Hidden religiosity - Contemporary religious writing - Forms and genres - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


23. Contemporary religious writing


Rita Ghesquiere


Hidden religiosity


A large portion of contemporary juvenile fictions lacks explicit markers alerting the reader to the religious content of the book. The religious theme may be recognisable as such in the story, or be veiled or hidden to such extent that young readers fail to notice it — even more so since many young readers do not possess the expertise necessary to recognise the religious information (symbolism or intertextuality).

The first genre in which the religious message is often consciously veiled is fantasy. The master of the genre is C. S. Lewis, whose Narnia tales contain Christian symbols and themes that do not diminish the fantasy. The young reader can dive into a world of fantasy, while the more mature reader finds herself confronted with a hidden Christian message. Both the symbolism and the numerous references to the Bible add a second layer of meaning to the stories, allowing them to be read as allegories. Other famous children’s books such as Krol Macius Pierwszy [King Matt the First] (1923) by Janus Korczak, Le Petit Prince (1943) [The Little Prince] by Antoine de Saint-Exupery and Momo by German author Michael Ende (1973) use the same allegorical technique to introduce profound themes. In these stories the protagonist is a young child, an outsider with an unprejudiced view, who shows the reader what is wrong with society. These characters keep the dream alive of a better world where other laws and values reign.

The Giver (1979) by Lois Lowry is an allegorical tale about a future world where memories, emotions, feelings and moral consciousness have disappeared. Just one character, the ‘giver’, acts as the keeper of the past. The main character, Jonas, gradually realises the existence of another reality, ‘Elsewhere’, that transcends this limited world. In Der alte Mann und die Tauben (1983) [The Old Man and the Pigeons] by Czech author Jan Prochazka the hospital is used as a symbol of the rotten society. The pigeons stand for freedom and the spiritual values from which life derives its meaning. The works of the Brazilian liberation theologist Rubem Alves also show allegorical traits. In the fairytale-like A menina e o pdssaro encantado (1994) [The Girl and the Enchanted Bird] he uses the Brazilian concept of saudades, an existential feeling of loneliness and melancholy experienced when leaving loved ones behind.

Die letzten Kinder von Schewenborn (1983) [The Last Children of Schewenborn (1988)], a dystopian vision of the future by German author Duitse Gudrun Pausewang, bathes in a sombre atmosphere. The story describes the ravage and misery following a nuclear disaster that has caused not just material destruction but also psychological and moral havoc. A small group of survivors faces difficult choices. This pessimistic story forces the reader to consider responsibility, peace and fraternity. Similar themes are treated in other German pictures of the future such as Horst Heidmann’s Auf der Suche nach dem Garten Eden (1984) [The Quest for the Garden of Eden] and Charlotte Kerner’s Geboren 1999 (1989) [Born 1999]. Presenting ethical questions about the present in stories about the future is the strategy followed by Canadian writer Monica Hughes and British author Philip Pullman. In his trilogy His Dark Materials (1995-2000) Pullman juxtaposes science and religion as an institution. In his fantasy world a struggle between freedom and authority, between creativity and subservience takes place. At the same time the author involves the reader in a maelstrom of opinions about the origin of creation and of human consciousness, and together with his characters considers ethical questions about good and evil.

Fables are traditionally used to convey ethical norms and values in an imaginative way. In India the stories from the Panchatantra have acquired classical status in children’s literature. They are mostly fables with animals or elements of nature as the main characters, have a didactic purpose and propagate moral values. The stories have become well known outside of India. The Italian version of Varma Nishu, Il Lago Della Luna e altre favole dell’India (1994) [The Lake of the Moon and Other Fables of India] immediately won an important award. In Africa and the Caribbean, stories about Anansi the Spider or Leuk the Hare are extremely popular. L. S. Senghor in 1953 wrote the story of the clever hare in La Belle Histoire de Leuk-le-lievre - cours elementaire des ecoles d’Afrique noire [The Beautiful Story of Leuk the Hare - Elementary Course for the Schools of Black Africa]. Western children’s literature also presents animals in books for young children. In The Story of Ferdinand (1936), the tale of a young bull who refuses to fight, Robert Lawson openly pleads for pacifism.

Many books for children describe the conflict between good and evil. In Krabat (1971) by German author Otfried Preussler, Krabat tries to beat the master of the black mill (the devil) who holds the apprentices in thrall. Timm in Timm Thaler oder das verkaufte Lachen (1962) [Timm Thaler or The Boy Who Sold His Laughter] by James Krüss, confronts the devil who tricked him out of his ability to laugh, and in Mo (1994) by Costa Rican author Lara Rios a girl wanting to become a Sukia or Shaman must travel to the land of Kus, the malevolent master of the goblins; in the Japanese novel Sorairo Magatama (1989) [Dragon Sword and Wind Child (1993)] Noriko Ogiwara describes the conflict between light and darkness, inspired by ancient myths. Last but not least, Harry Potter can be seen as a moral crusader in his fight against evil, although he operates as a secular knight.

A second group of stories with a hidden religious content are autobiographical narratives, a genre that has been in the ascendant during the past decades. This is related to the outspokenness of a generation of authors wishing to come to terms with their traumatic experiences during the war, but also to a new open mentality in juvenile fiction that treats children seriously and wants to confront them with the darker side of existence.

Jewish autobiographical war stories can be found in many European literatures, but also in the USA and Israel — the destinations of many Jewish emigrants. Books such as Wie niet weg is wordtgezien (1981) [Hide and Seek (1991)( by Dutch author Ida Vos, I Am a Star (1986) by Inge Auerbacher, The Devil in Vienna by Austrian writer Dorris Orgel (1978), Touch Wood by French author Renee Roth-Hano (1986) and No Pretty Pictures: A Child of War (1998) by Anita Lobel narrate how the authors managed to survive in spite of being Jewish. Looking back to difficult times in these ‘personal narratives’, the authors discover the ambiguity of their faith: it is a liability but at the same time an essential part of their identity. Prayers play an important role in the difficult conditions of war, but often go unanswered. The Jewish author Uri Orlev in Hayale Oferet (1956) [The Lead Soldiers (1979)] describes the power of human imagination that helped him survive.

Other religions also find a place in autobiographical stories. The Senegalese writer Nafisatou Diallo colourfully describes his Islamic roots in De Tilene au plateau: une enfance dakaroise (1975) [Dakar Childhood (1982)], just as Moroccon Rabia Zennaki in La Petite Princesse de Sidi Bou Medien (1996) [The Little Princess of Sidi Bou Medien]. Jonathan Addleton, who grew up in a family of Baptist missionaries, in Some Far and Distant Place (1997) looks back to that strange place where Muslims and Christians met.

A third group of books that treat fundamental questions in plain terms are the ‘problem novels’. The new realism in juvenile fiction has pleaded for openness and disregard for taboos since the 1960s. Young readers were allowed to be confronted with tales about suffering, death and the fundamental questions related to them. The Austrian writer Karl Bruckner acquired world-wide fame with Sadako will leben (1961) [The Day of the Bomb (1962)], the story of the girl Sadako, a victim of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. But death can strike much closer to home. In Ein Baum fur Mama (1995) [A Tree for Mama] by German writer Sophie Brandes and in Ik moet je iets heel jammers vertellen (1996) [Something Very Sorry (1997)] by Dutch author Arno Bohlmeijer the mother of the family dies. Her faith offers the other family members a glimpse of hope and opens a perspective for the future. In Popura no aki (1997) [A Poplar in Autumn] by Japanese author Yumoto Kazumi the father of young Chiati dies, and an old female neighbour helps her to find a way to love life again. When the neighbour encourages Chiati to write letters, she restores the severed bond with her dead father. After the death of the old lady, Chiati looks back upon the warm friendship that helped her to overcome a difficult period of grief.

Several children’s books use stars or a dancing kite to symbolise the enduring bond with a deceased parent, grandparent or family member. In Kan du vissla Johanna? (1994) [Can You Whistle, Johanna?] by Ulf Stark and Anna Hoglund the kite is a reminder of the grandfather. In Yo las Queria (1985) [I Loved Them] by Spanish duo Maria Martinez Vendrell and Carme Sole Vendrell, the character Myrthe is reminded of her dead mother by watching the stars at night. In Lo Stralisco (1987) [Radiant Herb] by Italian Roberto Piumini the young protagonist is himself confronted with death, but his master teaches him to say goodbye to life with dignity.

In other stories the young protagonist is faced with responsibility or guilt. In Alan and Naomi (1977) by Myron Levoy, Alan is charged with the care of the Jewish girl Naomi, who is traumatised by her war experiences. In spite of his efforts, Alan does not succeed in inspiring his friend with the courage to live. Other novels such as Collision Course (1978) by Nigel Hinton, Blackwater by Eve Bunting (1999) and Preacher’s Boy by Katherine Paterson (2001) poignantly describe the moral dilemma and the psychological evolution of a young protagonist who caused a (fatal) accident and initially tries to run from his responsibility. Aided by others, he can bear the confrontation with the truth and his own guilt.

On an abstract level the problems of suffering and of care for others can also be found in Juul (1996), a picture book by Flemish author Gregie de Maeyer containing photographs of a wooden statue by artist Koen van Mechelen. The protagonist is prepared to do anything to please the bullies that harass him: he shaves his red hair, cuts off his sticky-out ears and closes his squinting eyes until he becomes a human wreck. The girl Marieke is touched by his helplessness and takes care of him.

Religion is not always presented as a naive remedy in juvenile fiction. In The Passport of Mallam Ilia (1960) Nigerian author Cyprian Ekwensi describes how after years of inner turmoil the protagonist kills the vicious Usuman, his rival in love and the murderer of his wife. The solace he finds in religion after his journey to Mecca does not last and cannot appease the feelings of revenge. In Words By Heart by Ouida Sebestyen (1983) the black girl Lena discovers how important religion is in the life of her father, but also how vain the words of the Bible are to most whites.