Political children’s literature
Child labour in a resort hotel

Martin Baltscheit/Christine Schwarz, Ich bin für mich!
Martin Baltscheit/Christine Schwarz, Ich bin für mich! | Photo (detail): © 2011 Beltz & Gelberg in der Verlagsgruppe Beltz ∙ Weinheim Basel

Whether it’s a question of the refugee crisis, democracy or social inequality, some children’s books are impressive in the way they address political and moral issues. Their range of topics is similarly diverse to that found in adult literature.

The story would give even adults goose bumps: Philip is spending the holidays with his family at the “PalmenClub” resort, where he meets Anuka, whom he already knows from previous stays at the hotel. Unlike Philip, however, the eleven-year-old girl has to get up early each morning, wake her brothers and go to work; she is one of the people who ensure that holidaymakers like Philip’s family enjoy their stay. When her younger brother Stefane falls ill, Anuka is torn between her work and her feverish sibling. Annette Pehnt’s children’s book Alle für Anuka (i.e. All for Anuka) takes a look at child labour in an upmarket resort hotel, at the associated themes of poverty and injustice – but also at the power of friendship and solidarity. Its focus on such issues makes this children’s book highly political.
Politics, ethics and morals are by no means the exclusive domain of adult literature, and can also provide narrative material for children’s books, as a glance at the history of German children’s literature reveals. As well as serving purely educational ends, political themes have also been employed in children’s books for propaganda purposes, especially in the Weimar Republic, during the Nazi era and under the Communists in East Germany. “Another important drive towards politicization began in the 1970s, when books for children and young adults reacted to the changes brought about by the protests of 1968”, explains Andre Kagelmann, director of the Center for Children’s and Young-Adult Media Research (ALEKI) at the University of Cologne. However, very few of the political children’s books of the time were a pleasure to read, recalls Alle für Anuka author Annette Pehnt: “I had to read the highly politicized children’s books of the 1970s myself. With the marvellous exception of Christine Nöstlinger’s The Cucumber King, I found most of them pretty dry.”

From the subliminal to the overly explicit

Political children’s books can be extremely gripping and well worth reading. Some have even become German young adult classics, such as Kurt Held’s The Outsiders of Uskoken Castle. Published in 1941, the novel tells the story of a group of orphans from the small Croatian coastal town of Senj. Although the children engage in criminality in order to survive, they adhere to firm rules within their group, the most important of these being solidarity. Not all children’s books whose stories contain political and ethical messages are as explicit as those in The Outsiders of Uskoken Castle. “Many children’s books are political even without dealing with an explicitly political theme – by dint of their stance, their spirit, their narrative tone and many other facets. In this sense there can of course never be enough political books”, says Monika Bilstein, director of the publishing house Peter Hammer Verlag.
Published in August 2016, the book Hotel Wunderbar (i.e. Hotel Wonderful) by Jutta Nymphius for example engages on a subliminal level with the subject of homelessness. One cold winter, a small boy called Mika secretly allows homeless people to stay in his parents’ hotel, his actions revealing his warm-heartedness. And Martina Wildner’s Finsterer Sommer (i.e. Dark Summer), which came out in February 2016, combines in a rather more implicit way historical events on the French Atlantic coast with an exciting storyline. Books such as the 2014 children’s book How to Build Your Own Country by the Canadian author Valerie Wyatt or Martin Baltscheit’s 2015 picture book Ich bin für mich (i.e. I vote for me) are far more explicit in their focus on political themes. Both books are about democracy and political elections.
Some authors of children’s literature are characterized by the speed at which they react to topical political issues. Many books about refugees and migration are currently appearing, for instance. One example is Alle da! Unser kunterbuntes Leben (i.e. All of Us, Together) which was published in 2014. In it, Anja Tuckermann tells the story of young refugees from all over the world who are beginning a new life in Germany. Books like this are seen as having high educational value. The Federal Agency for Civic Education even included Alle da! Unser kunterbuntes Leben in its Schriftenreihe series.

Getting involved, forming an opinion

Non-fiction books for children that focus on particular subjects such as National Socialism, the division of Germany or refugees are even more specific. They are popular above all with parents who feel that they often contain more information than subliminal political fiction for children. “We rarely find that people from families ask about political children books – it tends only to be ambitious nursery schools or primary schools”, says Jana Kühn from Berlin bookshop Dante Connection.
In other words, there are a variety of ways in which texts written for children explore political topics. “I very much welcome it when picture books in particular get involved. Even at an early age, children should, can and want to see correlations, explore causes and form an opinion. If we take the concept of democracy seriously, we should not deny our children these processes”, says Karin Gruß. Together with the illustrator Tobias Krejtschi, the author has now followed up One Red Shoe with a picture book for pupils above primary school age. Was WÜRDEst Du tun? (i.e. What would you do?) asks ethical and moral questions that are not easy to answer. Ute Dettmar, a professor at the Department for Children’s and Young Adult Literature Research in Frankfurt am Main, is an advocate of fiction with political themes. “I believe it is important to address political issues in a convincing manner. It is no longer enough for them to be presented as educational works or described as problems. What is needed are stories that develop aesthetically convincing, understandable and interesting perspectives.”
Be they fiction or non-fiction, and be their messages subliminal or direct, children’s books with political themes can be a welcome invitation for young readers to explore the key issues of their time.