Sometimes when I take a tour in some of the local bookshops I also walk through the children’s books department. Piles of colourful books. Tons of them. Fabulous, nice drawings. Sometimes scary or even outright frightening. There is an enigmatic and powerful fantasy world out there; creative, amazing … For me at least, it feels like looking through a window into another universe and being able to briefly view outlines of the true wonders out there. But there are other children’s books too, books about nature, tools and machinery, but they are much fewer. Then comes adventure, history and finally crime and war … These are just children’s books. They are not for me, I tell myself.
When I finally reach another department, I often to turn around and look back. What was that? Where is that world? Why did it end? Was it all a nice and an unreal dream? Was it, in fact, some kind of false promise, some kind of diversion, a side track? … Could it be a dream world, where we adults would like to live, and one to which we would like to take our kids along? Is that the reason why we write these wonderful picture books in excitement and in happiness.
What we tell and write for kids has changed over time. Different cultures have different traditions. When social values change, the stories change too. For example, the German stories about Max and Moritz by Wilhelm Busch were extremely popular in the 19th century and continued to be so to the middle of the WWII. These stories were considered humorous, entertaining and also instructive, telling young people how to behave, what to expect, what is right and wrong in life. The stories were considered good because they were creative and humorous. But many now find them unacceptably cruel and offensive.
Kids did not take the experiences of Max and Moritz too seriously, but in a subtle way they introduced the young readers to the world of their adulthood; they laid down the context for actions and morals of their future life. It would be wrong to say that Max and Moritz created Nazi Germany. But some sentiments and perceptions of guilt and punishment, as well disregard for the suffering of others, can be felt in the stories about Max and Moritz, and in the Nazi rhetoric a generation later. It is chilling to know, that some army vehicles and guns used by the German army in WWII were named after Max and Moritz. The attached image where Max and Moritz are baked in an oven was originally a fun and absurd illustration in a children’s book. Nevertheless, it was also a disturbing precursor to the concentration camps.
I am convinced we should write fun and creative books for our kids. I strongly believe we should write books with sympathy and full of optimism and hope. Fortunately, many good writers do it, but there is also a large number of writers indulging in books about violence and crime – not so different from the world of Max and Moritz. These books are written, because it may be more profitable for the writer.
In my own writing, I would also like to empower young readers by offering optimism and hope. But I would like to focus more. I want to make my entry point the world of tomorrow. The second half of this century will be different from the first half, and indeed different from anything mankind has ever experienced. Global warming, global and instant communication, biotechnology, robots, global mobility etc. will all take care of that. This world will need resilient, tolerant, cooperative and open brains. The brains, which will manage the planet during the rest of this century, are born and moulded now. With her recent book Mind Change Susan Greenfield, a Senior Research Fellow at Lincoln College, Oxford University, wants to alert every one of the effects on young minds of the new technologies:
“In her view, they are creating a new environment, with vast implications. Because our minds are physically adapting: being rewired. What could this mean, and how can we harness, rather being harnessed by, our new technological milieu to create better and more meaningful lives?”
Whatever we write, it becomes the intellectual tools we offer our children to enter and manage a unique and drastic change in human history. Our kids are the future owners and inhabitants of the planet. They need understanding and empowerment. I urge all writers to try to offer that.