A society in flux


A society in flux

The stories with which we look around us

Children’s and young people’s literature shows reality with its conflicts and changes, without failing to give its audiences the enjoyment of reading

by Santi Montes / culturagalega.gal

When thinking about children’s and young people’s narrative, which was the substance and substratum on which past generations gradually created – and we created – our vital imaginaries, we can surely remember works, stories and characters that played an important role in our personal construction. In some cases, memory can bring us fabulous stories, with a strong magical or fantastic component, or a supernatural one, or one that was far removed from the everyday reality in which we were growing up. In other cases, reality itself was the matter of the stories. Through fiction, writers explained a world in which things were happening around us. In recent decades, that changing world, driven by globalisation and technologies, has become even dizzier and, above all, has done so around those who are now children and teenagers.

From The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger, 1951) until today, there have been many books in which we have wanted to see reflected the internal and external conflicts involved in living in the adult world. These are stories that provide us with frames of reference, that give us clues and in which we can see ourselves reflected and, therefore, understood in our doubts. They help us comprehend that world around us, so strange and ever-changing to little minds in the making. For philologist, literary critic and professor Montse Pena, specialist in children’s and young people’s literature, realism has always been one of the classic currents in this literature that grew and occurred precisely from the 1950s, in the society after the Second World War, and in the 1960s already with the rise of pacifism. ‘At that time, a tendency emerged in children’s and young people’s literature to deal with complex and sensitive topics’, she points out. Pena finds that it was at that time that a new turn took place as well with regard to the representation of the relationship between adults and children, also caused, without doubt, because it was adults who committed many atrocities under authoritarian regimes, and they were highly visible. ‘There, we adults in literary works stopped being referential figures that are always right’. She mentions crucial works from that time, such as the publication of The Diary of a Young Girl (Anne Frank, 1947), a critical book on the conflict, persecution and racism in the context of the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands that was able to introduce readers in a situation in a much more realistic and impactful way than any didactic text.

Tools to understand the world
Several decades later, there are several conflict situations and several needs to understand the surrounding world which the youngest readers have to face. In a society that is sometimes highly polarised, the media are only there to present extreme events and sensational headlines, but not to explain or represent different sensibilities. War conflicts and humanitarian disasters, racial and cultural diversity in a world of constant migratory flows, the different non-traditional family models, equality between men and women and feminism, the variety of sexual options and genders, mental health treatment, population ageing, or economic and social inequalities are all issues that we see in the media every day, depicted in the form of conflicts. In this sense, for Montse Pena, literary narratives can be ‘complementary tools’ to the mass media for children to be able to understand that world better. Writer Ledicia Costas (Vigo, 1979) sees in literature ‘a perfect shelter and also a natural space to … well, I’m not sure about better understanding the society we live in, but perhaps to find other answers, other paths or ways’. With the experience gained from the contact with her audience, Ledicia confirms this power of literature: ‘When I visit schools, especially secondary schools, and a girl or boy comes up to you and thanks you because in your book they found an answer to a problematic or because you’ve dealt with a subject they haven’t seen reflected in other works’, she says, ‘that happens all the time’.

A highly acclaimed award-winning author, Costas is one of the leading Galician creators and, in the field of children’s and young people’s literature, is one of the Galician writers to have received the National Children’s and Young People’s Literature Award of the Spanish Ministry of Culture, which she won for her work Escarlatina, a cociñeira defunta (Xerais, 2014). With regard to controversial themes of social reality, she declares herself ‘deeply involved’ in reflecting them in her work, and points to her debut novel, Unha estrela no vento (Xerais, 1999), written when she was only 16 years old and in which she found herself already dealing with different controversial issues almost without being aware of it. ‘I was dealing with the issue of racism, specifically against the Gipsy people, as well as violence in adolescence, functional diversity through the character of a girl in a wheelchair … And I didn’t treat those issues deliberately; I wrote a book thinking about what I’d like as a reader’, the writer maintains. ‘The thing is, as I built a literary career, I gradually became aware of my status as an author who wants to become involved in the society she lives in’, she confirms. For her, the representation of controversial themes of social reality in children’s and young people’s literature is something that should never have to be forced, and one should never have to fulfil any obligations regarding predefined percentages. ‘It has to be something organic and natural to the story you’re writing’, she says. She also believes that it is a representation of the way the person who is writing understands the world and, as such, it will always be there inherently. ‘If you’re an author with a certain sensitivity, one who defends diversity and likes it when your readers find themselves reflected there, that will come organically’.

Writer Fina Casalderrey (Xeve, 1951) explains this in a very similar but even more graphic way: ‘If it’s true that I’m not racist or xenophobic, if I accept the various sexual identities, all that will show without me having to force it when I’m writing’, she says categorically. ‘Sometimes it’s only one sentence, one word, and it’s enough to add that natural touch to controversial themes’. A teacher by profession, Casalderrey shares with Costas the fact that they have both received the National Children’s and Young People’s Literature Award, which, in the case of Casalderrey, was awarded for her book O misterio dos fillos de Lúa (Ediciones SM, 1995). She has also received numerous prizes and much recognition for her extensive literary work. For her, ‘if we’re not faking what we are, that should show when we write’. In relation to the role that narrations may play to help young readers understand the world, Fina says that, in that sense, literature helps everybody, ‘also adults, because it is, after all, the gaze of another person, who shares it with you, and you wouldn’t have it if you didn’t read that story’.

For Montse Pena, that comparison between children’s and young people’s literature and literature for adults should also be made. ‘I’m very much in favour of children’s books reflecting the same conflicts that can be found in a book for an adult audience’, the critic and researcher says, and justifies it: ‘Otherwise we’d be depriving children of a view of the world around them, and there’s no stage of life when you’re more curious than childhood and youth’. Ledicia Costas is of a similar opinion and also warns of the danger of disconnection from your audience if the stories they read are removed from the realities of the world they live in and its conflicts. ‘If you lose contact with the contemporary world and with social problems, you run a serious risk of falling out of touch with reality and becoming disconnected from your target audience’, the Vigo-born author maintains. Casalderrey stresses the very nature of literature to support the presence of conflicts in narrations or as the origin of the latter. ‘The fact that all goes well doesn’t generate any curiosity and has no appeal. What’s done in literature is to present conflicts, and they don’t even have to be solved, but they do have to knock at the door of your conscience so that you’ll think about it and, on the basis of what you know, what you see around you, what you feel and your experiences, draw conclusions by yourself’, Fina says.

The contribution from Galicia
In the case of Galicia, our literary system, as far as children’s and young people’s literature is concerned, has been including in its catalogues for decades multiple works that, far from avoiding showing conflicts, try to include them to reflect reality. ‘It’s not often said, but our children’s and young people’s literature is often ahead of the trends’, Ledicia Costas says, listing some of these pioneering themes versus other literary systems in Spain that still took some time to incorporate such themes into their literature for young readers. ‘When there were virtually no books published in Spain about trans people, we already had novels in our children’s and young people’s literature which showed these characters, and this can be extrapolated to other topics, such as violence against women’, Costas says. ‘I’m now thinking about the time when Marilar Alexandre released A cabeza da Medusa, which talks about a rape’, she mentions as an example. For her, the way in which the models of family or sexual diversity are dealt with in Galician children’s and young people’s literature is turning out to be especially satisfactory.

For Montse Pena, themes such as sexual diversity and multiculturalism began to enter Galician children’s and young people’s literature in a particularly visible way from the first decade of the 21st century. ‘Galicia became a society that went on from being emigrant to being host to migrants from other places’, Pena explains. ‘Then sexual diversity and equality have to do with a new boom of feminisms and with the recognition of the rights of the LGTBIQ+ community’, the researcher explains. Fina Casalderrey confirms that throughout this time, in terms of dealing with all these topics in Galician children’s and young people’s literature, ‘we’ve come a long way’. As an example of a type of narrative where equality values are strongly present, she mentions another Galician author who also received the National Children’s and Young People’s Literature Award, the late Agustín Fernández Paz, a prolific author with a keen sense of awareness. ‘He made a strong effort so that female characters would play an essential role. The rest of us all did what we could too, but he did it in a militant way’, the writer says.

Non-escapist fantasies
Just like any other of these themes, the idea of variety and of the defence of the role of women in all areas of life and society is not restricted to exclusively ‘realistic’ narrations. ‘These themes that are socially oriented but are also of personal interest, such as family conflicts, are transferable to fantastic universes, but then literature has always transmitted the values of its time. So even if you’re working on them within broad fantasy themes, these values will always be present’, Montse Pena explains. The critic and researcher sees that happening clearly in Ledicia Costas’ work, in which there is ‘a clear pre-eminence of fantasy works, but also a taste for realism’, she says. Pena points to some of Costas’ works, such as A señorita Bubble (Xerais, 2017) or Jules Verne e a vida secreta das mulleres planta (Xerais, 2016), as examples of the defence ‘of women scientists or women who connect with the rural world’, she states. Also in the work that earned Costas the National Award, Escarlatina, a cociñeira defunta, there is an approach to a controversial subject: death. The very decision of the jury that granted her the award highlights, among other things, ‘her skill to demystify that world’. Costas acknowledges that in her award-winning book ‘the theme is mourning and death’, and the tool she uses to deal with this issue is humour in a style that, according to Montse Pena, ‘connects very well with our Galician tradition’, mentioning classic authors such as Castelao or Risco. For Costas, the answer to whether the use of ‘magic realism’ is compatible with the treatment of controversial issues is ‘definitely yes’. She believes that an example of this can also be perceived in her work A balada dos unicornios (Xerais, 2018), a steampunk story set in the 19th century ‘in which I speak about male violence against women through Jack the Ripper’, she says.

In ‘magic realism’, books combine the everyday and the fantastic applying a treatment in which a magic or supernatural element is inserted into everyday reality, changing it but also bringing the inexplicable closer to the logical in a natural way. This literature does not fail to contribute to the process of personal development, in its pedagogical and didactic functions, but does so in a subtler manner. For Fina Casalderrey, a fantasy story is more interesting if it contains a link to reality that gives credibility to it. ‘Between The Neverending Story and Alice in Wonderland, I choose the former because there’s the Bastian that emerges in the story itself as a real child, of flesh and blood, with his real conflicts’, Fina thinks. Casalderrey’s taste for the presence of real characters coincides with Montse Pena’s assessment of the writer’s work. ‘Fina is an author who likes realism. To me as a reader, one of her strengths is her great ability to give a voice, in an extremely truthful way, to children who experience different situations’, Montse says. She mentions the book with which this author won the National Award: ‘In O misterio dos fillos de Lúa we can see that the little girl who is the main character has a voice of her own and is totally different from that adult world that doesn’t attach any importance to the loss of a litter of kittens’, the critic points out.

Families and equality
The polarisation created around some of the controversial issues of social reality is sometimes due to confrontational political interests or irreconcilable ideological distances. In that climate of tension, children’s and young people’s literature is not exempt from being brought to the centre of the dispute, and is sometimes criticised as ‘programmatic’ or as a vehicle for indoctrination of one kind or another. Montse Pena has a clear opinion on such criticism. ‘I don’t agree with that’, she states. ‘I believe it’s a sort of literature that’s incorporating the social changes that are present in reality’, Pena says. For the researcher, the idea of an ‘agenda’ of topics authors want to deal with is totally unfounded. What happens, according to her, is that ‘literature, without labels, is the daughter of the society in which it was born’. As to the criticism regarding indoctrination, Ledicia Costas maintains that creators should have the right to express themselves and young readers should have the right to see themselves and their lives reflected in narrations. ‘Don’t children have a right to find diverse books that precisely contain diverse sensibilities, just as the sensibilities of the readership are?’ the writer asks. ‘Literature is about that’, Fina Casalderrey says. ‘It’s about stirring consciences, and it can’t change the world, but it can try to change you, for you to change the world’. ‘We let children see the most atrocious realities on TV, but when it comes to letting them read about certain topics, it’s a no-no for some’, Fina thinks. For her, all topics can be dealt with at all ages. ‘The different capital issues can be discussed at different levels of human experience, not of intelligence’, she asserts. ‘When we say, “A child wouldn’t understand that’, I believe that has more to do with our laziness or incompetence to explain that thing to a child than with the child’s emotional and intellectual ability to reflect on that topic’, Casalderrey says, drawing on her extensive experience as a teacher as well as a writer.

When speaking specifically about themes that may be the subject of this self-serving controversy and polarisation through various media, Fina is clear that adults, by straining these situations in one way or another, are not really helping children to understand things. ‘We’d be surprised to see how naturally children are able to accept these themes. It’s us who add prejudices; children are born without them’, the writer says. ‘I believe diversity needs to shown as naturally as possible’, Fina Casalderrey maintains. ‘If a conflict is generated, we should make children see the injustice in it’, she says. For the Xeve-born writer, family is ‘the first society of affections, which has to be a certain way to be perfect’. About the issue of inequality, she remembers having sought, in some of her works, to create a certain reflection on that. ‘For example, in Un día de caca e vaca (Baía, 2006), I deliberately used names such as Andrea and Cruz, so either of them could be the father or the mother, and it was only at the end that I revealed who each of them was’, she says.

Literature to enjoy
‘The power of books helps to understand the world, but above all we can’t lose sight of the fact that this is about finding a beautiful story told in the finest possible way’, Fina Casalderrey states. In any event, she declares herself to be against putting any message, no matter how good it is, above the story itself with which you intend to captivate and move your readers. ‘Everybody’s clear about the difference between a didactic text and a literary text, and that doesn’t mean you can’t sometimes learn more from a literary text, but without being pushed. Nobody likes to be pushed’, Fina explains very graphically. ‘Children’s literature shouldn’t include “self-help” works. Children’s and young people’s literature should be something else, something that helps young girls and boys enjoy and be moved, have fun and be more eager to consume fiction in whatever format it may be’, Montse Pena says. ‘If we determine the use of literary works as “books for …” as if we were prescribing books to heal things, as if they were medicines, then we’d be losing that battle”, the critic and teacher concludes. ‘I’m an author who’s constantly fleeing from didacticism in literature, but it’s true that there’s a widespread misconception that children’s and young people’s literature has to be didactic”, Ledicia Costas states. ‘I believe its central purpose is not to educate. That’s associated with the fact that literature for children has always been considered as a minor genre, reviled and looked down upon’. Casalderrey quotes José María Sánchez-Silva, the only Spanish writer to have won the Hans Christian Andersen Award – for Marcelino Pan y Vino, in 1968 – when Sánchez-Silva, speaking to Miguel Delibes, told him, ‘I warn you that writing for children is not writing for fools’.

Project manager: Manuel Gago
Video: Pablo Goluboff
Redactors: Manuel Gago, Xermán Hermida, Santi Montes
Production: Alberto Carballido
Graphics: Novagarda
Live audio: Daniel Ameneiro
Audio Posproduction: Alberto Blanco Fernández
Translation: Nicholas Callaway