Psycho for Kids and Baby Punk: Czech children’s writing since 1989

Czech parents may well be relieved to know that, if the latest studies are anything to go by, their children are still keen readers. And what are they reading? Well, how about Psycho for Kids and Baby Punk…? Such is the rich new world of Czech children’s writing and publishing, post-1989. It’s a world where poetry, music and visual art have come to overlap with some surprising results. In reaction to four decades of censorship, just about anything goes and there is little nostalgia for the old days. The journalist Kateřina Kadlecová has taken a close interest in contemporary Czech writing for children and teenagers, and she is my guest in this week’s Czech Books.

“After the Second World War, we had communism and socialism here, so the literature was full of ideology, which rapidly changed after the Velvet Revolution in 1989. There were no boundaries, there was freedom of speech again. For example, Pavel Šrut - in my opinion the most important writer for kids - was forced to publish only books for children during the socialist era, and everybody expected that he would get back to writing for adults. But it didn’t really happen. Pavel Šrut - and also others, like Ivan Martin Jirous - they partly or fully stayed with children.”

“I would definitely say so. I don’t know much about the other states which underwent such a change – such as Poland or Russia – but in Czech it’s definitely like this. For example, this year Ivan Martin Jirous’s poems were published: ‘Magor dětem’, which means ‘psycho for kids’! They were published as a book and also on CD. And it’s full of subtle words, Christian ideology, also metaphors, which kids are not used to. The poems are very untraditional – not only based on traditional myth and ballads and topics from the past, but also innovative.”

And do you have the impression that Czech children can cope with this kind of literature?

Kateřina Kadlecová
“Yes, I definitely think so. They learn to cope with it from a very young age, because the writers who were forbidden to write for adults during the socialist era, like Jiří Žáček or Pavel Šrut, they are also authors of very new primers or spelling books. So the kids read these innovative, very metaphorical books from the very young age of six or seven. So yes, they are used to this style of writing.”

Czechs are generally known as a very literary nation. Most households have books on their shelves and children do grow up with books being part of their life.

“Well, of course it is sad if kids cease to read. As in any society where TV and video are in charge, it is sad if people do not read. But I was interested in this and found out that last year - in 2008 - over 18,500 books were published, and of those, 1,385 were for kids, which is a huge success for such a small nation.”

Since the fall of communism, there has been a new phenomenon, which has really boomed: that of teenage girls’ magazines. You have written a book in which you look at the language of these magazines.

“I focused on language, ideology, and the readership and its approach to these magazines. I spent two years with these journals – and it was a disaster for me! I realized that it’s so oversimplified – both the language and the ideology – that I really believe that girls also read something else, not only these cheap papers!”

What sort of things do you mean when you talk about oversimplified language and ideas?

“When it comes to language, they use clichés, anglicisms and, as they want to reach the biggest possible audience, they tend to use just simple structures for the little girls to understand. So the bigger girls do not have a chance to improve their vocabulary, to make it more colourful.”

And in terms of ideas and ideologies, are you saying that they are reinforcing gender stereotypes?

“Well, nearly all the articles and stories in these magazines are based on the idea of getting the boy and having a great body. There is nothing about reading, about nature, almost nothing about relationships in the family. The only relationship which is important is to get the right man. I think it’s too early for these kids to be learning these things.”

And was it different under communism? Aren’t these things which teenagers have talked about since time immemorial?

“Well, first of all, we didn’t have magazines for girls like this. There were no magazines about fashion and make-up, stuff like that. We had magazines like ‘Pionýr’ and we had magazines for younger kids called ‘Sluníčko’ (little sun) and ‘Mateřídouška’ (a kind of flower), but I don’t really remember any magazines for girls.”

So these are basically imports, which have been slightly adapted to the Czech market.

“Yes, definitely. We have just one magazine for girls, which is really Czech, and it’s a Christian magazine called ‘In’. This is the only one which started here. The others are brought from abroad.”

But some of the classic Czech children’s magazines – you mentioned Sluníčko and Mateřídouška, two magazines for smaller children – are still very much going strong, and children still grow up reading them every month. They have long been central to the life of Czech children. So in that respect there has been continuity with the past.

“Yes. There was almost no ideology, as you cannot really get any into texts for three to six year olds! So yes, they are pretty much the same. But I know, for example, ‘ABC’ - for young kids who are interested in technology - still exists, but it is losing readers, and they are trying to give it a bit of a facelift now, to make it more contemporary.”

There are so many Czech children’s books being published at the moment that there must be some that you think are taking writing in a new direction.

“There are many painters and illustrators who are famous in the art world, like Petr Nikl and also František Skála or Martina Skala. This is the trend – to connect the arts with words.”

And that is building on a very strong tradition. It goes right back to the ‘Orbis Pictus’ of Jan Amos Comenius in the 17th century, and to famous writers like the Čapek brothers in the 1920s. And there are more recent classics like Josef Lada or Adolf Born. So there is quite a rich seam to draw from, isn’t there…

“Yes, maybe even foreign readers know about ‘Max and Sally’, which is ‘Mach a Šebestová’ in Czech – books by Miloš Macourek, illustrated by Adolf Born…”

… and some of our listeners will also have come across ‘The Little Mole’ – ‘Krtek’ – with delightful illustrations by Zdeněk Miler. And this also brings us to a very fruitful connection between animated film in Czechoslovakia – and now the Czech Republic – and the children’s book.

“We are so much used to viewing the bedtime stories at 7 o’clock on TV that we learned to love the books, where the pictures aren’t moving, but still we know the characters. And in this era of merchandising we can also buy some items which remind us of these books and stories.”

And there is also a link between music and children’s writing...

“Yes, there is. Now we have a project which is fairly new – about two years old. It’s called ‘Kašpárek v rohlíku’, which means something like ‘joker hotdog’, and it’s a kind of baby punk! It’s rock music – fresh rock music – not only for teenagers, but even kids who are younger - even three-year-olds! And they love it!”

I love the idea of baby punk – creating little rebels…

“Yes, definitely. And they are creating some beautiful language for these kids – with strong, heavy rock music. I love it!”