Children’s books are the main bulk of my reading nowadays. We’ve got literally hundreds of them and read Mary Natalie at least a couple each day. And I confess I love everything about this; from the beautiful illustrations to the irreverent rhymes:
The Soviet Way…
It’s easy to forget, however, that children’s books have long been used as propaganda tools, too. You may remember, for example, my post “ABCs Of War And An Adult Children’s Book: Unusual Alphabet Primers,” which had some incredible examples of wartime ABCs.
And nothing could be further from Wonky Donkey than 1920s Russia, where children read about sugar beets, hydroelectric plants, and five-year plans. An Atlas Obscura article by Anika Burgess quotes Andrea Immel, Curator of the Cotsen Children’s Library at Princeton University. The Cotsen holds nearly 1,000 of these books, published between 1917 and the start of World War II. The collection demonstrates how then-new Soviet ideologies were communicated to the younger generation.
The Soviets were keenly aware of needing to leap ahead as quickly as possible, creating at the same time a new breed of men. And so they made the hard, unglamorous work of agriculture or electrification heroic and patriotic, shifting away from fairy tales. The 1930 book Kak svekla sakharom stala (How the Beet Became Sugar) illustrates and describes the sugar production process: “Work is happening night and day. Night and day, sugar is being made from beets.” In 80,000 loshadeĭ (80,000 Horses), the story of the Volkhov Hydroelectric Plant—the first in Russia and named after Lenin—is told in rhyme.
These books also aimed to spread Soviet ideals worldwide. Immel corresponded with a writer from Kolkata who had read a local translation of Millionnyĭ Lenin(The Millionth Lenin), by Lev Zilov, in which two boys from India participate in an uprising against the Raj.
Even though early works had diverse illustrations, in 1934, the All-Union Soviet Congress of Writers declared that socialist realism was the only acceptable artistic style. But even that often wasn’t enough. In 1931, artist Vera Ermolaeva illustrated the book Podvig pionera Mochina (Mochin the Pioneer’s Heroism). In the story, a Young Pioneer—the Soviet Union’s more militaristic answer to the Boy Scouts—helps the Red Army in Tajikistan. But by the end of the decade, both Ermolaeva and the book’s author, Aleksandr Ivanovich Vvedenskiĭ, fell victim to one of Stalin’s purges.
Many more examples of Soviet children’s books can be found on Atlas Obscura.
While Soviet Russia was all about conformity, the West seems to suffer from the opposite problem. Take, for example, the classic Aesop tale of The Tortoise and the Hare.
In the familiar tale, the two animals challenge one another to a race to prove who is fastest: mid-race, the hare lays down to rest, certain that it’s going to win. Then out comes the tortoise, plodding along without pause, the winner; slow and steady wins the race, as the moral goes. Then there’s a huge forest fire, and almost everybody dies.
Yes, as another Atlas Obscura post, this one by Natalie Zarrelli, explains, certain writers have taken liberties with classic tales, adding their own twists. Sometimes the tortoise is starting the trouble instead of the boasting hare; usually. And sometimes, things get a little morbid.
If you think the Soviets were killjoys, you should consider the Irish writer Lord Dunsany’s 1915 version of The Tortoise and the Hare, where the decision to award and support the tortoise is based on an unfounded capitalist ethos. The woodland animals support the tortoise during the race, believing he will win because of his hard shell. “Hard shell and hard living. That’s what the country wants. Run hard,” say the animals, who creepily chant “Run hard” in unison as he passes the sleeping rabbit. The tortoise wins, and is celebrated by all as the fastest animal in the forest. Dunsany lets us know why we don’t usually hear this “real” version of the story, though:
“…very few of those that witnessed it survived the great forest-fire that happened shortly after. It came up over the field by night with a great wind. The Hare and the Tortoise and a very few of the beasts saw it far off from a high bare hill that was at the edge of the trees, and they hurriedly called a meeting to decide what messenger they should send to warn the beasts in the forest.
They sent the Tortoise.”
Another subversive version from 1891, by the poet George Murray, called The Hare and the Tortoise, flips the moral in another way. In Murray’s story, a hare named Puss sleeps during the race, seeing that she is likely to win—but this time, the hare wakes up just in time to catch her mistake, leaping from her slumber. “Scared by the sight, with all her speed and strength, she galloped in a winner by length!” I guess the moral here is, if you’re fast enough, it’s okay to slack off every now and then.
Speaking of morals, a Latin version of the story, called De Lepore et Testudine, was illustrated and printed in 1687 for an English audience. It includes a pointed rhyme which reads: “Mean parts by Industry have luckier hitts, Than all the fancy’d power of lazyer witts,” indicating brains and perseverance prevail over the station one is born into. Unsurprisingly, this was right around the time England came up with its Bill of Rights.
And a book of English emblems and their meanings, The English Emblem Tradition, even describes the Tortoise and the Hare story as a guide to love; one emblem shows the Greek god of attraction, Eros, who is “walking along the roadway in a landscape, with the tortoise” when he “looks back over his shoulder, pointing at the resting hare.”
…And even the Math
The Tortoise and the Hare story also made a foray into philosophy. In 490 BC, Greek philosopher Xeno created the Achilles and the Tortoise paradox, which describes a problem of motion. The tortoise is given a head start against the legendary warrior Achilles. Xeno argues that, based on math, Achilles should never be able to catch up if the tortoise keeps moving.
As Lewis Carroll points out, rules for a certain logic have to be carefully thought out without relying on assumed truths to carry the weight of the argument.
And the Winner is…
As for how a real tortoise and hare would fare in a race, that story has also played out—recently. In 2016, a turtle and rabbit were put to the test in real life to see who would win, competing in an original arena, and subsequent rematches. Each time, the tortoise won:
Given the heterogeneity of picture books, their ideological assumptions are similarly multiple and complex but certainly they very frequently incorporate the concept of childhood as a period of transition from infant egocentricity to adult maturity. Since this process is perceived as both significant and developmental many if not all picture books provide perspectives on ethical and moral issues which reflect the author’s perception of value and his or her aspirations for the present and future nature of social life. For present purposes this may be called the moral imperative: that is, consciously or unconsciously, overtly or covertly, picture books provide through the combination of images and words, themes and ideas, texts and subtexts, a representation not only of how the world is, but of how it ought to be.
Or, at least, how the author *believes* it ought to be. Which is the whole point of the post, I guess. Thanks for the interesting comment 🙂
An interesting post, Nicholas. Children’s books are by far my favorite, after all, I’ve been reading them all my life – first to myself, then my brothers and sisters, then the children I babysat while in high school, my three sons, my grandsons (now teenagers), and now my little granddaughters. It seems there’s never been a time in my life I was without children’s books and an audience to read them to. It’s such a rewarding experience for the reader and the listener, as I’m sure you’ve discovered with Mary Natalie. Somehow I cannot imagine a book that is about sugar beets, hydroelectric plants, and five-year plans keeping a child’s interest.
Lol–you underestimate those Soviet kids 😀
According to Atlas Obscura, which tracked down a few of them, some kids actually have fond memories of such books. I guess it’s not the topic but rather the reader who’s making it special–as I’m sure you’ve found out 🙂
The tortoise won? Cool!
I know, right?? Talk about hare-brained…
Interesting indeed, Nicholas.
And it seems the clever money should be on the tortoise after all. 🙂
Best wishes, Pete.
Thank you, Pete, I’m glad you enjoyed the post (I did have you in mind when I was writing it, as I’ve done an awful lot of marketing posts lately) 🙂