Centre for Research in Young People's Texts and Cultures

Niloofar Mahdian

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Children's Literature in a Revolutionary Era

By Niloofar Mahdian

Pictures of Revolution 1

Hello. First of all, I want to thank the jury, for selecting my paper and providing me with the opportunity to present it in this panel. I especially thank Ms. Reimer, Chair of the International Committee of the Children's Literature Association, and Louise Salstad who kindly guided me in this process.

My presentation here is a summary of my original paper titled "Children's Pictures of Revolution 2 Literature in a Revolutionary Era" in which I focus on a politically-motivated children's literature which grew quickly in the decade or so preceding the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and contributed to the uprising of the young generations who eventually made the revolution happen. Immensely influential on both children and later generations of authors of children's books, this trend in literature aimed at 'awakening' the children of the masses to the causes of their disadvantages Pictures of Revolution 3and at stimulating them to struggle to diminish those disadvantages. It was a field in which the whole 'machinery' of the Revolution worked for children and played the same role on behalf of children that adult literature did on behalf of adults. In my paper I explore certain characteristics and functions of this literature, as well as how it managed to reach its goals.

I have organized this paper in three parts. In the first part I study the revolution in Iranian children's literature which took place with the works of Samad Behrangi during the years 1966-1968, before his early death at the age of 29. In the second part, I consider the functioning of family in politically motivated children's books. Finally, I show how the consciousness-raising children's literature of the time managed to influence its readers.

Samad Behrangi 1

Samad Behrangi was an unparalleled genius among Iranian authors who, through his few, yet rebellious writings, established a new approach to children`s literature and its functions, and challenged stereotyped ideas about children and childhood. In a famous article he wrote:

It is no longer the time for limiting children's literature to the arid and authoritarian advice and instructions, such as 'Wash your hands and feet and body', 'Obey Mum and Dad and the elders', 'Don't make noise in front of a guest', 'Wake up early in the morning', 'Smile at people in order to be loved', 'Help the poor as the Charities tell you' etc., the result of all of which is the child's being kept unaware of the serious and important problems of her/his life. Shouldn't we tell the child that in your country there are boys and girls who have never seen a piece of meat on their plates? Shouldn't we tell the child that more than half of the world's population are hungry, and why they are hungry, and how hunger could be diminished? Shouldn't we give the child a true and logical understanding of the history and development of human societies?. . . The child must know how hard her/his father works to bring food to the family! The child must know how her/his older brother struggles and is drowned under the hardships of his life! That other child also must know how her/his father has become rich through aiding the survival of this dark and suffocating plight! (Behrangi a, 120)

Little Black Fish 1

These words pointed to a shift not only in the ideas about childhood and the role of children's literature, but in the form of children's literature; i.e. its language, subjects, choice of characters, themes and plots - a shift which was reflected in Behrangi's stories for children better than anywhere else. Inspired by socialist ideals, as is evident in the mentioned article and elsewhere, Behrangi struggled against undiscerning adaptation of Western values, as well as self-alienation and even self-hatred at a national level, among the middle and upper classes, especially in the big cities.

Behrangi's most influential book was a symbolic story named The Little Black Fish (1968), whose illustrations by Farshid Mesghali won the Hans Christian Anderson Award in 1969. It is the story of a little fish who comes out of the dirty brook in which it lives, with the goal of seeing the huge blue sea. It is faced with many obstacles and threatening creatures, but eventually reaches the sea. In the sea, it is caught by a heron, but before it is eaten, it kills the heron Little Black Fish 2with a dagger a lizard has given it. The narrator of the story, who is the grandmother of thousands of little fish, ends the story by saying that after that event (killing the heron) nobody has seen or heard of the little black fish. As the story ends, all the thousands of little fish say good night and go to sleep, except one of them—a little red fish—who remains awake and thinks of the huge blue sea!

Though The Little Black Fish Little Black Fish 11can be interpreted in many different ways, at a time of escalation of liberating causes in opposition to a dictatorial regime, it was interpreted as symbolizing lives of young fighters mostly arising from the lower classes, who died in the prisons of the regime, and were praised later by the people as martyrs. Behrangi's symbolism in The Little Black Fish was imitated by a new generation of young authors who wrote under censorship, as it provided them with a device through which they could Little Black Fish 4hint at ideological political messages, without being too explicit. The main legacy of Behrangi for the children's literature of Iran, however, was his realism in depicting situations and confrontation of problems. The most obvious goal of this realistic literature was informing children of the real lives of the poor and their struggles against the hardships of their lives. Thus, most of the stories took place in rural deprived areas or poverty-stricken urban neighborhoods inhabited by low income families. The image of the working child was repeated in many of these stories, a reflection of the real situation of poor families, in which it was natural for a child to be the main bread winner, working during the summer and sometimes other seasons as well.

Little Black Fish 5

In 24 Hours of Sleep and Wakefulness(1969) Samad Behrangi depicts 24 hours in the life of a boy who, together with his father, has left his cottage in the village to come to the capital Tehran, in order to earn money for his family. Both of them sell different little things on the crowded streets. During the day, the boy tries to forget his hunger and entertains himself with a big camel toy in the window of a shop. At night, he falls asleep on his father's hand-barrow and dreams of the camel. The camel takes him to a party in a rich man's house, whose guests are other toys and children. Waking up still hungry in the morning, the boy sees a rich man coming to buy the camel for his daughter. He reaches for the camel and hugs it, crying that it is his camel. The people gather at the scene and push him away. He falls down and the camel is taken from him. Weeping over his beloved toy, this time the boy wishes to own the gun in the window.

Even to this day, the last scene of this story has been a matter of dispute as, relating it simply to the biography of the author, some critics have believed that it teaches violence and supports armed fighting against the enemy. Although the purpose of this paper precludes in-depth discussion of the novel, I think there are some literary qualities in the story that make it multi-dimensional and open to different interpretations (even contrary to the possible intentions of the author), while, because of the political side of the story, those qualities have been hidden from the eyes of the critics. In those times, disputes over the means of struggle and the ways of confronting oppressive forces were reflected in the stories written for children. For example, hot debates over the necessity of armed fighting against oppression, versus solving problems through more peaceful means, entered these stories.

An interesting theme in children's books was the role of literature itself in awakening children to the realities of their lives. For example, Bulletin of Our School (1978) by A. A. Darvishian, is the story of a group of schoolboys who, guided by their teacher of literature, write a bulletin. By pointing to students' problems, they challenge the arrogant headmaster and make him angry. The boys' unity in tackling obstacles collapses when a newcomer enters their circle, who, together with another boy, starts writing a different bulletin mostly in praise of the headmaster and his work. Increasing pressures on the writers of the first bulletin, impel them to write another one and to spread it secretly. The opposition's hindering and trouble-making do not cease, yet the boys do not give up and even work harder.

The Courtyard of Adl Afagh School 1

Another book, The Courtyard of the Adl Afagh School (1977), by F. Doostdar, is the story of Kaveh, a schoolboy who, together with many others, is harassed by an arrogant boy who has the unreasonable support of the assistant master. Though inspired by traditional fighting heroes, Kaveh knows that he cannot fight with his oppressors, and thinks a lot in order to find a reasonable peaceful solution. Eventually, he decides to reflect everything in the bulletin of the school.The Courtyard of Adl Afagh School 8 After the bulletin comes out with the support of one of the teachers, the assistant master removes it from the board; but, by doing this, he puts himself face to face with other teachers who force him to return the bulletin to the board.

It is clear from examples like these that the child hero who emerges in the realistic, politically significant children's literature of this period, is usually an active, questioning, and thoughtful character. He not only shuns The Courtyard of Adl Afagh School 9passive acceptance of the established norms and values, especially of those he thinks unreasonable, but does not show the slightest sign of assenting to oppression, and engages in persistent challenging of the norms and untiring struggle against oppression. He usually manages to alter the situation as he wishes, not through superhuman talents and capabilities, but through voicing his needs loudly and forcefully. Through these stories, the child hero not only finds an identity for himself, but learns that this identity is not something fixed and unalterable. He is not The Courtyard of Adl Afagh School 10a static know-it-all youngster to be imitated as a role-model, but an ordinary person in the process of learning and growing, making a lot of mistakes in the meantime. Having all these characteristics in a deeply patriarchal society, the protagonist is, as might be expected, almost always a "he", not a "she".

In the next part of my paper I consider the image of family in relation to children. This topic is of great significance, as it can throw light on changes in social attitudes toward children and their position as a force in bringing about change in a revolutionary era. Interestingly, in most of these books, the family is unable to provide children with educational and financial support. Just as a working child is a recurrent image in many stories, the image of an incapable and weakened father is also repeated. Thus, the family is not only something that the child cannot depend on economically, but he himself has to take responsibility for it. In other words, he cannot even escape it. Although this puts him face to face with great hardships in the social world, it gives him self-confidence and power in the family, as well as in the society.

The Courtyard of Adl Afagh School 2

Neither is the disadvantaged, poverty-ridden family depicted in many stories of this period, able to give the child the knowledge of the world which he needs. The knowledge which is considered useful for children, is mostly of a social and political kind, giving children the power to analyze everything accordingly. The religious beliefs which the parents and other ordinary people are shown to hold, are usually attacked as superstitions by the authors with socialist orientations. In the works of these authors, the sources of knowledge are almost always outside the family; e.g. a teacher in the school, or the books that reach children`s hands through their relationships with the outside world. This is the case, for example, with The Bulletin of Our School and The Courtyard of Adl Afagh School which I mentioned earlier.

Little Black Fish 6

In some cases, the family and home are represented as the conservative force that opposes the will to change, associated with youth and growth. For example, in the symbolic story of The Little Black Fish, when it decides to go and discover what other fish and places are like, and dreams of reaching the huge blue sea, the first person who opposes it, is its mother. She and other members of its family say that the whole world is the world in which they live—i.e. the dirty little brook—and they try to force the little fish to give up his decision and remain at home. However, the little fish is not convinced by what they say, since, according to its own reasoning, it is sure that there must be other places as well as other creatures different from what it knows. So, it steps into a journey in which no return is thinkable. Indeed, as I mentioned earlier, the story ends with the death of the fish after reaching the huge blue sea.

In the remainder of my paper, I discuss the spread of readership. The authors of the consciousness-raising children's literature of the time believed that most of the other books published for Iranian children (including large numbers of translated books), were useless as they depicted situations which were irrelevant to the lives of Iranian children, and if they had any relevance, it was only for the children of the upper and middle classes. They believed that children of the poor also needed a kind of literature which, through depiction of familiar contexts as well as characters with whom they could identify, would voice their needs and desires. However, this did not mean that these authors limited their audience to the poor children; indeed, they aimed at broadening their audience, to encompass children of the poor as well as children of the middle and even upper classes.

In my opinion, another main reason for the success of consciousness-raising children`s literature of the time, in addition to its critical nature, was its trust in its readers. Indeed, what happened was a cultural shift towards a conception of the child as a person who deserved to be exposed to the realities of adult life and to participate in finding solutions to the problems. Meanwhile, a genre of criticism was developing to teach children strategies of reading. Addressing children directly, the authors of this genre discussed various books written for children, explained the ways texts negotiated ideas, made children aware of the choices authors of fiction had made, etc., thus trying to guide children to a critical reading.

Both these critical texts and the political fictions were accessible means through which children and young adults became familiar with certain ideologies and broadened their social and cultural ties. Formation of a vast network of children and young adults communicating through literature, resulted in the formation of a new generation of very young authors who tried to express their needs and desires independently of adults. This was not a far-fetched dream, as we see the image of the child as 'author' recurring in stories written by adults as well, such as Bulletin of Our School, The Courtyard of Adl Afagh School and some others. Pictures of Revolution 4I wish to conclude my presentation with a passage from a story written by one of these anonymous child authors which alludes to the participation of children in the demonstrations that eventually led to the collapse of a dictatorial regime. It is a true representation of what children—myself one of them—felt in the days of the Revolution:

Mansour was one of the boys who lived in Delgosha square.

"Are you coming with me?" his father asked him, one morning, before leaving home.

"No, I am going with my friends" Mansour answered.

His father didn't say "Be careful". . .

Mansour was 13; only 13. Before the Revolution, his father never used to ask him "Are you coming with me?" nor did he ever allow him to go out with his friends as far as he wished. At home, nobody used to show much consideration for his feelings, or ask his opinion about anything, or let him choose his own way of doing things. His mother didn't say "take a piece of bread; you may come late", or "act like others! Don't run before anybody else!"Pictures of Revolution 5 No . . . they were not like this. All these changes in their speech and behavior were due to the Revolution. The freedom of going out and joining other children, walking through the streets, shoulder to shoulder with children and grown-up men and women, shouting out one's desires - all these were rights which the Revolution had given him. Mansour didn't know what the word 'revolution' meant. Yet, he knew that Revolution had raised him, had made him a 'man', had made him 'brave' as a fighter. Revolution was something that had let him express himself, express his thoughts without being afraid of his father becoming angry, or his mother shouting at him, though, indeed, it was a long time since his father had become angry at what he said, and it was a long time since his mother had shouted at him. Every night, when he came home, he felt that he had grown up further - becoming wiser, more experienced, and even more decent! He felt that he had got new experiences and had learnt and seen new things - strange and outstanding things. After his father left, Mansour put a piece of bread in his pocket, put on his shoes and left the house.

Thank you for listening.



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