Children's Literature

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Sofiya Zahova

Children's literature

Overview

In the European countries in which Roma live, a number of children ́s publications have appeared, ranging from educational materials to books by Romani writers containing tales, short stories and poetry. These works are either monolingual or bilingual (written in Romani and in the language of the majority in the country of publication) and have been published under various circumstances, but all reflecting Romani ethno-culture.

Nowadays, books for children are probably among the most numerous works written and published for and by Roma. This reflects the importance of educating Romani children and strengthening Romani culture and identity through literature. Publications for Romani children in the Romani language and in translation, were among the first genres to be developed: the earliest such works date back to the emergence of original Romani literature as part of the quite well (though for only a decade) developed Romani literary landscape of the 1920 and the 1930s in the former Soviet Union.

In referring to Romani children’s ‘literature’, we must be inclusive and define it as ‘publications’ for Romani children. This includes educational materials, various books written by Romani and non-Romani authors for Romani children, periodicals and graphic novels for Romani children and translations into Romani of books for children and young adults in general (that is, irrespective of ethnicity).

In referring to Romani children’s ‘literature’, we must be inclusive and define it as ‘publications’ for Romani children. This includes educational materials, various books written by Romani and non-Romani authors for Romani children, periodicals and graphic novels for Romani children and translations into Romani of books for children and young adults in general (that is, irrespective of ethnicity).

Since the end of the 1960s, both the Romani international movement and European institutions (such as the Council of Europe) have adopted a proactive stance on the status of Roma and support for their language and culture, issuing various statements and recommendatory documents on Romani language, culture and education for the ‘Gypsy children in Europe’. The idea of promoting publications in Romani has been regarded as an important issue ever since the First World Romani Congress in London in 1971. At congresses of the International Romani Union, there have always been commissions and/or committees on the Romani language and publications and education in Romani.

In this international climate and thanks to welfare state policies (usually aimed at the provision of services for travelling populations), several publications for children had already appeared in Western Europe in the 1970s. Examples are Mo Romano Lil [My Romani Book] (1971) and The Romano Drom Song Book 1 (by Denise Stanley and Rosy Burke, 1971) in the UK and Amari śib [Our language] (1979), edited by Lambert Scherp, in Sweden.

In Eastern Europe before the regime changes of 1989, Romani literature production was encouraged in some countries, including the former Yugoslavia. There were, however, neither Romani children publications nor special educational programmes for Romani children. At the same time, Romani children, in the Eastern bloc were generally guaranteed educational rights as well as access to the mainstream school system, whereas Romani children’s access to education was still an issue in many Western European countries as late as the 1970s.

After 1989, international actors played a considerable role in supporting the development of the Romani language and culture in Eastern Europe through various strategies and resources. Publications for Romani children in the Romani language or with content related to Romani culture were considered a symbolic asset that not only embodied the identity of Roma and would help preserve their culture but also served to educate and promote a positive self-image among both Romani and non-Romani children.

As part of such strategies, activities for publishing in Romani and providing books by Roma for children were undertaken by Roma and non-Roma alike and subsidised by ministries and international donors throughout Europe. Developments often depended on conditions and other specific factors in those countries, among them language planning and educational policies. In general, however, since the 1990s, we can speak about a flourishing of Romani children ́s literature with considerable production in Eastern Europe and an increasing number of publications appearing in Western Europe as well.

Types of publication

Publications written for Romani children can be classified into the following types:

Educational materials

In all Eastern European countries, as well as in Austria, Sweden, Germany, Finland and the UK, textbooks and extracurricular materials to support the education of Romani children have been published. They include Sikljova romani čhib [We learn Romani] (1996) in Macedonia, Amari Romani Lumya [Our Romani world] (1997) in Bulgaria, Amen Roman Siklojas [We learn Romani] (1998) and Ramosaras Řomanes [We write in Romani] (2003) in Austria, Amari Abeceda [‘Our A-B-C’] (1998) in the Czech Republic and Rromano alfavito [Rromano alfavito] (2013) in Russia. In Romania, teaching materials in Romani have been developed for all grades at primary and secondary school.

Romani activists, writers and experts with a pedagogical and/or linguistic background have been involved in the development of national language programmes for Romani-language learning and teaching materials – for example, Milena Hübschmannová in Czech Republic, Dezider Banga in Slovakia, Hristo Kyuchukov in Bulgaria (textsample), Gheorghe Sarău and Michaela Zatreanu in Romania, Miranda Voulasranta in Finland and Angelina Demeter Taikon in Sweden.

Collections of tales and oral culture heritage

A considerable number of Romani tales and other folklore works have been published by Roma. In some cases, the publications are targeted exclusively at Romani children and classified as čhavorikano lil (children’s book) or čhavorikane paramiča (children’s tales); such books are usually richly illustrated. In other cases, the collections can be enjoyed by both young and adult audiences of different ages who are interested in Romani tales and folklore.

Poetry

Poetry for children is an important, albeit underdeveloped, part of Romani poetry in general and a very important resource for educating Romani children and learning the Romani language. Examples of Romani poetry collections intended for children include those by Sejdo Jašarov in Macedonia, Karlis Rudjevic in Latvia and Ata Becheva in Bulgaria.

Books on contemporary topics

These may include series of books such as the ‘Katizi’ series by Katarina Taikon and picture books combining text telling the story of a Romani personality and/or Romani history with a large number of illustrations and photographs. Examples of the latter are A History of the Romani People (2005) by Ian Hancock and Hristo Kyuchukov and the graphic novel Zofi-4515, which tells the story of the Holocaust survivor Sofia Taikon and was written by Taikon and Gunilla Lundgren with illustrations by Amanda Eriksson.

Periodicals

Examples of periodicals written for children in Romani include Čhavrikano Li in Serbia, Luludi in Slovakia and Mri nevi minimulti in Austria.

Translations

The corpus of children and young adult literature in Romani is enlarged by various translations. These include translations of such classics for children as ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ and Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking (2001; translation by Johnny G. Ivanovic), religious texts and even an adaptation of the Disney film production Shrek, translated by Savcho Savchev and published in the Bulgarian Romani journal Andral. In some translated works, aspects of the narrative are changed to appeal to the Romani audience. For example, the Romani version of the classic fairy tale ‘Hansel and Gretel’ (translated by Trajko Petrovski) is titled ‘O Ramče thai i Esma’, giving the main characters two of the most popular names among Macedonian Roma.

USSR in the 1930s

During the period 1925–38, the Soviet authorities developed a large-scale state-sponsored initiative on book publishing in Romani, which, in terms of the number of titles, the size of the print run, the range of genres and the scale of distribution, has no parallel in the entire history of Romani publishing.

This initiative was part of a larger policy targeted at the smaller ethnic communities (narodnosti) of the Soviet Union whereby political and social integration was to be achieved through the development of the respective languages and culture. As a result, languages that had no written tradition, including Romani, became literary ones: spelling systems were formulated, books written in the original language and works translated into that tongue were published, and textbooks were written.

Various Romani activists and educated persons took part in the process. The Cyrillic script and the dialect of the Ruska Roma (North Russian dialect) formed the basis for the language standards developed by the well-known Romani activists Nikolai Pankov and Nina Dudarova. The numbers of titles written in or translated into the Romani language was almost 300.

Among the Soviet activists who wrote and published educational materials and books for Romani children and young adults were Maxim Beslyudsko, Alexandr Germano, Ivan Rom-Lebedev, Nikolaj Pankovo, Olga Pankova and Nina Dudarova.

Publications for Romani children written exclusively in Romani comprised the following: several picture books for pre-school children; educational materials for learning the Romani language aimed at children in grades one to seven, including textbooks and anthologies of reading texts; collections of short stories written by Romani writers; popular science books for young adults translated into Romani; and propaganda materials targeting young adults.

Macedonia in the (post-)Yugoslav context

Like the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia after the 1960s created conditions in which Romani literary and cultural production could flourish. Under Yugoslav ethnic policies that established a hierarchical structure of the communities living in the federation based on three main groups (nations, nationalities and ethnic groups), Roma were granted the status of ethnic group and benefited from official measures promoting the development of Romani culture.

In the 1970s, numerous books by Romani authors were published in all republics of the federation and Romani journalism and media were promoted. Teatar Roma Pralipe was active in Skopje, while the Romani Language Congress took place in Sarajevo in the 1980s and the Romani activist Šaip Jusuf, together with the Macedonian linguist Krume Kepeski, published a Romani grammar (Romani gramatika) in 1980.

Although Romani-language literary production was targeted mainly at adults and no educational materials were published, the legacy of Yugoslav Romani policies provided the sound foundations for further such production in the successor states after 1992. Thus, all the newly independent states addressed the issue of Romani education, but Macedonia was the first to adopt language policies and develop literature and educational materials for Romani children.

Examples of publications for Romani children include the textbook Sikljova romani čhib by Šaip Jusuf and those published by the ‘Darija’ cultural centre, run by Ljatif Demir, including a couple of books by Sejdo Jašarov.

Macedonia was the first former Yugoslav republic to develop a Romani children’s literature scene, probably not least because it was one of the more peaceful territories of the former Yugoslavia. Later, Romani children’s books and educational materials began to be published in all the other republics and the teaching of the Romani language was developed, particularly in Serbia. Nowadays, the publishing scene for children’s literature and educational materials in Romani is particularly lively in Kosovo.

Overview: Sweden

Sweden’s Romani language policies have made significant advancements over the past few decades. Romani calls for access to education and housing in the 1930s and 1940s were met with bewilderment by the authorities, which claimed that such things did not correspond to ‘Gypsies nomadic habits’. It was not until the 1970s that special measures aimed at granting Roma access to education began to be implemented.

Today Sweden can be seen as the country that has the highest-quality Romani children’s books, which are published in both Swedish and all Romani dialects spoken in the country (Kaldarash, Lovari, Arli, Kale, Traveller Romani). This is due to several interrelated factors: the development of the Romani rights movement in Sweden and around the world, whose special focus is Romani children’s education; the strong literary tradition of a country that has always had high-quality books; state-sponsored policies for mother-tongue educational materials and Romani-language books; and the various individuals involved in Romani activism and writing.

While Romani children’s literature tends to comprise collections based on the oral Romani heritage or authorised tales, it is autobiographical books that address contemporary topics and contain a large number of photographs or graphics that predominate in Sweden. The narratives are usually in the first person and are interspersed with short accounts of the history of the Roma in Sweden or Europe.

Swedish literary classics, including the ‘Pippi Longstocking’ and ‘Emil of Lönneberga’ series, have been translated into Romani and published in Sweden. Translations into Romani of worldwide classics such as ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ have been published as well. Another specific of the country is that instead of favouring one Romani dialect over the other, the same book often has several Romani editions to cover the main dialects of those Romani groups living in the country. Audio books or audio versions of printed books are widespread, too.

Björn Langhammer | Portrait of Katarina Taikon | photograph | Sweden | fil_00720 Rights held by: Björn Langhammer | Licensed by: Birgitta Langhammer — Anna Sigurðardóttir Langhammer | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC 4.0 International | Provided by: Birgitta Langhammer – Private Archive

Katizi is beyond doubt the most famous book written by Katarina Taikon. Among the other Romani writers in Sweden are Gunilla Lundgren, Monica and Dragan Caldaras, Ramona Taikon Melker, Mikael Demetri and Angelina Dimiter Taikon, Fred Taikon, Sofia Taikon, Erland Caldras Nikolizsson, Domino Kai and Bennie Åkerfeldt.

Children’s books are promoted in schools and through Romani media – for example, in the Romani-language journal Romani Glinda and through the national Radio Romano.