From Russian Bazaar
January 9-15, 2003
By Oleg Binogradov
I have to put a disclaimer right away that this
article was not written for everyone, and its not that its
meant mostly for parents. Many people who have children, but not
all parents, especially in America, will think that the issues discussed
here are relevant. I address here first and foremost those whose
hope for their childrens future does not hang on conventional
measure of success a well-paid job, a car, a family.
My readers are those who believe their child
is not just another would-be representative of the middle class,
but rather a little person, who will be able to withstand the set
of tastes, habits, views and conceptions which have been forced
upon him even before his birth a person, in short, who will
be able to remain an individual among countless clones.
The society that surrounds us is aggressive
and ruthless. Through TV screens, magazine ads, school work it persistently
tries to turn our children into some homogeneous mass, one not especially
burdened by intellect, but one that is very well suited for subservience.
Your child is singular and unique only to you and it is up to you
whether your child will turn into, in the words of the brothers
Strugatsky, "a person who yearns for the strange" or just
another tax payer, capable of experiencing emotion chiefly while
watching their favorite sports team.
In this uneven battle you have one old but dependable
ally whom youll remember from our common childhood: the book.
Of course, you must understand that the book I have in mind is not
Harry Potter not because these books are badly written, ideologically
harmful or, God forbid, "teach children black magic."
Still, their literary achievements or trespasses aside, these books
is nothing more than a successful business.
Today I wanted to speak about a different kind
of book the kind that will force your child not just to smile
but also to cry, not just to find new answers but to ask new questions,
the kind that perhaps would have trouble passing todays test
for political correctness. I will not speak of new books, I would
like for a minute to distract you from the chase for whats
fashionable and to invite you to remember those books which you
yourself read during your childhood. Those books where the hero
not because of a magic wand, but because of
his perseverance and bravery, where victory is not something that
simply happens in due course, but where it is earned, at times at
the cost of ones life, and where a word given remains true.
Remember the boy Ponteleev from "A Word
Given?" This short story is a true manifesto of childrens
honor. The same stubborn persistence to keep his promises can be
found in Jim Hockins of R.L. Stephenss Treasure Island.
However, many adventures and feats the future may hold for young
Hockins, he needs only to be asked once to choose between honor
and life. When Dr. Livsy tempts Jim to climb the fence to escape
from the pirates, Jims reply is just like that unnamed boys
in the story by Ponteleev: "But
Doctor, Ive given my word." Needless
to say, this is the boy who knows that what death or, what seems
worse to him, torture, awaits him. Maugli reacts the same way to
the python Kaas suggestion to run from the red dogs. "It
is my word, and I have already given it. The trees have heard it,
and so has the river. My word will not come back to me until the
orange dogs have moved on." And the old wise Kaa understands
him perfectly. "That changes everything. I thought to take
you with me to the northern swamp, but the word, even that of a
nude, bald-faced small human child, is still his Word."
I wonder, will a child raised on Disney cartoons
and Pokemon understand all the nobility of these heroes? I doubt
it. Quite sure that every dramatic moment will end happily to sweet
cheerful music, he, most likely, will not know how to tell apart
the bravery of the real Maugli from Kiplings book and will
choose instead his namesake from the Disney cartoon. Likewise, I
doubt that after watching the cartoon of Tom Sawyer, with its lighthearted
music and dance numbers, a child could understand the grace and
nobility of Toms behavior as he stands before the face of
certain death in a cave.
Real books dont always have happy endings.
But are our lives covered in shining gold? Should we remove real
life from childrens books? Do your children cry over books?
Only by going through grief and pain along with the heroes can a
child understand them and learn empathy. I remember how tirelessly
my oldest son cried at the death of Marusia in "Children of
the Underground." Poor boy, he was so certain that all would
end well. When Id tried to hint at an unhappy ending he would
hear nothing of it: "Come on, Marusia
will get well for sure."
Next time we heard him crying it was over a
book that seemed to have rather a cheerful plot: "Ronia, the
Robbers Daughter" by Aastrid Lindgren. We had forgotten
entirely that somewhere along the line a robber, Bald Per, dies
of old age. One might say, nothing special: the death of a secondary
character a favorite move by writers for both children and
adults, but none capture the pain and despair like this book by
Aastrid Lindgren. Coincidentally, when I read the same book to my
younger son, who is growing up here in America, he was perfectly
calm. (Ill be honest, we have yet to try reading "The
Children of the Underground" to him.")
The emotional education of a little person through
reading is a process that is both complex and nuanced. Of course
the first thing thats necessary is that your child should
be able to read both in English and Russian without having to stop
at each word. Otherwise he will not be able to hear the beauty of
Kiplings or Marshaks language. But then, we are all
realists here and take it for granted that this ideal situation
is hard to come by in life, so you yourself will likely have to
begin by reading to the child, at least to start with. Here the
question arises: where to start? Of course this question is mostly
rhetorical, since the answer to it depends as much on your childs
age as it does on his character, his tastes and what he is drawn
to. Yet Ill take it upon myself to make some recommendations.
The first books that you read to your child
should have an involving plot and be written with simple vocabulary.
And dont forget that most classics of childrens literature
were written as much for children as they were for adults, for most
of them are nothing less of a farewell to childhood; Christopher
Robyn leaves the enchanted forest, Wendy grows up to become an adult,
and so on. This is why I recommend that you start with those books
where this "adult" subplot predominates. In other words,
Winnie the Pooh is more appropriate for a beginner than Peter
Pan or The Little Prince. If your child is a little older
you can try reading him childrens detective or adventure novels,
like The Adventure of Kalle Bumkwist by Aastrid Lindgren
or The Pigeons have Gone Away by Maken Walter. I am picking
titles off the top of my head here. I dont doubt that you
had your own favorite books when you were a kid that you would happily
share with your children. Quite possibly, together we could come
up with a list of books that would help our children remain human.
However, the question remains: where to find
books? On the shelves of Russian-language bookstores you will find
an apparent myriad of childrens books, but on closer examination
you will find that the semblance of diversity results only from
the loudness of book covers. The reality is that the choices are
limited, this notwithstanding the publishers honest effort
to check in the back room and bring out such Soviet classics as
Timur and his Team. Whatever memories you may cherish of
these books you know as well as I do that you wont be reading
them to your children because they require too much explaining.
Meanwhile, the majority of childrens literature
in Russian (at least here in New York) consists of various almanacs
and encyclopedias, as well as books for the youngest readers (the
endless fairy tales, Agnia Barto, Marshak). No doubt these are quite
useful books, but in the end children will outgrow their baby clothes,
and this is where they need a different kind of book. But here,
too, is where Harry Potter rules supreme. So lets put our
heads together and together we can not band to withstand him
but rather give our children alternatives. So that of them,
too, people will say, "He read the right books in his childhood,"
quoting a song by Vladimir Vysotsky. And let us remember that real
books never lose their relevance.
Translated From Russian by Katya Kumkova-Wolpert
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