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North American vs. European children’s literature

What does it tell us about these two cultures?

Since humans created language children’s stories have been a way to entertain and to instruct. Why is the world this way? How should I behave? Little Red Riding Hood makes sure kids don’t walk through the woods alone and teaches them to keep an eye out for wolves/imposters/bad people who’d like to whisk them away. They teach but it’s accessible, it’s fun.

And what European children’s literature has always done best is fantasy. Dragons, witches, princesses locked in castles. Think of both old and new beloved classics: Perrault’s fairy tales, Andersen’s fairy tales, the Brothers Grimm, Harry Potter – all are European exports.

Jules Verne, one of the pioneers of the sci-fi genre, wrote his stories to educate children – to get them excited about scientific progress. He is the third most translated author in the world and “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” is the 12th most translated literary work in the world. “Pinocchio” published in 1883 by Italian author Carlo Collodi is the world’s most translated non-religious book and the 5th most translated literary work. Antoine St. Exupery’s the “Little Prince” is the 7th, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll takes 10th place, followed by “Andersen’s Fairy Tales” in 11th.

Yet North America is strangely lacking in myths and fantastical folklore. With many of the legends and tales of the indigenous American tribes having sadly been lost. Why do you think all those Disney films rely on European fairy tales?

This is likely because the North America as we know it now is a much younger culture than Europe. Many of those first Puritanical settlers were in fact fleeing the pagan traditions of Europe: the fairies, the ghosts and the mermaids.

They were also escaping from the monarchies that governed Europe at that time. There are few princes and princesses, few kings and queens in North American children’s literature. If there are, it is to show that they are humans like any other. Think of Mark Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper”, which shows that the two boys are perfectly interchangeable. Similarly, the “Wizard of Oz”, Dorothy unmasks the all-powerful wizard, revealing him to but be an ordinary man.

Jerry Griswold, former professor of children’s literature at the San Diego State University explains “American stories are rooted in realism; even our fantasies are rooted in realism.” The heroes of North American children’s literature are normal boys and girls. Like Anne of Green Gables or Huckleberry Finn (“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain is the 29th most translated literary work).

Those first settlers were confronted by a vast and often harsh environment, unlike Europe’s crumbling castles and deep, spooky forests which lend themselves so easily to phantoms and werewolves. Living in small communities and often isolated from others their existence was tough. There was no room for fantasy. Hence the praising of ordinary people and the repetition of morals, as such North American tales often sound too preachy to European ears. Dorothy keeps repeating, “There’s no place like home” and even the whimsical Doctor Seuss’ stories end with a blatant lesson to be learned.

The protagonists of European children’s literature often have a much more pagan character than their more puritan North American counterparts. They’re cunning, they’re mischievous, they’re tricksters like the Norse god Loki. The naughty Peter Pan, or Bilbo who outsmarts Gollum and Mr Toad from “The Wind in the Willows” who even goes to jail.

Nowadays, the popular young adult works taking North America by storm and enchanting Europe feature protagonists thrust into dystopian worlds where there is no magic, only corrupt governments: The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, the “Divergent” series and classics such as “The Giver”, which was recently adapted as a Hollywood blockbuster. In this uncertain, modern era of terrorism, global warming and a growing distrust in politics and the ruling classes: those who young people feel have cheated them and their generation, these tales appeal. They address the fears of the modern youth.

« Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living » – Dr Seuss

So is comfort still to be found in the old fairies of Europe? Of course, as Dr Seuss himself once said, “Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living”. We need to dream, we need to imagine.

And in 100 years, will we still be reading the Hunger Games, or Harry Potter? The Maze Runner, or His Dark Materials? We’ll no doubt still be reading the classic European fairy tales or Alice in Wonderland. For fantasy addresses all the facets of human existence, it is timeless. It reminds us of the magic of the universe, it’s possibilities and of how small we are really in the midst of it all.

Danielle HAYWOOD, 29 Mars 2016

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