Magic Imagery and Poetic Mastery: Experts speak about children’s books in Russia
Distinguished Artist of the Russian Federation, Associate Member of the Russian Academy of Arts, IBBY Vice President
Director of the Russian State Children’s Library, President of the Association Raising Readers
The age of social media and instant messengers makes us easily forget that the book is the result of teamwork. Authors, editors, illustrators, layout designers and printers work together to open a whole world of new knowledge, breathtaking stories and unforgettable experiences to the reader. The book demands not only high professionalism from its creators, but also great responsibility, especially when it comes to children’s book, the first reading experience for kids. Today, our esteemed experts – MARIA VEDENYAPINA , Director of the Russian State Children’s Library, President of the Association Raising Readers, and ANASTASIA ARKHIPOVA , Distinguished Artist of the Russian Federation, Associate Member of the Russian Academy of Arts, IBBY Vice President – discuss traditions and modern trends in Russian book publishing, true exponents of children’s books and professional achievements in this field.
– Children’s books in Russia today mean 12 to 14 thousand new titles annually, 21% of the total book print run and 27% of the book market turnover. The numbers look good. Moreover, analysts believe this segment to be the driver of the book industry in Russia. Do you agree with this?
MARIA VEDENYAPINA: You mention the positive changes that have been taking place mainly lately, when children’s books have got in the focus of attention. Many publishers, who never included children’s books in their catalogues before, now take this very seriously. I must say there are many new names, and this actually represents one of the challenges of modern children’s literature in Russia. As for the huge variety of books for children – from classical to modern, including translated literature – I agree with Arthur Givargizov, who compares this period with the golden age of children’s literature. Indeed, this segment of the book industry is very active. But, I repeat, this is the trend of the recent years only, and probably due to some economic factors, in particular, still high demand for children’s printed books: classical titles are usually bought by grandparents, modern authors are popular among moms and dads.
ANASTASIA ARKHIPOVA: In terms of book design and book illustration, the situation is somewhat different. Book illustration is a field of fine arts, and its development goes handin-hand with the change of styles in fine arts at large, rather than in line with the trends of the book industry. A good example to refer is the remarkable period of the early 20th century in Russian fine arts, which was reflected in the book illustration. In other words, it is only today that we see positive changes in attitude towards children’s books in general, whereas book illustration has always been at a high level, and this is a universally recognised fact. But there is much more freedom nowadays, and modern young artists have more information available about creative work of their foreign colleagues; they enjoy a more saturated information space. Illustrations have become more diverse, there is no single line or single style. It is not that I mean it was bad then, but it has become good now. Everything is developing, each period has its own achievements and its own wonderful artists.
– However, if we take the quality of paper or print, or the number of colour inks used in design, and compare the situation with the 1990s, children’s books have become much better.
А.А.: The reprint trend is very interesting in this regard. Today, some publishing houses deliberately reprint books created by artists in the Soviet times, but do it at a different level, with a very good quality of print. For example, TriMag Publishing House («ТриМаг») made a reprint of the archives of the Murzilka («Мурзилка») and the Hedgehog («Ёж»). Since these magazines had excellent artists, it was very interesting to see how their work would benefit from a new level of printing. It looks really well.
M.V.: Reprints of the books that we remember from our Soviet childhood is the trend not aimed at a modern child, but rather at their grandparents as the readers. Indeed, Agnia Barto’s Toys («Игрушки»), Liubov Voronkova’s Masha the Daydreamer («Маша-растеряша»), and The Tale of a Silly Little Mouse («Сказка о глупом мышонке») by Samuel Marshak are reprinted with great success today. They seem to belong to the classics... But I look at my granddaughter, who is now three and a half, and she is not always impressed by these wonderful (from our point of view) illustrations. There’s a certain mismatch. I believe, modern children perceive reality in a different way, and reprints have become commercially successful, because they target grandparents, maybe mothers and fathers – the readers who were brought up with these books.
– And what is specific with about modern children?
М.V.: They have a different visual perception of both text and pictures. Infants, who do not know the letters and cannot read yet, open the book and focus on the illustration, image, picture at the first glance. This is how their dialogue with the book begins, it begins with the text that is offered to them by their parents, a librarian or all those who give them books.
А.А.: I would not quite agree with this. When we talk about illustrations of outstanding artists, we actually see them as works of fine art, the correct perception of which should be introduced and children should be taught this. They may not be ready for this at an early age. And yet, the illustrations by such artists as Tatiana Mavrina, Valery Alfeyevsky or Nika Golts belong to fine art, good for all times. It is natural that a drawing for a magazine or a newspaper, or a fashionable design that suits the demand of the day, becomes outdated the next day. However, the book illustration is different, it is drawn to last more than one day or even one year. It is a genre of graphic art, so its best examples stay part of the book culture, regardless of the time the illustration was created. At all times, it is the talent and level of mastery in fine arts that guides our opinion about artists-illustrators.
– Nevertheless, I think children need a modern interpretation of classical texts. The book illustration needs to be more flexible and keep up with the spirit of the time. What would you say about the trends of the 21st century in the art of children’s illustration?
А.А.: Nowadays, book illustration, and for children’s books in particular, is on the rise; there are wonderful contemporary artists all over the world. Russia has many schools of book illustration. Our young artists have every possibility to familiarise themselves with what exists elsewhere in the world, and often create something similar. I would say, individual national features are vanishing. Universal globalization shows itself in book illustration as well: you can no longer tell whether the illustration was made in Germany, the USA, Poland, Belgium or in Russia nowadays. A powerful wave sweeps away some sort of uniqueness, but even so, there are always those who are more talented, and they catch your eye and find their way in this flow. No doubt, we have such people in Russia. Many noteworthy talents are among the young artists.
– One feature of the children’s book today is that it is dominated by illustrations. It’s enough to remember Anna Desnitskaya’s work in the projects The Story of an Old Flat («История старой квартиры») and Transsib («Транссиб») of Samokat publishing house where the illustrations and the text closely intertwine leaving no line between...
М.V.: There even emerged a new direction of Silent Books – books based exclusively on illustrations. Although, I must say, they trigger diverging attitude here, since Russia is a literature-centric country and the text matters.
А.А.: Text is a priority.
М.V.: Yes, to some extent, my first attitude to this genre was also negative. It seemed to me that the discourse in the form of a text should be in the book, albeit in a minimal quantity. But then I realised that the Silent Book can be interpreted in a variety of ways. It is not a book where an adult teaches something to a child using a readymade story. On the contrary, it is an opportunity to build your own imaginary worlds, your story lines. And in this sense, this approach to the book has been undeveloped until recently in our country.
А.А.: The genre of what is called a picture book – when both the text and illustrations are made by one person – is also seriously underdeveloped in Russia. We have very few books of this kind, although there are many of them all over the world. By the way, back to Desnitskaya’s books, it should be noted that Anna works in the European manner, where the artist’s personal attitude and feelings, reflected in the picture, are very important. No doubt, this immediately takes her works to a higher level.
М.V.: A short comment: in 2019, we visited the Library of Congress (USA) and gave The Story of an Old Flat to its director. Carla Hayden, a former children’s librarian at the Chicago Public Library, was absolutely delighted and called The Story of an Old Flat “a real book for family reading”.
– The works by Anton Lomaev or Igor Oleynikov are vivid examples of the picture book authored by reputable artists who rightly gained their awards. Even so, why is it the best of the Russian classics that reigns in Russia’s bookshops?
М.V.: The classics is simply published in much bigger print runs. The publishers print what they are sure to sell, and a new name is always a risk.
А.А.: This is not only the publisher’s decision, but that of the commercial agent as well.
М.V.: We have many young stunningly talented artists and no less talented authors, we have wonderful prose and poetry, so I am optimistic about the future. Among the poets of the new generation, we cannot help but mention Anastasia Orlova (Rogakh), the Presidential Prize winner. Anastasia has set up her own publishing house, which not only publishes her books, but also invites absolutely wonderful authors to collaboration, such as Mikhail Yasnov, Asya Petrova and Andrey Usachev. By the way, Mikhail Yasnov published a whole poetic library with the Clover publishing house and had invited different authors to work at each volume. This selection of authors has been a great success, which is not surprising. If you know who Mikhail Yasnov is, if you admire him not only as a translator, but also as the author of wonderful children’s poems, then naturally you are eager to learn whom he recommends.
– What trends would you pinpoint in the non-fiction segment for children?
М.V.: This segment of literature for children and teenagers has always been underrepresented, because it is a really expensive thing to commission competent authors. For instance, there were predominantly translated non-fiction books back in the 1990s and 2000s, and I remember the librarians asking “Why on earth?” It is not because our non-fiction is very different from, so to say, not ours. However, there are certain moments of history, interpretation of which we are much more interested to hear from Russian specialists. Speaking about particular authors, I would recommend Yuri Nechiporenko, Dr Sci. in Physics and Mathematics, biologist, who wrote a large number of books, the latest of which (The Living House/«Живой Дом») is made in the genre of popular illustration. The book is a great success, I think, because popular science literature today is the best choice for family reading.
А.А.: The St. Petersburg Cultural Forum in November 2019 saw very interesting non-fiction publications for children, presented by our foreign colleagues from Great Britain and Malaysia. Interestingly, their books about the nature, birds, flowers and seasons are formed not that much on photographs, but rather on the work of an artist. They are drawn-on-paper books.
А.А.: In Russia, however, they use more of photographs and documentary illustrations. Although there are other examples. A Walk Through History publishing house employs picture illustrations in non-fiction, which work well.
М.V.: There is also Art-Volkhonka publishing house. Its books produced a deep impression when we showed them at the Shanghai Children’s Book Fair in 2018. As you may know, the Chinese are good in absorbing everything new and interesting. It was non-fiction books that were an absolute success that year. So, there is a lot of attention to this book segment for children. In April 2020, the Russian State Children’s Library (RSCL) and a wonderful young team is launching the first big festival of popular science literature for children. This team, part of the project called Gutenberg’s Smoking Lounge, every second Thursday offers free lectures for students delivered by experts in different fields. These lectures in the RSCL gather the full room, designed for 170 seats, with people sitting even on the stairs.
А.А.: Will the Festival take place within the Children’s Book Week?
М.V.: No, separately. This is the third year that we have been trying to bring Children’s Book Week back to life and to the All-Russian level, because it is a very appropriate and relevant idea. Let me remind you that the first Children’s Book Week was convened in the Pillar Hall of the House of Unions (Moscow) in 1943. Despite all difficulties and other concerns of that time, children’s book was not neglected and assigned great importance. And we must give credit to the Soviet Union, where the initiative really worked. I wish nowadays children could meet with modern writers and poets during Children’s Book Week, and, of course, with artists, because illustrations in children’s books are extremely important, sometimes more important than the text. Such get-togethers should take place not only in Moscow, but also in other towns and cities of Russia.
А.А.: It is the work of an artist that makes a text the book. The text itself can be heard by radio, or from a recording, or someone else may read it to you. The artist’s work is especially significant for children’s book, not so much for the design of a type page or the layout as a whole, but for illustration. What makes the difference is the images created by the artist in parallel with the story for children written by the author. Speaking about modern artists, I would say, it is a must to acquaint oneself with the illustrations by Igor Oleynikov, the Andersen Prize winner, who works fruitfully and quickly, and is much published; in fact, he annually presents a new book. Anton Lomaev from St. Petersburg is another unique and interesting artist, who makes picture books with his own texts. I would also recommend books by Anna Desnitskaya, whose work we have already mentioned. We have several schools in the Russian Federation where they foster illustrators. For example, Stroganov Moscow Academy of Arts and Industry, the chair of Graphic Art, annually prepares a certain number of students who want to work with book illustrations. Naturally, it is very difficult for them to find their way although they are in demand among book publishing houses. Here are some of the graduates: Yuri Skomorokhov made wonderful illustrations in the Motley Square series («Пестрый квадрат»/ Leo Publishing House), Svetlana Makhrova, Yana Sedova and Anna Morgunova also work as professional artists with publishing houses. Very interesting book illustrators also graduate from Favorsky School of Graphic and Book Art (former department of the Moscow Polygraphic University). It always produced very bright and interesting graduates. Nikita Tereshin is worth noting among the recent ones. He already approved himself in a number of book projects and was awarded at international competitions for illustrators. Surikov Moscow Art School also boasts many talented book illustrators among its graduates, for example, Irina Dedkova, a very bright and distinctive artist.
М.V.: By the way, our young artists have helped us to design stylistic continuity for Children’s Book Week – posters, bookmarks, brand book – and all this is available to regional organisations for free. Definitely, the all-Russian status of the event will allow to achieve synergy and draw attention to the problem of placement of good contemporary books for children in libraries. After all, when we ask “How do we attract readers to libraries?” the simplest answer is to allocate enough funds for the purchase of good children’s literature. A renewal of the book collection will ensure at least 10-15% inflow of new readers to the libraries.
– Updated library stocks should be complemented by recommendation engines that will help the reader navigate better in the sea of children’s literature now available in walk-in and digital libraries and bookstores. What can help children and adults choose good books to read?
M.V.: The RSCL has the children’s bibliography centre; some of its services can be considered as recommendatory. On the first day of every month we issue a catalogue, RSCL Recommends, for children’s librarians and parents. It includes 60 to 100 new books, which have been selected and commented upon by our specialists in terms of readers’ age, relevance for family reading, etc. In fact, Russia has enough popular electronic resources, where recommendations on children’s books and literature are given one way or another. There is a specialised web-site Papmambook; the Year of Literature site presents materials about children’s books; and the site of the Association Raising Readers contains a quite good recommendation resource “I Want to Read”, designed for parents. However, let us not forget that interests and tastes differ, so it is impossible to ensure a hundred-per-cent hit by a recommendation.
А.А.: Children differ, and children need different books, not only age-wise, but from different areas.
as recommendatory» Maria Vedenyapina
M.V.: The RSCL is working on a ProDetLit resource. A children’s encyclopaedia will be very useful to all who are engaged in children’s literature. Our foreign partners prompted us this idea as they experience an acute shortage of information on all infrastructural elements of children’s literature, especially modern. It is clear that this represents a huge layer of information, which should be properly ploughed, sown and harvested later. Nevertheless, the concept of such an encyclopaedia is very interesting, and we are working closely on it now. Unlike Wikipedia, this resource will be edited scientifically, provided with lots of quality illustrations, a selected bibliography and links to the National Children’s Digital Library to free-access full texts.
– Russia has major book awards (Image of the Book, Book of the Year), which have nominations in children’s books. However, there is no large-scale specialised children’s books award yet.
М.V.: Image of the Book competition has existed for many years, having become international. Despite a number of nominations within the competition, its main category, informally, is the children’s book illustration. Here we have the largest The RSCL has the children’s bibliography centre; some of its services can be considered as recommendatory. Maria Vedenyapina march 2020 dialogues 25 number of applications and interesting works from very young artists, whose names we open to publishers, readers and to each other. Twelve years of the competition have brought us many interesting works, including Anna Desnitskaya’s book The Story of an Old Flat that had received the Image of the Book award long before it was published by Samokat.
М.V.: The programme in support of children’s reading makes it a point to establish an All-Russia Award in Children’s Literature which assumes work assessment not only of the publisher, the author and the artist, but also of those who are engaged in promotion of children’s books and libraries. If we take children’s literature competitions (the text component), most of them in Russia are aimed at the literature for teenagers, for instance, New Children’s Book, Knigaru or Krapivin Literary Prize. It is obvious that we do not have enough nominations for books addressed to the youngest readers. However, Bologna special awards for children’s books envisage one of the nominations for the youngest – Toddler Books. I think we ought to do something similar in Russia, because expert opinion on this segment of children’s literature is vitally important both for parents and specialists.
– The Russian book community is now preparing both for Bologna Fair and IBBY Congress, we are very interested in closer integration into the international book environment. In this regard, I would like to ask a few questions on preparations for the IBBY Congress. What topics will be discussed in September?
А.А.: The Congress is held biennially and in different countries. It is Russia’s first experience whereas Italy and Switzerland hosted it more than once. Many experts in children’s books, who want to take part in this event, have never been in Russia and are full of expectations and excitement how things will go. The Congress in Russia is being prepared by the Association Raising Readers, which is drafting an extensive programme in different areas and sections. Moscow is preparing to be the host.
М.V.: Just for reference, we gained the right to host this congress in 2014, and it had not been an easy task. So, we are obliged to hold it at a very high level. We are grateful to the Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communications for its financial support. The theme of the 37th IBBY Congress is “Great Big World Through Children’s Books”, so there will be many issues on the agenda within 9 scientific sections and 54 sub-sections. I want to emphasise once again that the Congress is not a festival, it is a high-profile event for professionals who deal with children’s books and their various aspects. There will be a designated section on popular scientific literature and there will be a very interesting section on various projects promoting children’s books, with representatives of the theatre and museum communities participating in it. About 200 speaker papers have already been registered, and curators are working. We have no concerns about the programme. We expect many guests, and we need to prepare thoroughly and consider every detail. We want it to be one of the best congresses.
– Another major event – the International Children’s Book Fair in Moscow – is scheduled for 2021. What will it bring?
М.V.: It’s hard to say something definite yet. Bologna Book Fair attended the 2019 Moscow International Book Fair with a special exhibition display, many wonderful friends from Italy came to take part in the exhibition events. All in all, we have got off the ground and there are many attractive windows of opportunity. Besides, let’s not forget that Russia will be the guest of honour in Bologna in 2022. We have forged very good relations, that are promising and creative.