Story-telling for today
New trends in German-language literature for children and young adults
By Caroline Roeder
Whether it’s bite-resistant board-books for littlies or teenage novels focusing largely on the challenges of identity, whether it’s graphic novels for children or deeply researched non-fiction books aimed at readers ‘of all ages’ - the titles available on the German-language book market for children and young adults are exceptionally varied, and present a rich panoply of high-quality literary offerings. In economic terms, too, this sector is highly promising: some 9000 new titles appear on the market every year. Whilst a considerable proportion of these are translations, largely from English, the number of home-grown publications nevertheless shows up very well in any international comparison.
Some interesting new trends are worth noting here. One striking and quite crucial feature - continuing a trend evident since the 1980s - is that books for children and young adults are increasingly echoing developments in literature for adults. It is clear from best-sellers like Wolfgang Herrndorf’s Tschick (2010) and Bov Bjerg’s Auerhaus (2015) that the borderline between literature for ‘grown-ups’ and books for young readers is becoming increasingly exiguous. Books of this sort are termed ‘crossovers’ and reach a highly variegated readership - which is to say that they can be read with profit by young and old alike. This is particularly clear in the case of fantasy-based books, whether they be English-language mega-sellers by J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling or Suzanne Collins, or German-language stayers such as Michael Ende’s Die unendliche Geschichte (1979) and Walter Moers’ Zamonien series (Die 13½ Leben des Käpt'n Blaubär, 1999, followed by eleven further books), or more recent titles such as Cornelia Funke’s Tintenwelt trilogy (2003-2007).
Another striking feature is the shift in subject matter. A new sense of engagement is evident in contemporary literature for adults, with a more marked focus on socio-political issues of the day and on themes relating to contemporary history - and a quick glance at today’s literature for children and young adults shows that the same development has found its way into this sector of the book market too (cf. Grit Poppe’s Weggesperrt, 2009, or Christian Linker’s Dschihad Calling, 2015). In this regard it is interesting that in the picturebook field - traditionally aimed at the very youngest of young readers - a large number of books are now appearing that deal with relatively ‘weighty’ topics, including war, expulsion and transcultural issues. Kirsten Boie’s Bestimmt wird alles gut (2016) is a typical example here, as are books by Anja Tuckermann such as Nusret und die Kuh (illustrated by Mehrdad Zaeri and Uli Krappen, 2016). These highly relevant features of present-day society are presented not in a teacherly way, but in an artistic guise that invites discussion; they are transposed into parable-like stories that emphasise openness and tolerance towards people from other backgrounds (e.g. Armin Greder’s Die Insel, 2015). In this context we should also mention Rico, the ‘deeply’ (in contrast to ‘highly’) gifted protagonist in Andreas Steinhöfel’s Rico-and-Oskar series (which started in 2008), who took the hearts of his readers by storm.
It is precisely in the field of illustration that we find this thematic evolution further reflected, namely in the work of a new generation of artists in the German-speaking lands who produce graphic novels: here, too, alongside autobiographical elements, the chosen topics relate predominantly to socio-political concerns and other matters highly relevant to the contemporary world. Various authors merit special mention under this head: Reinhard Kleist with his books Der Boxer. Die wahre Geschichte des Hertzko Haft (2012) and Der Traum von Olympia (2015); Mawil - Kinderland (2014) - and Simon Schwartz - Drüben (2009) - who both focus on the German Democratic Republic; Flix, an artist who produces extremely interesting adaptations of classics, as in his Münchhausen, and whose Spirou in Berlin gives new life to a legendary classic of the genre.
More ‘on the run’ than ‘forever young’
Last but not least, there is another trend that deserves to be noted. More and more books written for young adults are proving immensely successful and scoring top places in best-seller lists. The turbulent period of adolescence, full of all the spectacular highs and lows that the young have to suffer and get through, appears to make for particularly popular reading matter, appealing not only to those who still have to face the challenges of teenagerdom, but also to those who have successfully got it behind them, or who seem to have settled into it on a permanent basis. As these books make clear, young people growing up in the twenty-first century often go through life-changing upheavals, for instance by experiencing violence within the family or through war, enduring traumas caused by fleeing their homeland or being driven out of it, or suffering exclusion or discrimination - as demonstrated for example by Alina Bronsky’s Scherbenpark (2008), Susanne Kreller’s Elefanten sieht man nicht (2012), or Julya Rabinowich’s Dazwischen: Ich (2016). What is also clear, however, is that the teenage years can take the young on all kinds of different journeys: some entail painful partings (Elisabeth Steinkeller’s Rabensommer (2015), Tamara Bach’s Vierzehn (2016); some may be read as ‘rite of passage’ stories (Nils Mohl’s Es war einmal Indianerland, 2011); others represent an unending search for a goal that derives from within the imaginative inner realm of the adolescent protagonists themselves (Nataly Elisabeth Savina’s Meine beste Bitch, 2018). All in all, then, the youngsters of the interactive age appear in these novels not to be cast in the mould of the ‘forever young’, but instead to be permanently ‘on the run’.
Caroline Roeder is Professor of Literature and Didactics of Literature at the Pädagogische Hochschule, Ludwigsburg. Her specialist area is literature for children and young adults, and the various media associated with it. She is a member of the German-Greek Litrix-Jury 2019-20.
Translated by John Reddick