The Czech Literary Centre asked four experts from four European countries to write an overview of trends in literature for children and young adults in their country. We start in November with texts on the situation in Germany and France and continue in December with texts from Britain and Spain.
Trends in German literature for children and young adults – a barometer of the German prize for children’s and young adult literature
German literature for children and young adults is wide-ranging and diverse: almost 8,000 first-run titles were released last year (2019). Given these numbers, even specialists may find it difficult to get an overview of all the titles released. The German Children’s Literature Award, which is co-financed by the Federal Ministry for Youth, can be considered as a guide to the annual literary output. Just like the Oscars, an independent jury always announces the nominations in spring. The best books of the year are selected in autumn. In the meantime, books nominated by two juries, one of critics and the other composed of representatives from among young people, are announced to the country. The juries function as an important seismograph. The books selected by them have set themselves apart from the whole output. The jury members’ selection spotlights new voices, trends, themes and forms of expression, which the following examples from recent years attest to.
Tribute to a dog
Iris Anemone Paul caused considerable buzz in the world of picture books with her large format debut Polka für Igor (Polka for Igor, 2018). This artist, with great enthusiasm for storytelling, spins (fictive) tales about an old circus dog Igor, enlivening them with stunning screen prints. The jury awarded her the 2019 German Children’s Literature Award, with this justification: “The four-colour illustrations revitalise an Eastern European tradition and bring the Bremen musicians back to life. The animals in the book are the equal of people. Exotic animals such as a giraffe or penguin feature in these pages, and besides traditional instruments, like the tambourine and accordion, you will find modern, entertaining elements such as a notebook with dancing mice. The book literally hums with music!” This book truly makes use of all the narrative possibilities, both textual and visual. The rich language and vibrant scenes are imbued with life’s joy, which beams from each page of this book.
A space for everyday things
Will Gmehling’s Freibad. Ein ganzer Sommer unter dem Himmel (Outdoor Pool. All summer under the sun, 2019) is intended for children from the age of nine. It centres on the siblings, Katinka, Robbie and the narrator Alf, who through good luck obtain season passes to an outdoor swimming pool. The family gets by on a shoestring, but the summer holidays are saved thanks to the passes. The jury presented the award to this novel, in which not much at first glance is going on, stating: “What is exceptional in this novel is how the family is depicted: its strong bonds, mutual support and understanding are so natural that a person immediately wants to make friends with the Bukowskis.”
This book’s success is evident in the fact that this year saw the release of the next instalment Nächste Runde. Die Bukowskis boxen sich durch (The Next Round. The Bukowskis Fight On, 2020). Will Gmehling once again shows that even the ordinary everyday life of a typical family is worth following.
New voices in books for young adults
Stefanie Höfler released her first children’s book Mein Sommer mit Mucks (My Summer with Mucks, 2015) just a few years ago, but it was immediately nominated for the German Children’s Literature Award. Stefanie Höfler writes realistic books for children and young adults, focusing on rather “difficult” themes. Mein Sommer mit Mucks is a tale about friendship from the summer holidays, but also about a dark secret, specifically domestic abuse. Her novel for adolescents Tanz der Tiefseequalle (Dance of the Deepsea Jellyfish, 2017) dealt with obesity and bullying, but was also about solidarity and courage. And the family story Der große schwarze Vogel (The Big Black Bird, 2018) tells the story of a mother’s death and a father’s weariness from the perspective of the son. These two books were also nominated. Stefanie Höfler is a teacher, and it is apparent from her work how close she is to her heroes and to her whole target audience. She knows the rules of the game and also the pitfalls of children’s worlds, describing them without voyeurism or trivialisation. She manages to find the appropriate form of storytelling for each of her books and a perfectly suited situation for each protagonist. She knows how to build suspense, use irony and, thanks to this, create a sense of levity despite the difficulty of the subject-matter.
A similarly articulate writer is Susan Kreller, who was awarded the German Children’s Literature Award for her young adult novel Schneeriese (Snow Giant, 2014), which deals with the emotional turmoil of adolescents. She is once again among the 2020 nominees, this time for her young adult novel Elektrische Fische (Electric Fish, 2019). It tells the story of Emma and her siblings, who move from Dublin to their mother’s home of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern following their parents’ divorce: Ireland versus Germany, the city versus the countryside, homeland versus a foreign land. The jury said when awarding this book: “The novel’s poetic language is captivating and inserts the reader right into Emma’s sense of being torn between two countries. At the very end it becomes clear that home is above all a feeling.”
What does the target audience for children’s and young adult literature say?
An independent jury from among young people is an active part of the German Children’s Literature Award. It makes its decisions completely autonomously, regardless of the decisions of the adults. Interestingly, this jury almost never selects pure fantasy books. The young jury members rather prefer books that thematise contemporary history or socio-political topics. Books selected by them deal with the Nazi era (John Boyne, Johannes Herwig, Monica Hesse); seeking asylum and migration (Kristina Aamand, Dirk Reinhart, Steve Tasane); discrimination, racism, the Black Lives Matter movement (Dashka Slater, Angie Thomas) or personal crises caused by death or mental illness (Stefanie Höfler, Neal and Brendan Shusterman). They also favour dystopian novels such as Dry (2019) by Neal and Jarrod Shusterman or Illuminae (2018) by Amie Kauffmann and Jaye Kristoff.
It always concerns a momentous experience that evokes deep emotion, calls upon personal courage and offers vivid characters enabling easy identification. The aim is to motivate young readers to start thinking about their own actions.
Young adult books are a mirror of social relations, so they also thematise growing extremism and right-wing radicalism in Germany. The 2019 winner in the nonfiction category was the practical handbook Extremismus (Extremism, 2018) by Hamburg-based journalist Anja Reumschüssel. The painstakingly researched book clarifies stereotypes and presents a variety of manifestations of extremism in many examples from politics, religion and society. The writer defends the importance of raising awareness and education, and unambiguously contributes to reinforcing democratic values.
This theme can also be found in fiction, and the 2018 winner of the award is proof. The book in question is Manja Präkels’s semi-autobiographical novel Als ich mit Hitler Schnapskirchen aß (When I Ate Liqueur Chocolates with Hitler, 2017). Präkels employs factual accuracy to tell the story of growing up in East Germany as well as during the portents of change and their consequences. The writer presents the portrait of a generation living outside big cities where the end of East Germany is not viewed as liberation, but more as a turbulent socio-political event. However, she primarily depicts how right-wing ideas, rage and hate start to spread throughout a local country idyll. For this reason, her novel is terrifyingly pertinent to our times.
There is still a lot to discover…
Even if original German creations took centre stage, the German Children’s Literature Award honours translations from other languages too. Different literary traditions in fact influence and inspire each other, and children are entitled to books from all over the world.
While on the subject, the German Children’s Literature Award was presented to David Böhm for his book A jako Antarktida (A is for Antarctica), which has a wealth of information on the titular topic. The book is innovative in design terms and incredibly up-to-date on the subject of climate change.
– Doris Breitmoser
Children’s and young adult literature reflects current pedagogical trends, is interested in social themes resonating in France or around the world and, especially in terms of book production for the little ones, follows new trends in book formats too.
One of the most important trends in book production for the youngest readers is the shift to formats that allow the books to be manipulated. These books have opening flaps, tabs to change pictures and various tactile elements. However, these interactive books are very demanding to make and print, so publishers often resort to co-publication with foreign publishers. According to the 2019 newsletter from SNE (Syndicat National de l’édition – National Union of Publishers), up to 80 per cent of the total production of this type of book comes from international co-publication.
In doing so, several titles of this type achieved considerable commercial success. French independent publisher Les Grandes Personnes focuses, in terms of production, mainly on this type of book, and its board book Prendre et donner (Give and Take) by Lucie Félix was first released in 2014 and is, for example, already in its third edition. It has sold 23,000 copies and is still on sale.
In a series concerning continually successful titles from independent publishers, the pop-up book Océano by Anouck Boisrobert and Louise Rigaude, published by Hélium, must be mentioned. The book was released in 2013. In France alone, it has sold 35,000 copies, and as a part of co-publication, it has been released in seven other countries and sold 200,000 copies worldwide.
Independent publishers have made this field their own, and traditional publishers face an uphill battle to compete with them.
Concerning the illustrations in books targeting children and young adults, a huge diversity abounds in France: from the charming, skilfully-made, eye-catching illustrations of Marion Billet or the bestseller Marc Boutavant, through to new trends in illustration, more visible among independent publishers such as Mémo or Magnani, which regard illustrators as true artists.
If the large publishers such as Gallimard or Grund decide to release anything other than traditional books, they focus on formats that are not so technically demanding to produce, preferring to include the use of technology such as sound books that a child may manipulate alone.
Nevertheless, certain fundamental topics in books for little ones remain constant for both types of publishers: colours, shapes, animals, feelings and means of transport.
Book production for the youngest readers accounts for almost 50 per cent of the total book production for children and young adults.
An additional important aspect is the seasonality of releasing certain types of books, especially in the case of large publishers: the beginning of the school year, holidays and starting kindergarten, in which this or that event is experienced by the same character with whom children can easily identify.
Furthermore, according to the magazine for booksellers, librarians and publishers Livre hebdo, current topics are also found on the lists of the bestselling titles – even the most current such as protective measures related to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Following the Covid-19 epidemic, sales of school textbooks, notepads and activity books have skyrocketed this year. Interest on the part of parents was so enormous that, in addition to the usual large bookstores, these types of products also started to be sold in smaller independent ones.
Concerning the production of albums for older children and educational titles, their format remains constant, though the topics have changed to be socially and politically relevant: they cover immigration, mixed marriages, same-sex parents or setting up a new family after a divorce. Ecology and recycling are again hot topics, which first appeared in children’s books in the 1970s and 1980s.
It has to be pointed out that, whether it concerns albums for children, educational books or titles for older children, they all starkly reflect the multicultural side of French society: the heroes in them are people of various races and cultures. Similarly, the titles have also recently attempted to present people with different types of possible disabilities that children may encounter in real life.
New themes reflecting social debate, which in turn occasionally determine the whole publishing strategy of this or that publisher, also appear in children’s and young adult literature: for example, this path has been followed by the publisher La ville qui brûle, which has focused on the topic of gender and sexism and has been very successful with titles such as La ligue des Super Féministes (League of Super Feminists), Mon Super cahier anti-sexiste (My Super Notebook Against Sexism). High sales were achieved in France and abroad with the kindred spirit – Tales before Bedtime for Little Rebels – from the publisher Les Arènes.
However, the product range from large publishers, such as Gallimard, Flammarion or Albin Michel, predominates in the large chain bookstores as well as in the small independent ones. Thus, small independent publishers have no choice but to try to differentiate themselves through the concept of the book as an object, the quality and originality of illustrations, or interesting topics. This is not an easy task because the prevailing tendency is to produce books that are mainstream and uplifting.
Interestingly, the situation with regard to purchasing copyrighted literature for children and young adults has not changed much. In France, a substantial portion, almost 60 per cent of translated titles, is made up of novels, but of the 18,477 book titles released in total in the category of children’s and young adult literature, only 1,888 titles are translations, which is approximately 10 per cent of the whole publishing output. And among all of the translated book titles, children’s and young adult literature represents a mere 13 per cent. The vast majority of them – 1,462 – are translated from English (77 per cent), 74 from Italian, 70 from Japanese, 61 from Spanish and 58 from German (information from the report on the state of the book market in 2019 released by SNE).
In 2017 and 2018, 73,000 titles from more than 600 publishers were sold year-on-year (data from Observatoire de la librairie, 2019). However, it is interesting to note that certain key titles are being sold despite all trends. This is also the case with the children’s picture book Trois brigands (Three Bandits) from 1961 by illustrator Tomi Ungerer. This title is still ranked among the 200 bestselling titles for children and young adults. And it is exactly this type of creatively uncompromising book that hardly any French publisher would dare publish today.
– Delphine Beccaria
Doris Breitmoser, a graduate in cultural studies, is the executive director of the national Association for Children’s and Youth Literature, Arbeitskreis für Jugendliteratur (AKJ), in Munich, Germany. It organises the German Children’s Literature Award, organizes national and international workshops and conferences and supports reading promotion projects and programmes for authors and translators. Since its founding, the AKJ has been the German Section of the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY). Contact: www.jugendliteratur.org
Delphine Beccaria at the Czech Centre in Paris is in charge of the programme scheduling and organising events at the centre. A former bookseller, she is passionate about design and illustration. For almost 15 years, she operated the bookstore La Sardine à lire in Paris focussing on books for children and young adults.