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An Emotional Education
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 it’s not that it’s 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 children’s 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 you’ll 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 today’s test for political correctness. I will not speak of new books, I would like for a minute to distract you from the chase for what’s fashionable and to invite you to remember those books which you yourself read during your childhood. Those books where the hero becomes victorious

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 one’s life, and where a word given remains true.

Remember the boy Ponteleev from "A Word Given?" This short story is a true manifesto of children’s honor. The same stubborn persistence to keep his promises can be found in Jim Hockins of R.L. Stephens’s 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, Jim’s reply is just like that unnamed boy’s in the story by Ponteleev: "But

Doctor, I’ve 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 Kaa’s 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 Kipling’s 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 Tom’s behavior as he stands before the face of certain death in a cave.

Real books don’t always have happy endings. But are our lives covered in shining gold? Should we remove real life from children’s 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 I’d 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. (I’ll 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 that’s 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 Kipling’s or Marshak’s 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 child’s age as it does on his character, his tastes and what he is drawn to. Yet I’ll 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 don’t forget that most classics of children’s 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 children’s 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 don’t 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 children’s 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 won’t be reading them to your children because they require too much explaining.

Meanwhile, the majority of children’s 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 let’s 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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