Gender Politics and Estonian Literature for Children and Young Adults

by Ave Tarrend

Issues of the equality of and difference between the sexes have recently been vigorously discussed in all walks of life in Estonia. This was greatly encouraged by feminism, which made a powerful breakthrough in the early 1990s, and has considerably raised the confidence of our women and increased their representation in positions of power. In the media, art spheres and social-political fields, being a woman is interpreted more and more. A number of new names, who are interested in the women's world of thinking and the development of women's self-confidence, both historically and today, have emerged in literature and literary research. Estonian literature for children and young adults also displays the impact of feminism. Besides classical girl books where the life of the female protagonist mostly revolves around a boy/man, there are more examples of the so-called emancipatory books. These texts ignore conventional female role patterns and ideas about identity, describing instead active, decisive and intelligent girls.

It must be admitted that our development towards gender equality in Estonia has not been steady. While women generally have become more self-assured and enterprising, men and boys have not been quite so successful. According to doctors, the average life expectancy for men is 12 years less than for women, and their physical forms increasingly leaves much to be desired. Teachers are worried about boys’ poor performance in many subjects at school, which often leads them to be expelled. There are about 100 000 fewer men than women in Estonia, and it is quite clear that we need a strong men's movement that will protect men’s rights and enhance their confidence.

True, the traditional image of man as the supporting pillar of society, family patriarch and intellectual giant is changing. Not all men can or indeed want to be seen as such. Today’s men and boys increasingly include modest, sensitive people who prefer ‘soft’ fields of activity, such as teaching or social work. This has introduced new or non-traditional male types that oppose the classical patriarchal types, but at the same time are able to accept the challenges of the modern world.

Children’s books that have a considerable impact on the young generation can be influential in promoting the patterns and roles of unconventional gender identity, which has been understood by 21st century Estonian authors. Thus we already have – besides emancipated girls’ books - stories for boys that shatter traditional male stereotypes, presenting examples of male characters who are remarkably helpful, sensitive and good at human communication. I will introduce a few authors from literature for small children and teenagers. I will focus on realistic works, as these offer a better chance of identification than fairy-tales or fantasy stories, and serve better as paragons.

Luckily, the Estonian fiction meant for the youngest readers includes books for both boys and girls which present a gender-balanced picture of the world and thus create a good basis for further socialisation. Among books for girls, mention should be made of the series of stories about Paula, written by our grand old lady Aino Pervik, which have appeared since 2001. The stories are interesting because, besides changes in little Paula’s life, they also describe problematic developments in Estonian society in recent years: the stratification of the population, unemployment, tensions caused by multiculturalism, the advance of mass culture etc. The narrative perspective is chosen very well; the camera lens is close to the world of perception and the way of thinking of the seven-year-old, and thus seems direct and natural. There is no adult-style nagging and instructive wagging of fingers, although the stories contain a multitude of useful bits of wisdom. The reader gets the impression that it is the smart main character herself who is doing the thinking and reflecting here.

The Paula stories – so far altogether 15 – are mostly meant for children who are learning to read, offering plenty of identification opportunities, but also the joy of thinking and hands-on activities. The texts are illustrated with original black-and-white pictures by the writer’s daughter, Piret Raud, an artist and a writer. Children can then colour the pictures if they feel like it. Numerous names of foods, plants, pieces of furniture and other daily items in the text help readers to enrich their vocabulary and make the book a kind of ABC book or a textbook.

The stories begin with great changes in Paula’s life – she finishes kindergarten and starts school, her family moves from the country to town and she must say good-bye to her old friends and find new ones. For such a young person this means a lot of serious rearranging, but in this case everything goes smoothly thanks to the child’s remarkable intelligence, empathy and good communication skills. In her new home, Paula quickly manages to make friends with the children next door, finds a kind word for everybody in the hospital ward, and saves her school friend, who has the strange name Kassiopeia, from a mischievous boy. The little girl is also a great help to her parents in looking after her small brother Patrik. Her attitude to boys is completely free of any stereotypes and, in most cases, she shows initiative – Paula’s best friend and desk mate is Joonas, who lives next door. Her creative abilities are also worth mentioning: in addition to reading, singing and drawing, she has a lively imagination. She only needs to look at the titles of books in a shop window, or at their illustrations, for her imagination to take off and for her to start imagining what the books might be about. However, feminine moods and whims are no strangers to Paula; in a shoe shop she fools around and lies to her mother until she gets what she wants – a pair of red shoes. It is most likely that Paula will grow into a woman who does not meekly follow others and stay in the background, but makes her own decisions (and perhaps makes decisions for others).

Although the Paula-stories contain various culture-specific realities and intertextual references to the classics of Estonian children’s literature, this is a book that, at least in my opinion, could be interesting for children from other cultures as well. The heroine, after all, is so pleasant and balanced, the depicted situations are cosily familiar, and the general message is hopeful and warm.
Among books meant for small boys, good examples are the stories written by Jaanus Vaiksoo, an author of the younger generation. Four Mornings and an Evening (2000), Snow Turmoil (2004) and Jaagup’s First Autumn of School (2005) are texts where in my opinion the protagonists represent the 'new masculinity', or men of the future. These are boys characterised by emotional expression, good communication skills, helpfulness, and a lack of selfishness or the male desire to dominate. As Jaagup is the main character, both in the ABC book and the textbook used in Estonian schools, we can only hope that such a likeable chap will be a paragon to many schoolboys.

Vaiksoo’s texts promote closeness to nature and provide a model of a vibrant family. The heroes of his stories are, as a rule, brothers and sisters who get on well, and of whom one, usually the youngest brother, is described in greater detail. An important role is played by caring parents, who always have the time for their children. Relations between fathers and sons are especially warmly depicted: they work together, go to the cinema or on walking tours, and the children are eager to listen to the exciting stories told by their fathers. Vaiksoo’s texts quite often have one story inside another, for example blended into the main plot as a segment of a dream or a recollection of the past. This method adds variety to the stories, shows the characters as diverse personalities and makes it possible to introduce new plot lines. The stories are further enlivened by childlike and spirited illustrations by Ilmar Trull (Four Mornings and an Evening) and Kadri Ilves (Snow Turmoil and Jaagup’s First Autumn of School).

Vaiksoo’s characters are, in a sense, typical mischievous boys eager to constantly test their masculinity and carry out various pranks, but on the other hand they tend to be a bit dreamy and absent-minded, and therefore funny mishaps often befall them. For example, Joonas in Four Evenings has a very trusting nature and is immediately prepared to try the cure for a sore throat recommended by his elder brother Harri: ice cubes, a herring wrapped around the throat, and inhaling a lot of cold air. However, Joonas is by no means a hapless person at whose expense the others can have fun. He is, instead, an independent and energetic first-year schoolboy, who decides one fine spring morning to take the train to the country on his own. He intends to visit his grandparents’ abandoned home in order to recall the time when granddad taught him to make a whistle, and just to be alone, with nature and himself.
The story Lumemöll describes how the boy's usual walk from school to home stretches unexpectedly. After all, there is so much to do: have snowball fights with friends, slide down a slope, make a snowman, knock the icicles from the eaves, and do all sorts of other fascinating things. Although the boys, enjoying their winter pleasures, seem jolly and carefree, they are at the same time kind-hearted and helpful, for example warning passers-by of a slippery street and assisting the elderly.

Vaiksoo’s texts are positive and humorous, although they also contain more serious words of instruction and depictions of sad events (e.g. the grandfather’s death). The fact that the stories about little Joonas have already found their way into the German language shows that the writer’s message is appreciated by other nations as well. We may only hope that there are boys in real life as pleasant as we see them in Vaiksoo’s books – there would no longer be any need to worry about the physical and mental health of Estonian men.
The quite realistic contemporary Estonian books for children describe worthy paragons for the future, whereas literature for teenagers still has a long way to go as far as gender issues are concerned. Some texts are stuck in old-fashioned stereotypes (Kristel Salu’s books for girls Viljaküla Brita’s Memoirs, 2002 and Viljaküla Brita’s Tales, 2003); are written and constructed in a too-complicated manner (Jaan Rannap’s books for boys A Dog with Four Names, 2004 and Green Castle, 2006); or have questionable attitudes (rough stories for teenage boys by Jaan Tangsoo in Goose Chase, 2003 and Sass Henno's I was Here. The First Arrest, 2005). There is certainly room for improvement in Estonian literature for young adults. Only one text has been truly successful in attracting attention both at home and abroad and in providing food for thought for parents. The book has already been translated into Latvian, Lithuanian and Finnish, and was turned into a hugely popular forum-type theatre production.
This is Aidi Vallik’s two-part book, How are you, Ann? (2001) and What Now, Ann? (2002). As the title indicates, this is a series for girls and constitutes a rather classic tale of a girl growing up. As typical of many such books, the stories about Ann also take the form of diary and letter to express personal viewpoints. The text is even more exciting because, in addition to revealing the problems of the modern teenage protagonist, we also learn about her mother Kärt’s stormy punk life in the 1980s. The story line starts with a diary found by chance by Ann, from which she learns that the younger days of her extremely strict and caring mother passed in a haze of alcohol and smoking, the consuming of suspicious pills and hanging out with all sorts of boys. What’s more, Ann learns that the man she always regarded as her father is, in fact, not her father. Things at school do not go smoothly either and Ann experiences an identity crisis and decides to leave home. Her aim is to work things out for herself and have a go at an independent life. Subsequent events are typical of most books for girls – staying at a summer cottage belonging to a school friend, first drinks and cigarettes, first sexual experiences, and finally calming down and the happy return home. Nothing special happens to Ann in the second part of the book. It describes the usual life of teenagers, spiced by relations with the opposite sex, and contacts – almost unavoidable today – with the criminal world, drugs and alcohol. The second part focuses on Ann’s boyfriend Gregor and introduces the topic of the orphanage. However, the text does not ring quite true here. In order to show what a silly and self-destructive life many young people lead today, there is no need to blame orphanages and social problems; things should be given their correct names. Aidi Vallik, wishing to protect young people from the evils of the world, is not quite prepared to call a spade a spade, or she does not want to lecture her readers.

The problems of young people with a criminal background and various addictions are tackled quite often in today’s literature for young adults in Estonia. However, I am more interested here in the gender-based behavioural patterns in the texts. Despite the fact that Aidi Vallik’s stories of Ann constitute classic works for girls – the main theme being a young girl developing into a woman and her relations with the opposite sex – the protagonist is an emancipated young woman. She is brave and independent enough to sort out her own life and stand her ground in her relations with her parents, friends and boyfriend. Ann’s value criteria regarding education, family relations, and a woman’s role and identity in society are well established and acceptable. In that sense, she offers a good example to young readers and can face the challenges of contemporary society. As there are quite a few Ann-like girls and young women in modern Estonian literature for children and young adults, it can be said that in that area, at least, feminism has already taken root. The story is more complicated with Anni’s boyfriend Gregor and other literary male characters like him (compare Tangsoo’s and Henno’s works). Such characters offer the reader little chance of identifying with them in a positive sense and no behavioural patterns to follow. Gregor is a young man who cannot cope and thus finds himself on a slippery road. His problems may be caused by broken human relations, the prevailing indifference in society and a consumer mentality, but showing him as helpless and powerless inevitably creates a negative example for others.
Books for younger boys contain nice characters and role patterns, and it is a bit sad that some stories for young adults promote uncertain and negative male types. This could further deepen the anxiety of Estonian men and boys already suffering identity crises, and shape attitudes with unpredictable social-psychological consequences. It, therefore, seems to me that it is high time to initiate some sort of policy for men in Estonia that parallels what is happening elsewhere in the world. We can then hope that more books will be written in Estonian that would constitute a good example to our boys and men.