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Literature for children and teens today
Of refugees, racism, and poverty (Part 1)

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Developments in children’s and teenage literature

In the German-speaking world, original children’s and teenage literature, in other words, literature catering directly to children, emerged in the late 18th century (cf. Kümmerling-Meibauer 2012, p. 10). This newly emerging genre of children’s and youth literature was strongly influenced by the pedagogic principles of enlightened educators. This also informed the function of those texts, which initially was to “communicate established norms and values to the new generation” (Gansel, 2012, p. 2). It was meant to educate, admonish, and instruct. The newly emerging genre of children’s and teenage literature thus developed in close correlation with the “educational system of the time” (Gansel, 2012, p. 2). German children’s literature continued to fulfill this function well into the 20thcentury:
General literature, or literature for adults, increasingly shed the constraints of serving particular interests; it demarcated itself from religion, philosophy and ethics, law and politics, science and pedagogy, and asserted its claim to autonomy ‒ despite societally ‘interventionist’ intentions, such as the concept of littérature engagée. Meanwhile, literature for children remained committed to certain "purposes".
(Gansel, 2012, p. 2)
It was not until the last third of the 20th century that children’s and teenage literature began to change and converge towards the themes and formal characteristics of literature for adults. Yet even since 2000, children’s and teenage literature still has been modelling notions of childhood and family, picking up on pedagogical discourses such as heterogeneity and inclusion. In her volume Children’s and Teenage Literature. An Introduction, Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer correctly notes that translations of Scandinavian literature, in particular, have been driving this change. Narrators no longer comment on the events in the book in the guise of literary educators, instead sometimes presenting themselves as neutral narrators. First-person narration has, of course, also become an element of modern children’s and teenage literature, allowing for numerous blank spots and creating room for ambiguity. At the same time, this form of narration can help render the inner conflict of the child or teenage protagonist in a postmodern society. Add to that inner monologues, flashbacks, swift changes in temporal levels and tenses, as well as multi-perspective narration.

The books are often open-ended, leaving the child reader without clear answers. Also, the vantage point of judgment has shifted in children’s and teenage literature: It is no longer the heterodiegetic narrator who comments and judges the characters’ actions, but the children and teenagers themselves get to act as instances of judgment – and they don’t necessarily follow the norms and values of society. Even if their point of view is at odds with social norms, it is left uncorrected. It is ultimately up to the reader to judge. One example for this is Susan Kreller’s 2012 multi-award-winning novel You can’t see elephants (2012), which was nominated for the German Youth Literature Prize in the category Teenage Literature in 2013. It revolves around a girl named Mascha who spends the summer break with her grandparents in their upper middle-class neighborhood where life is strictly regimented. Marsha notices that siblings Max and Julia suffer domestic abuse while the community turns a blind eye in order to stay out of trouble. On a whim, she decides to kidnap the children. Her actions are judged in different ways ‒ ultimately, it is up to the reader to come to a final verdict. The novel starts as follows:
The thing that happened in the blue house earned me many a mean stare and a visit from my dad. The mean stares continued until the end of the break, while my father left after only two hours. I would have liked for him to stay longer, for then maybe at some point, he would have told me that that wrong thing I did wasn’t wrong after all, or maybe just a little wrong, almost the right thing to do. But all he could think of in my grandparents’ backyard was ask if I couldn’t have handled this differently.
(Kreller, 2012, p. 9)
This is how the story begins. It is then told in flashbacks from Mascha’s point of view. The storyline as such offers no interpretations. Just like Mascha, the readers have to come to their own conclusions. Pedagogical instruction, which was the hallmark of early original children’s and teenage literature, is now gone from the genre as it evolves into a literature of socialization. Since the 1990s, children’s and teenage literature has therefore fallen into a dichotomy: There’s an entertainment category and a more high-brow category (cf. Kümmerling-Meibauer, 2012, p. 73). In addition, there is what Dieter Wrobel calls ‘target group literature’ (2010, p. 7), such as the series Insolent girls - insolent books from publisher Planet Girl, which belongs to Thienemann, and the series The wild soccer guys.[1] These texts also come embedded in a broad media conglomerate, which is also characteristic for the development of children’s and teenage literature in the past few years.

Modern children’s and teenage literature not only caters to different readerships, but also evades traditional genre categorizations and employs postmodern narrative techniques. Similar to literature for adults, children’s and teenage literary texts blend different elements, rearrange them, create intertextuality. A new and very popular hybrid genre is the so-called steampunk novel that puts science fiction elements in period settings, in particular Victorian England. It, too, blends various genre labels. Contemporary modern children’s novels do not fall neatly into traditional sub-genres, i.e., problem-oriented, psychological, or comedic, instead mingling them all together. Prominent examples of such novels are the works by Salah Naoura, Tamara Bach, Finn-Ole Heinrich, Elisabeth Steinkellner, and Andreas Steinhöfel.

Expanding topic range and changes in children’s and teenage literature after 2000

As early as the 1970s, we have seen children’s and teenage literature open itself towards a greater range of topics in response to processes of societal modernization. As it processes societal discourse, children’s and teenage literature models and constructs images of girls, boys, and adults.

Changing notions of childhood and family

One of the major motifs of children’s literature is family; and notions of what constitutes a family are changing. From the 1970s, family as the protective space of a happy childhood has been deconstructed. Novels began to address physical and psychological violence, featuring a greater variety of diverse family models, such as single parents, patchwork families, and same-sex parents. Female authors are prominent in this context, such as Kirsten Boie, both for their perception of childhood as well as the various family models that their works trace with seismographic precision. While her psychological children’s novel No one talks to children, anyway (1990) addresses patriarchal family constellations and depression as a consequence thereof, her book Nella-Propella deals with single motherhood; Everything changed with Jakob (1986) explores whether fathers, too, can take paternity leave; and her Sommerby series (2018–2021) describes an unusual grandmother and different child-rearing methods.

Since the early 2000s, a new perspective has cropped up: an ironic, yet also critical look at the parent generation, such as in Anke Stelling’s children’s book Erna and the three truths (2017). Erna lives in a Berlin high-rise that is set up for community living. She attends a Montessori school and is critical of her parents’ alternative life philosophy. She would rather go to a regular secondary school, raising the question whether the parents’ strongly community-focused life philosophy affords the children enough space for their own development. Silke Lambeck’s multi-award-winning children’s book My friend Otto, the wild life, and I (2018) also shows various concepts of family from two boys’ quite ironic perception of their parents and their parenting efforts. Similarly to Stelling, Lambeck also sets her story in Berlin, in the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood, thereby also addressing the issue of gentrification. By contrast, Stephanie Höfler’s multi-award-winning novel My summer with Mucks (2015) not only employs contrasting family realities, but also shows how a caring home creates strong children. Her book revolves around the children Mucks and Zonja. Mucks is new to the city, Zonja is ostracized because of her ticks, but she enjoys a caring home. From Mucks, she learns both the meaning of friendship and the impact of a broken home.

Children’s and teenage literature tells of single moms in unstable relationships, but also of single dads, without a judgmental narrator passing a verdict on those different family models. It is up to the children and teenagers to make sense of those constellations and live with them. Stephanie Taschinski’s Patchwork Family (2019 – 2021) tells of a family whose mother goes to Australia to pursue a music career, abandoning her children and leaving their father in search of a new apartment and having to learn to juggle work and family life. What has long been a purely feminine perspective is now shifting: Fathers are also portrayed as caring parents. In Finn-Ole Heinrich’s book series Maulina Schmidt (2013 – 2014), the father fights for his family after a divorce and never gives up despite getting hurt and suffering setbacks. Single fathers are also often struggling, overwhelmed, and in need of support. In Patchwork Family, the multi-family building becomes a support structure and a substitute family that helps each other out, exploring the notion of a multi-generational family that does not need blood relations to work. The grandparents’ roles are also changing; they become more engaged. Overall, we can say that in these books, both children and adults are afforded their own spaces without leaving the children feeling neglected. Working parents are a fixed element.

Authors such as Judith Burger, Dita Zipfel, or Tamara Bach and their books Roberta in love (2019), Ringo, me, and a completely clueless summer (2021), How lunacy explained the world to me (2019), or Words that start with L (2019) address the transition from childhood to teenagerhood, which also includes exploring the vagaries and confusion of first love. The authors approached those topics with a great deal of sensitivity, showing the conflicts and pains of transitioning from childhood to teenagerhood. This is a topic that has not been very prevalent in children’s books, but is extremely helpful for the young readers’ development, for not only adolescence comes with great changes, but also the transition into this phase.
[1] In research on children’s and teenage literature and literary pedagogy, these books are discussed as tools to promote literacy (cf. among others, Wrobel 2008 and 2010).