Literature for children and teens today
Of refugees, racism, and poverty (Part 2)
By Jana Mikota
Socio economic situationsIn children’s and teenage literature, the children’s socioeconomic situation plays a major role, which has received little academic attention so far. A review of current children’s and teenage literature shows that poverty is also addressed differently today. While Mirjam Pressler’s novel November Cats (1982) highlights poverty as a trigger of violence and neglect in a family, Susan Oppel-Götz’s novel Extraterrestrial is somewhere else (2012) shows the contrast between a boy raised in poverty and a boy from a more affluent home, contrasting their two realities. Kirsten Boie’s novel A kidnapping involving a leopard (2015) widens this lens, showing that the lives of children in social hotspots or in socio-economically challenging environments are not all about violence, hunger, or neglect, but also filled with joyful moments. While Kirsten Boie does show broken homes ‒ an alcoholic mother, notoriously absent fathers, and a grandmother who isn’t always there to care for the grandchildren ‒ the children are capable of taking care of themselves, mastering crises, and living humorous moments. Kirsten Boie does not paint a stereotypical picture of life in a social hotspot, but remains sympathetic towards the experience of the children who live in it, also affording them moments of happiness.
Novels such as The pool. A whole summer under the sky (2019) as well as its sequel, Next round. The Bukowski’s are scraping by (2020) by Will Gmehling, or translations from other languages, such as South is always somewhere (2020) by Marianne Kaurin and Address unknown (2020) by Susan Nielsen, pick up the topic of homelessness, which has received little representation in children’s and teenage literature so far. Will Gmehling, for example, presents a two-volume series about the Bukowski children, who spend their summer break at home because of their parents’ financial situation. At the outdoor pool, they save a toddler, are rewarded with free tickets, and end up spending a lovely summer. The affectionate sibling relationship, but also the portrayal of the adults convey joy, which distinguishes this novel from the above-mentioned stories set in socio-economically disadvantaged families.
Uticha Marmon’s novel The silent house (2021) addresses the pandemic, exploring how life changed for various children in a Berlin high-rise in the spring of 2020. The often numerous families live in modest circumstances and cramped spaces. Marmon very sensitively traces the conflicts that emerge in a lockdown situation, exploring the children’s concerns and fears as well as the impact on their parents. Some of them are forced to work shorter hours, others have to report to their workplaces as essential workers in constant worry of infecting themselves or their families. As food banks are closing, groceries are getting scarce. Amidst this difficult situation, a crime occurs, which breaks up the tension for the child reader. The author describes the situation during the early months of the pandemic, revealing the adults’ helplessness as they are overwhelmed by the situation and unable to adequately explain it to their children. The book does not go into the causes of the pandemics, as that would overcomplicate a children’s book.
Refugees and integrationThe topic of refugees has a long tradition in children’s and teenage literature, for example, in exile literature about children escaping Nazi Germany, such as the novels by Lisa Tetzner, Erika Mann, or Adrienne Thomas. Since 2000, we have seen a new crop of children’s and teenager novels which revolve around current war refugees. Since 2015, there has been an increasing number of children’s and teenage novels that address integration and finding a new home. Perils such as war, terror, and natural catastrophes and the escape from these threats are communicated to children and teenagers via personal stories. What’s important, though, is that those novels also show the children’s lives before they became refugees. Examples are books such as When my father turned into a bush and I lost my name (2012) by Joke van Leeuwen, Perhaps we can stay (German version published in 2015) by Ingeborg Kringeland Hald, or My friend Salim (2015) by Uticha Marmon, as well as teenage novels such as The time of miracles (German version published in 2011) by Anne-Laure Bondoux. Children’s novels tell refugee stories differently: While some do provide the specific historical context, as in Perhaps we can stay, others tell of war and flight beyond any specific contexts, as in When my father turned into a bush and I lost my name or Beyond the sea. The children’s novel When my father turned into a bush and I lost my name by Joke van Leeuwen addresses topics such as war, flight, human trafficking, and multilingualism. It revolves around the narrator Tonda who is forced to leave her home because of war and flees to her mother’s home country, leaving behind the grandmother as well as the father, a confectioner-turned-warrior. The novel Perhaps we can stay explores the topic of deportation. Eleven-year-old Alvin, whom religious persecution forced to flee Bosnia five years prior with his younger sisters and mother, has found a home in Norway and is supposed to return two Bosnia. Even though the country is now at peace, the family is afraid to return as they would still face persecution as Muslims in Bosnia. Alvin hides in a car and rides into the mid-winter mountains where he comes upon a solitary hut. Hungry and freezing, he forages through the woods, watching two girls and their grandparents. In flashbacks, we see memories of his home in Bosnia, the murder of his father, and the family’s escape after they experience atrocities that most readers only know from newspapers. Alvin wants to stay in Oslo, where he has found friends and speaks the language. Author Ingeborg Kringeland Hald very delicately approaches the topic of escape and deportation from the perspective of a child who survived the war in Bosnia as a six-year-old. The author provides a dense, precise, and compelling description of Alvin’s flight and the fear and danger that impacts his life until the present day[KT1] . All three of these novels choose a child’s narrative perspective to portray experiences of war, escape, and finding a new home in a new country. They are not stories about friendships between refugee and non-refugee children, but instead focus exclusively on the childhoods of refugees. Author Cornelia Franz wrote two novels that present the topic of flight in differing ways. Her book How I saved Einstein Einstein’s life (2020) is a historical children’s novel that combines the element of time travel with escape from Nazi Europe to the USA. Cornelia Franz dedicates her current novel Calypso’s Odyssey (2021) to modern-day flight, locating the plot on the Mediterranean Sea, the very place that brings almost daily news of human tragedy. It revolves around a small German family who spends the summer vacation on a sailing boat, traveling from port to port. Oscar is bored because his parents did not allow him to bring along a friend and he feels claustrophobic on the small boat, because “swimming around with mom and dad all day is not really fun, either” (Franz 2021, p. 7). Suddenly, a rescue boat appears, carrying two almost fatally dehydrated children, and the parents realize that they must be refugees. They want to bring children to the nearest port because they are in need of medical attention, but the parents run up against strict immigration laws and find that the task of rescuing the children is up to them. Authors such as Rieke Patwardhan focus on the question of making a new home. Patwardhan’s books Research Group Pea Soup, or how we found out about grandma’s big secret (2019) and Research Group Pea Soup on a New Mission, or how we squatted a house and found out about Lena’s secret (2021) revolves around the three children Niels, Evi, and Syrian-born Lina, who is new to the class. The author embeds the topic of integration into a captivating crime story with a light, delicate touch that does not trivialize the girl’s fears.
Novels such as Trainkids (2015) by Dirk Reinhardt, Kinshasha Dreams (2012) by Anna Kuschnarowa, Time of Miracles, or Fate of the Stars (2015) by Daniel Höra also approach the topic of escape in different ways for teenage audiences. Trainkids follows a group of Mexican teens who want to escape from Mexico to the USA. They, too, have to face border controls, human smugglers, distrust, and financial worries. In Kinshasa Dreams, an African boy who sees no prospects for himself on the continent decides to flee. In addition to the aforementioned topics, this book also tackles the issue of fundamentalism, as the protagonist encounters radical Islamists. Daniel Höra, who always likes to address topical issues in his novels, tells about the fates of two refugees in his current novel Fate of the Stars. Adib used to live in Afghanistan with his parents and brothers, but they were forced to flee when his father was murdered by the Taliban. They eventually end up in Berlin where they request asylum and live in a refugee shelter. By coincidence, Adib meets 90-year-old Karl, who also came to Berlin as a refugee in the aftermath of World War II and whose story is told in a secondary narrative strand. As Adib and Karl get closer, it is mainly Karl who needs to keep adjusting certain prejudices and opens up. These intertwining refugee stories are told with skill and in great detail.
Similarly to children’s novels, teenage novels are not only about modern-day flight. Novels such as Gertrude Without Borders (2018) by Judith Berger, or In the Land of White Chocolate (2021) by Martin Dolejs tell about escape from the former GDR or former Czechoslovakia. In her novel, Berger tells how one of protagonist Getrude’s friends wants to leave her home country. Dolejs, who himself fled the GDR to the West as a child in the 1980s, tells an autobiographically inspired story about Martin and his journey to the West, witnessing his parents’ arrest at the border, and his arrival in West Germany with a friend of his parents. The author skillfully plays with expectations regarding the West. Both novels are thus contemporary novels.
InterculturalityIn the late 20th and early 21st century, intercultural society and democratic community are simple realities of children’s lives. That is why most children’s literature presents a multicultural society that seems to function quite well. However, these children’s novels also serve a function, namely to present children with different lifestyles and to accept the unfamiliar as something positive. In doing so, the authors don’t idealize this form of community, but also address challenges such as right-wing extremism and exclusion.
Born in 1969 in Krizevci (Yugoslavia), Zoran Drvenkar moved to Berlin with his family at the age of three. He describes his experiences in two books, his first novel Nobody as strong as us (1998), which won the Oldenburg children’s and Youth Literature prize, and Standing in the Rain (2000), which was nominated for the German Youth Literature Prize. Today, the author lives in Potsdam, also writes fiction for adults, and keeps receiving awards. The story of No one is strong as us (1998) revolves around Zoran, who grows up in Berlin in the 1970s. The 12-year-old and his friends Adrian, Eli, and Karim spend their free time together and only rarely even think about their ethnic origins. His peer group is the true focus of his life, while family and school are far less important and sometimes even a nuisance to him. Zoran’s family consists of a mother, who loves to cook Yugoslav dishes and curses in Serbo-Croatian, and a dad who misses his home while trying to make a good life for his family in Germany. The family wants to go to Yugoslavia every year, but they have to stay in Berlin as they lack the financial means to travel. Zoran actually enjoys spending his summer break in Berlin with his friends, since he barely even misses his former home. Even more important than his Yugoslav home life is Zoran’s immediate environment in Berlin: He and his friends hang out in the streets, they play soccer, they talk about girls and about growing up. The boys, whose family and language backgrounds are very diverse, speak German amongst each other and their native language at home. The peer group socializes Zoran at least as much, if not more so than his family and his Yugoslav heritage. As Annette Kliewer correctly notes, Drvenkar’s novels break new ground towards a new kind of migrant literature, but also towards a new way to address interculturality in children’s and teenage literature. In German-speaking writer Antonia Michaelis’ series Kreuzberg 007 (2009 – 2012) about a multicultural group of children in 21st-century Berlin, interculturality is a matter of course. Kirsten Boie’s 2012 crime novel titled The boy who could read minds follows Steinhöfel in terms of genre patterns, but explores new paths in terms of intercultural children’s and teenage literature. It tells the story of boy named Valentin who came to Germany from Kazakhstan with his mother. After yet another move, he’s new to town, it is summer, and as he explores his new environment, he meets Mesut whose heritage is Turkish. The two boys solve a crime case together. The novel aspect of this book is a shift in perspective as the story is told by a child with a migratory background. Kirsten Boie thus continues the shift in narrative perspective that Zoran Dvrenkar began early in the early 21st century. Yet another example is the children’s novel Pembo. Half and Half Makes Twice as Happy (2020) by Ayse Bosse, whose protagonist Pembo is a girl with a hybrid identity. Born to a Turkish father and a German mother, she spent her early childhood on the Mediterranean Sea in Turkey and then moved to Hamburg with her family.
In teenage novels, the concept of diversity and the notion of interculturality is very broad, as authors not only tell about migration and finding a new home, but also describe differences between poor and rich, or between urban and rural settings. One of the most interesting voices might be author Christian Duda, whose 2017 novel Nothing of everything tells the story of Magdi, whose mother is German and whose father is Arabic. Set in the 1970s, Duda tells of the everyday racism that Magdi and his siblings experience, of domestic violence, and eventually of the courage to find oneself. So far, there are only few texts that describe the lives of migrants in earlier decades.