, it’s not the only choice out there.
Bárður Oskarsson, Faroese children’s book author and illustrator, has just published his fourth picture book in Faroese titled “Flata kaninin” (The Flat Bunny). It will be published in Danish later this year, but I do not know the specific date. The Flat Bunny is, to put it bluntly, hilarious and does its genre honour.
A dog, a Cat and a Mouse
Oskarsson’s most famous book called “Ein hundur, ein ketta og ein mús” (A dog, a cat, and a mouse) was published in 2004 and quickly became very popular. The trio have declared a cease-fire in the beginning and as a result are driven up the wall of boredom. Tensions escalate until the dog can’t take it anymore and lets loose on the cat which sets off a spiral of mayhem. So now the question is, how do they restore the peace?
It was awarded the West Nordic Children’s Literature Prize and a White Raven Special Mention in 2006 and is translated into Danish, Icelandic and French. It has been a part of Internationale Jugendbibliothek München’s travelling exhibition, Guten Tag, lieber Feind!, showcasing picture books that promote peace and tolerance. Furthermore, because of Iceland’s position as honorary guest at Frankfurter Buchmesse in October 2011, they have offered the Faroe Islands part of their space and Oskarsson’s picture book will be one of the Faroese contributions.
Picture book with a twist
Enough with the prize name dropping. The new book is a humorous story about a dog and a rat who come across a flattened bunny on the road and team up to get her off the road. There is no explanation as to why or how the bunny came to be flattened, it just is. They discuss the options amongst themselves, one of which would be to place her in front of no. 34, which they reckon is her domicile. But this is quickly discarded because, “what would the people in the house think if they saw a dog and a rat bring home their bunny, and flattened at that? It could end up a right mess!”
So the deliberations continue, until the dog comes up with the perfect plan and the dog and rat scrape the bunny off the road. It is a story of how you apply creativity to, and make the best out of an apparently unlucky situation, and doing so with great empathy and style. The ending is anything but predictable and puts a twist on the story leaving further contemplation up to the reader.
The interplay between text and pictures in this book – implementing subtle minimalist technique in both – is beautiful and I seriously haven’t been able to stop laughing every time I open the book. I know the target group is children, but I would not hesitate to recommend it to adults as well – you are never to old to laugh and contemplate life from a different perspective. There is innocence and playfulness abound and I think it would be really interesting to see how children react to/read the story.
If you know Faroese or Danish, you can read more about Oskarsson and his books here and here.
Oskarsson’s Faroese publishing house, BFL, also has a catalogue in English with a selection of their published material, including the books of Bárður Oskarsson – you can find it here.
Do you ever feel like getting out of your chair, walking out the door, climbing the next tree you see and shout existential, nihilistic quotes at people who have not seen the light – or rather, who have yet to realise that action is pointless, that living is futile?
Are you still in your chair?
Pierre Anthon climbs up a tree and like the town crier he scolds and spurts one-liners at the adolescents who walk under the plum-tree on their way to school to learn how to become proper citizens. In the first week of 7th grade he is already fed up with the world and its inhabitants. And in the quiet little town of Tæring (Danish for corrosion, also a popular saying, “at sætte tæring efter næring”, which basically means to live within one’s means) his actions sets off a sequence of events of surreal proportions. The kids are upset and adamant that he will not persuade them to join his ‘dark side’. But he gnaws at their insecurity one by one, and the frustration grows.
“If you live to be eighty years old you will have slept thirty years, gone to school and done homework for nine and worked for about fourteen years. Since you already have spent more than six years being children and playing and you’ll need at least twelve years to cook, clean and take care of children you have nine years at the most to really live… And then you choose to pretend like you are succesful at playing a game that means nothing when you could be enjoying those nine years right away.”
So what do they do? What children in novels tend to do; they form a secret club with the sole purpose of finding a way to show Pierre Anthon that there are things of importance in this world. Each member will give up the most important thing that really means something to them, and as the kids go down the line the suggestions go from sweet to painful to surreal to down right nasty. There is a long way from Agnes having to give up her green summer sandals to Sofie and her virginity, and things rapidly spiral out of control. What starts as a joint bond between class mates who seek the opposite of nothingness to show Pierre Anthon evolves into a spiteful contest that reeks of payback and ignores all societal boundaries, both morally and legally.
Janne Teller’s ‘Intet’ (English ‘Nothing‘) received the Ministry of Culture’s Children’s Book Award in 2001 and its content caused an outcry both domestically and internationally. Adults were worried that the book would spur on suicide amongst adolescents, some schools banned it from entering the curriculum and book shops refused to sell it. In that sense the book’s topic has awoken a fear in people – the same fear that is seen over and over when literature is debated. Where does one draw the line? How much power can we grant a book before things get out of hand? We all know how scared people are of ‘Mein Kampf’ – the book is a continuous embodiment of all the evil in this world and its words are like something extraterrestrial; if you read it you will grow evil.
Now, before you get your knickers in a bind, I would like to explain. Words are powerful – like the character Max in Zusak’s ‘The Book Thief’ writes in his story for Liesel, you can rule the world with words and make them into iconic symbols of good and evil. And so some people are scared of the power of these words by the force of the value they put in them and choose to silence it by bans and regulations. Not realising that in doing so, they are co-affirming this power, making it more than it needs to be.
Teller’s novel is morbid and gross and plays with human fears – what we are capable of when we cooperate is not always for good. And as far as children’s or young adult books go, she joins those in a relatively new literary trend that doesn’t want to tell children how to live their life through exemplary fiction and fantasies of adventures in far of places (reminiscent of the Famous Five), but rather question them and those around them in settings they know; their home, their school, around their peers. Adult fiction authors have sought to push boundaries just about everywhere they can, and it should come as no surprise that children’s authors would want to push their very own boundaries. But unlike authors of adult fiction, children’s books authors still have a very limited space to go wild in if they want their stories to be published and sold – children’s and young-adult fiction is supported by strict notions of what children can and cannot stomach, much of which originates in romantic illusions and has not been up to par with the reality of children’s lives today. The rearing of children has undergone several changes in a very short amount of time and there are many who believe that children are tougher than we give them credit for. I suspect that what people are really afraid of is themselves. Following the logic that there are two sides of everything, no reading should go unchallenged. Even so, reading has evolved into a very solitude activity, and in the case of children and their limited time spent on earth experiencing and dealing with situations unknown to them, a good discussion about the books they read with peers and adults might just open up new doors of reasoning and critical positions. Which means time away from your navel-gazing important grown-up stuff.
Maybe that’s also something ‘Intet’ tries to convey – the complete lack of adult inclusion is worrying. Adults are authoritarian figures, those who must not know what children are up to because they are practically the enemy, stopping everyone in their tracks. Which means that the children can only reason with what limited experience they’ve got and with no one to bounce off of.
This Saturday has been all about fan-fiction and children’s literature for me. I have been researching and reading and canvassing every line on the web for participatory readers and online sharing communities – anticipated thesis fever is hitting me after the summer vacation and I am knee-deep in theories and literature, it is so exciting (for future reference remember this joyous occasion, this positive attitude might not prevail over the hair-pulling and nail-biting when it is crunch time). Anyone out there with some inside knowledge of online fan-fiction is welcome to my comment field.
Next up: children’s literature.
Harders, our local Nørrebro bookshop, had arranged a reading with Manu Sareen that I thought sounded incredibly interesting. For those of you who do not know his works, he is the author of the series on “Iqbal Farooq” – the humorous story of an immigrant family living in the heart of Nørrebro – and has just published two stories (seen in picture above) in a series loosely based on some of H.C. Andersen‘s fairy tales.
One of the reasons I wanted to go to this event was because Sareen is one of Denmark’s contemporary authors (without distinguishing adult from children’s authors) who uses his background as an Indian immigrant as a starting-point for his stories. He explains early on that he started writing because of political motives, stating that there was a gap in literature for and about ethnic minorities in this country. Another reason was because at that time the Minister of Cultural Affairs, Brian Mikkelsen, had just launched a culture canon to profile Danish values – values Sareen says he shared, such as democracy and free speech, but unfortunately values that also ended up being used as a lifted finger against ‘the foreigners’ in the country, dividing inhabitants even more. A “this is what it means to be Danish – a.k.a. not You”.
So he created Iqbal in order to send a message. Not only to the ethnic Danes, but especially to the immigrants. Sareen claims that often literature written by minorities ends up reaffirming the negative discourse, whereas he would rather give the ethnic groups some pride back, something that could unite and identify them as part of the community.
The next thing he said shook me somewhat. I must admit, although I am not oblivious to the culture clashes in this country, I had not really thought fully about this: he said that he encountered many ethnic kids on his readings that were ashamed of the things that set them apart from the ethnic Dane, amongst other things their parents dialect when speaking Danish. And that faith in future achievements was depressingly low. Immigrants, he said, could drive taxi’s and make pizza’s: not grow up to write children’s books; which is an attitude he encounters when young minorities come up to him at readings in schools and ask him who really wrote the book he is reciting. This is a disillusionment Sareen wants to stand against. He says his goal is to make readers laugh with each other rather than at each other.
Sareen then proceeded to explain how his characters are based on real persons, to the great joy of a little kid in the room who said “I knew it”, which in return put an even broader smile on Sareen’s face. At that time it was clear that the adults in the room were mere shadows in the setting.
When he read from one of the Iqbal books (Iqbal Farooq and the Indian Superchip) I noticed how Sareen’s books use humor, preconceived notions of the ‘Other’ and stereotypes to form a narrative that touches upon some, at times, very disturbing and tough subjects in an approachable way, making these topics easier to talk about rather than avoiding them.
Being that he gets inspiration from his surroundings, his books are filled with multi-cultures and political figures – which adds to the fun for those who know these characters.
Whereas the Iqbal character was loosely based on his own person and characters of that universe of those around him, Sareen chose to go outside his own surroundings in “Hvad fætter gør er altid det rigtige”, saying proudly that this has been his best book so far. It is also a book that is, in his words, “semi-controversial”, joining a trend in Western children’s literature of using unorthodox characters and settings. “Hvad fætter gør er altid det rigtige” includes homeless people, prostitutes and drug addicts surrounding the Copenhagen quarter of Vesterbro. As many children’s authors who chose, what some would call extreme figures, to portray in the books, he justifies it by saying that this is what the world looks like – teaching children that it’s out there can prove to have a positive effect.
I asked him if he drew his inspiration to write from any external sources outside of Denmark, seeing as he claims that ethnic minorities were not writing to/about ethnic relations in Denmark. But instead he said he drew his inspiration from Olsen banden (classic Danish comedy) and Bjarne Reuter, stuff he, as well as the rest of Denmark, grew up with – only he had one foot in each culture at all times.
Setting aside that these books are classified children’s literature I would think that many adults could benefit from reading one or two of his books, maybe we could all loosen up a bit for a change.
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe has been on my bookshelf for as long as I have been able to read. When I was a kid I got a children’s version in Faroese from my book club which I faithfully read, and as an adult I bought a copy in the original language, also faithfully reading. And yet, the two situations could not have been farther apart.
As a little girl, what I read was a story of a man trapped on an island, fighting off cannibals and saving a friend whom he named Friday. It was a wonderful and adventurous tale that left me adventurous, ready to pack my suitcase and leaving my parents for the sea life and hoping for a shipwreck on a deserted sunny island. I mean, how hard can it be when you are ingenious by heart like Crusoe? And so I grew up thinking Robinson was a merry, brave and carefree man.
Fast forward to age 27. Scene: I am studying comparative literature now and we are at my translation studies elective. We are discussing literary translation and the problems and choices that come along with being a translator. For my exams I have chosen my trusted friend Crusoe as an example of the very interesting shift that comes with translating an 18.century Enlightenment novel (which some would call the first novel in the history of literature) into a Danish children’s book. And so I buy a copy of the original as it was written back in the days, and borrow 2 children’s versions in Danish for comparison.
The funny thing about reading Robinson Crusoe when you are respectively 10 and 27 is that a lot of growing up happens in the mean time 🙂 At 27 I am baffled over the complexity of the character Crusoe, truly an individualist at heart. And a struggling one at that. He is definitely not all rainbows and sunsets and heroically saving the day and life of a fellow man. No, no, no. Before the shipwreck Robinson Crusoe is a wretched soul who has spent his youth squandering his possibilities away, not respecting his parents and living it up, as we could say. And the ‘blink of an eye’ moment I had perceived his stay on the island to be at age 10, was actually a loooooong time filled with sickness, hard toiling and dangerous situations that leave Crusoe not so much a hero as a survivor.
When I wrote my paper on the translation and transposition of 18. century Crusoe to 20.-21.century children’s literature, I concluded that a lot of depth had been lost in this transaction, and it was questionable if Crusoe, as Defoe had written him, was stilted by the act. I still feel that it is a very interesting question. The grown-up version deals with huge themes of religious piety, colonization, master-slave relationship and the individual as a free agent. This is all very much watered down in the children’s version.
When you think about children’s books in the genre fantasy and adventure, Crusoe almost always creeps up as example par excellence (well, back in my days, today it’s probably more likely to be Twilight by infinity and Harry Potter, god bless them). But when you compare the two – Crusoe for adults, and Crusoe for children – it’s so obvious that the adjustments that are taken to convert the story to children is so encroaching upon the thematics of the text that it renders it flawed. I was, to say the least, baffled when I read Robinson as an adult, because the image I had had of him as a child and the storyline + a given morale was completely different from the one I could put in a historical and literary context as an adult.
Having said that, the memory of my suitcase and the adventurous dreams Robinson inspired in me, still brings me to the conclusion, that as a child I knew and loved a story of a man called Robinson Crusoe who climbed coconut trees and built huts on a deserted island far away. And as a child I couldn’t care less that the adults had to read Crusoe as someone who was a product of the historical waves of an increasingly individualistic society, deeply frustrated, borderline certifiable and alone on an island.