Contemporary Lithuanian Children’s Literature: Racing Ahead in Seven-league Boots
By Eglė Baliutavičiūtė and Roma Kišūnaitė
Contemporary Lithuanian children’s literature doesn’t have much in common with Cinderella’s story. After a somewhat stagnant period in the first decade of Independence, children’s literature has been racing ahead in seven-league boots for the past ten to fifteen years. It’s becoming more important, more vivid and more interesting. It is not only more popular but also more visible in public life and the media. The visibility and relevance of children’s literature have been increased by the fact that active, modern authors who understand the world of contemporary children and young adults have begun writing for them. The range of these authors is impressive, from people who have rich experience working in various areas to writers and illustrators who have just graduated.
Due to society’s growing understanding of the benefits of reading and the importance of a home library in children’s lives, as well as the considerable attention given to encouraging children’s reading at schools and libraries, the print runs of children’s books are slightly larger than those of adult literature.
Around 600 fiction books and textbooks for children and young adults are published each year in Lithuania. Usually, over a hundred of them are new books of fiction by Lithuanian authors, approximately 10-30 of them particularly interesting, outstanding or remarkable. The numbers might not be big, but what matters is quality, not quantity. Besides, Lithuanian authors – both writers and illustrators – seem to spoil the readers more and more every year. Their work also attracts a lot of attention abroad.
New opportunities to travel, to get to know the culture and literature of other countries, and to participate in international book fairs have been very rewarding – Lithuanian children’s literature is now boldly expanding into the world, not only through numerous translations but also through a variety of international awards. These are great accomplishments for a small country.
The first steps of Lithuanian children’s literature
The history of Lithuanian children’s literature is bumpy, marked by repressions and prohibitions, and sudden ups and downs. Although there had earlier been primers read by children, 1868 is considered to be the beginning of our children’s literature. In this year, Motiejus Valančius, a Lithuanian educator and priest, wrote the first book of fiction for children. It was called Vaikų knygelė (The Little Book for Children). At that time, the Tsarist government had banned the Lithuanian alphabet after the insurrections against the Russian empire. Therefore, the books used to be published abroad and brought to Lithuania illegally by book smugglers.
After Lithuania’s declaration of Independence in 1918, the number of new children’s books began growing slowly, reaching a peak in the interwar period. Didactic literature was supplemented by adventurous, humorous, lyrical, modernist and psychologically more nuanced literary works. They were written by talented writers whose texts went on to become children’s literature classics, widely read to this day. These authors include Pranas Mašiotas, who is labelled the father of children’s literature, Petras Babickas, Antanas Vaičiulaitis, Kazys Jakubėnas, Vytė Nemunėlis, Kazys Binkis and others.
Unfortunately, the 1940 occupation of Lithuania brought a halt to the natural current of literature – the authors were obliged to write ideological works that glorified the Soviet Union and the respective precepts of socialist realism. As the Stalinist period ended, there were more opportunities to create and publish slightly more original literature; later, Aesopian language became popular. Many works that came to be the classics of Lithuanian children’s literature were written during the fifty years of occupation, especially in its second part: poetry was written by Violeta Palčinskaitė, Ramutė Skučaitė, Sigitas Geda, Martynas Vainilaitis and others. Remarkable fairy tales were written: Gilės nuotykiai Ydų šalyje (Gilė’s Adventures in the Land of Vice, 1964) by Vytautas Petkevičius, Pelėdžiuko sapnas (The Little Owl’s Dream, 1969) by Janina Degutytė, Kelionė į Tandadriką (The Journey to Tandadrika, 1986) by Vytautė Žilinskaitė, and others. The nature of realist literature meant that it was more inclined to be used for ideology. Therefore, there are only a few realist literary works that are relevant today. Zuika padūkėlis (Reckless Zuika, 1985), a middle-grade novella by Vytautas Račickas, can be mentioned as one of them.
After the restoration of Lithuanian Independence in 1990, publication of children’s books slowed down slightly, with the introduction of few new books. However, it has been experiencing a huge upsurge since the start of the new millennium – children’s and young adult literature has become very diverse, keeping up with international trends, while the genre of illustrated fiction, which was previously little known and underappreciated, has taken off.
The heyday of picture books
We don’t have a long-lived, deep-rooted tradition of picture books – for a long time, Lithuanian readers preferred textual books, while the ones that contained few words but a great deal of pictures were regarded with suspicion. Nevertheless, the situation is changing rapidly – as the understanding of children’s needs and the culture of childhood is growing and as publishers become more open to experiment and a more active communication with the readers, the number of picture books is increasing. At first, translated books were favoured. However, Lithuanian illustrators and writers have adopted the successful approach of other countries to create distinct, original picture books of their own. More and more of them appear every year, and they’re getting better.
Lithuanian picture books usually explore universal values, as well as children’s issues and experiences – games, relationships with parents and especially friendships. The books are playful and warm, while the illustrations are rich in images and details that encourage young readers to become engrossed, to play and explore. The fairy tale genre is especially popular. Anthropomorphic animals are the protagonists of these stories. This kind of fairy tale has been created by the most remarkable and internationally recognized illustrator and writer Kęstutis Kasparavičius. There are more very fine books of this kind, including Meškis ir Žąsis (A Bear and a Goose, 2015) by Nadia Kovaliova, Laimė yra lapė (The Fox on the Swing, 2016) by Evelina Daciūtė and Aušra Kiudulaitė, Sivužas (The Mysterious Lake, 2018) by Marius Marcinkevičius and Lina Dūdaitė, and others.
Vivid, playful books about the little girl Kake Make by writer and illustrator Lina Žutautė are very well liked among young readers. The series started in 2010 and became so popular that they’re being published in five-figure runs and have been turned into a trademark: a variety of products and food decorated with the characters of the books can currently be found in Lithuania. Unfortunately, we don’t have many picture books where people are the main characters.
More picture books that handle complex topics are emerging in the literary scene, written in more abstract, artistic language. Examples include Marmiai. Olis ir dažų kibirėlis (The Marmies. Olly and the Bucket of Paint, 2019), a picture book by Indrė Pavilonytė and Martynas Pavilonis about being different and failing to fit in with the community, and Ypatingas (Special, 2019) by Modesta Jurgaitytė and Rasa Jančiauskaitė, about bullying.
Monika Vaicenavičienė began writing fictionalised illustrated textbooks – in her Per balas link aušros: pasakojimas apie daktaro Jono Basanavičiaus keliones ir darbus (Through Puddles Towards the Dawn. A tale about the travels and deeds of Doctor Jonas Basanavičius, 2018), she was the first to depict the life of Jonas Basanavičius, one of the most important activists of Lithuanian Independence and a signatory of the 1918 Act of Independence of Lithuania. She also created a picture book Kas yra upė? (What is a River?, 2019), which was an international success.
The first wordless book, or silent fiction book, appeared in 2019 – written by Ieva Babilaitė, (Ne) vienas (Not) Alone) is about loneliness and friendship.
Children’s books: the kingdom of fairy tales
There is a great variety of textual Lithuanian children’s books. Lithuanian fairy tales of the 21st century range from light, playful stories and magical fantasy to philosophically charged works.
Nonsense poetics is particularly well liked among Lithuanian authors, and it would take a while to list all of them… Vytautas V. Landsbergis writes humorous books based on nonsense poetics. One of his most important books is Arklio Dominyko meilė (The Love of Dominic the Horse, 2004). The following authors should also be mentioned: Renata Šerelytė’s Crackatook series (the first book, Krakatukų pievelė – The Crackatook Meadow was published in 2010), Virgis Šidlauskas’s Ulfas ir stebuklinga barzda (Ulf and the Magic Beard, 2016), as well as the young and very productive writer Tomas Dirgėla, best known as the author of the detective series Domas ir Tomas (Domas and Tomas), and others. Gendrutis Morkūnas is also a master of nonsense poetics, but his stories, unlike those by other authors, are focused on inner adventure rather than action, attentive to the surrounding world, featuring essayistic interludes and contemplations on life; besides, nonsense is often used as a stylistic technique in his work rather than a means of creating a fairy tale world.
Lyrical allegorical fairy tales are written by Gintarė Adomaitytė (Karuselė – Carousel, 2007), Urtė Uliūnė (Miegančios boružės – Sleeping Ladybirds, 2008), and natural scientist Selemonas Paltanavičius (Sniego žmogelių žiema – The Winter of Little Snow Men, 2019), who has also written a number of textbooks about Lithuania and its animals.
Neringa Vaitkutė writes magical fantasy for children and young adults. She is the author of the trilogies Vaivorykščių arkos (Rainbow Arcs, 2013–2015) and Tamsa, kuri prabudo (Darkness That Awoke, 2014–2017). Magical fantasy is also created by Justinas Žilinskas in his book Kaukas Gugis ir kerų karas (Gugis and the War of Spells, 2017).
We have fewer works of children’s realist prose, which is more commonly employed by the authors of young adult literature. Realist children’s books explore the light, as well as the more painful, school and family experiences: in Ramunė Savickytė’s series Adelės dienoraštis (Adele’s Diary, 2014–2018), Ona Jautakė’s Kai aš buvau Kleo (When I Was Kleo, 2009) and Gaja Guna Eklė’s Brolis, kurio nereikėjo (The Unneeded Brother, 2016). As many waves of emigration occurred in Lithuania, this topic is appropriately reflected in children’s books: Parašyk man iš Afrikos (Write to me from Africa, 2003) by Vilė Vėl, Lėlė (The Doll, 2011) by Nomeda Marčėnaitė, and …kurio niekas nemylėjo (The One Nobody Loved) by Kazys Saja.
Writers also begin to focus on history. In her Aš esu Tomas, seklys (I Am Tomas, the Sleuth), Rebeka Una depicts children’s adventures in the Lithuanian countryside in the ’70s, when smart phones didn’t exist and bananas were nothing short of a miracle. Great interest was sparked by Sibiro haiku (Siberian Haiku) by Jurga Vilė and Lina Itagaki, a graphic novel about a child’s experiences during the World War II as he is exiled to Siberia with his family.
Flashes of poetry
Lithuania has a rich tradition in poetry. Occasionally, we refer to ourselves as the nation of lyricists. Nevertheless, Lithuanian children’s poetry experienced a long stagnant period in the past. Some poetry books were written by the living legends of children’s literature – Violeta Palčinskaitė, Ramutė Skučaitė and others – but there were few new poets and creative ideas. For a long time, only a small numbers of poetry collections by new authors would appear, such as Vėjo birbynė (Wind Reed, 2000) by Valdemaras Kukulas, Vaizdai iš gyvenimo bobulytės ir kt (Scenes from Granny’s Life, 2012) by Antanas Šimkus, and Burbulų lietus (Bubble Rain, 2012) by Česlovas Navakauskas.
Luckily, Lithuanian children’s poetry is currently experiencing better times. A newly established publishing house, Žaliasis kalnas, focuses particularly on children’s poetry, bringing in new poets who have previously only written for adults, such as Daiva Čepauskaitė, Dainius Gintalas and Vainius Bakas.
Čepauskaitė’s book Baisiai gražūs eilėraščiai (Terribly Beautiful Poems, 2017) sparked particular interest, expanding children’s poetry not only with its new visions and poetics but also with the introduction of new genres, such as a horror poem, adding playful irony to traditional lyrical poems.
The wave of young adult literature
Lithuanian young adult literature is not abundant – there are considerably fewer books being published for young adults than other age categories. As was the case with poetry, stagnation of young adult literature was evident for a while – there was a lack of new books that focused on young people. The country’s biggest publishing house, Alma littera, helped new talented authors emerge, introducing a young adult literature competition: this was a gateway to literature for the now recognized authors Daina Opolskaitė, Ilona Ežerinytė and Rebeka Una.
The problem novel (also referred to as new realism) is the most common genre in young adult fiction. Challenges and issues of teenagers are handled. The harm caused by alcoholism, bullying, complex parent-children relationships and experiences of teenagers growing up in children’s homes are common topics. They are explored in Blogos mergaitės dienoraštis (Diary of a Bad Girl, 2009) by Kristina Gudonytė, Iš nuomšiko gyvenimo (From Nuomšikas Life, 2010) by Gendrutis Morkūnas, Laiškai Elzei (Letters for Elzė, 2016) by Unė Kaunaitė, Verksnių klube (The Club of Whiners, 2017) by Ilona Ežerinytė, and others.
Meanwhile, Akvilina Cicėnaitė chose to explore the experiences of young adults during the period of Lithuanian postindependence, in anticipation of doomsday in 2000, in her books Niujorko Respublika (Republic of New York, 2015) and Kad mane pamatytum (So That You See Me, 2020). Ilona Ežerinytė has also looked into Lithuanian history in her novel Skiriama Rivai (For Riva, 2019), where a present-day father and son are taken a hundred years back in time to one of the Lithuanian shtetls.
There has been a wave of entertaining, essentially light and amusing young adult stories, written by Akvilina Cicėnaitė, Vytautas Račickas, Kristina Gudonytė and others.
Speculative fiction featuring fantasy and dystopian elements has been emerging recently. The first Lithuanian dystopia is Atjunk (Disconnect, 2015) by Rebeka Una. Sukeistas (Swapped, 2019) by Kotryna Zylė is a mystery novel based on the modern interconnection between the real and the mythological.
Awards: a significant part of the literary world
The development and promotion of children’s literature is strongly supported by the Lithuanian section of the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) in collaboration with the Martynas Mažvydas National Library. The Lithuanian section of the IBBY, in particular, has been nominating awards for best children’s books of the year since the restoration of Lithuanian Independence. Originally, there was a single award for best children’s and young adult fiction, named after Pranas Mašiotas, the father of Lithuanian children’s literature. More awards were established over time. Currently, awards for best debut, significant translations, best textbook, best picture book and best illustrated book are presented in addition to the one mentioned above. A special award is presented to an organization or a person for achievements in research or promotion of children’s literature. The award ceremony usually takes place in early April, commemorating International Children’s Book Day and Hans Christian Andersen’s birthday.
There are also other awards for children’s literature in Lithuania: from small private initiatives to institutional ones, such as the Children’s Literature Award, established by the Ministry of Education, Science and Sports