Reviews 2017

Another History of the Children’s Picture Book: From Soviet Lithuania to India

Another History of the Children’s Picture Book: From Soviet Lithuania to India. Giedrė Jankevičiūtė and V. Geetha. Chennai: Tara, 2017. 175 pages. £35.00 (hardback).

In an article in The Guardian, writer Pankaj Mishra speaks eloquently of the "beautifully illustrated volumes" of Soviet books that "enlivened" his "childhood" in India; Mishra’s sentiment finds a discursive echo in the splendid profusion of full-colour images in Another History of the Children’s Picture Book: From Soviet Lithuania to India, a study which also cites Mishra’s article (23). Such picture books form part of a canonical corpus of texts produced in the former Soviet Union, institutionally promulgated and circulated through the Union Republics as well as the countries that came within the "Soviet sphere of influence" through Latin America to South-East Asia (10). Children’s literature scholars have certainly become increasingly interested in Soviet children’s books, as evinced by the recently-created digital archive, "Playing Soviet: The Visual Languages of Early Soviet Children’s Books, 1917-1953,"" hosted by the Cotsen Collection at Princeton University, USA. Another History scrutinises the "global impact" of these books by focusing on Lithuania, a former Soviet Republic, and India, a country with "'fraternal'" political alliances to the Soviet Union (17). In doing so, the authors propose to undo current biases in critical accounts of "the history and aesthetics of the children’s picture book" (particularly in English) upon Anglo-American, and to a lesser extent, Continental European contexts (4-5). Accordingly, the authors present Indian and Lithuanian encounters with Soviet picture books in two sections, presumably authored by Indian and Lithuanian scholars, V. Geetha and Giedrė Jankevičiūtė, respectively.

The sections help the authors to ground the study by outlining some of the defining characteristics of Soviet children’s picture books, as perceived though their recursive impact in both India and Lithuania. These books, usually featuring "bold graphic art" and "spare lettering" and published in large numbers, appear to have been aimed at the literacy and edification of the general populace (38, 49, 57). The authors note that Soviet children’s publishing drew sustenance from the ideal of the Soviet State as the "ultimate care-giver and educator of children"--an ideal fraught with multivalent implications that included the occasional reduction of picture books to the level of mere "propaganda" (27, 33, 35, 44, 106, 108).

In the Indian book market, Soviet picture books appeared through officially-instituted bilateral relationships between the two countries from the end of the 1960s onwards. This is depicted at an interpersonal level in an image from the Marathi-language picture story collection Mitra Mandal, a translation of the Soviet picture book "Friends’ Circle" (9-10, 17). Such texts were typical of the many picture books disseminated through translations in "multiple Indian languages and English." The low prices of Soviet picture books, compared to those from the UK and the USA, proved affordable for a large cross-section of Indian society, particularly children from "working class and aspirational households" (18, 23). In holding up "a critical lens" on the Indian "historical encounter" with these books, the authors note their value in having created a reading culture, a fact of continuing relevance in the current Indian social landscape where universal literacy remains to be attained (15, 25, 49).

Compared to India, Lithuania appears to have a conflicted and even violent Soviet legacy, having been annexed decisively by the Union in 1940 during World War II (56, 72). Nevertheless, tracing chronological changes in Soviet State policy, the authors argue that in the sphere of children’s picture books the "vast, hierarchical State system" was flexible enough to allow Lithuanian writers, illustrators and publishers to "express themselves with a measure of creative autonomy" despite certain "limits" (78, 108). Despite the State imperative to follow the aesthetic norm of "socialist realism" (which involved "set images" of "muscular working class men," "defiant women, and proud children" as exemplary "Soviet citizens"), for instance, illustrators often adapted their styles to suit the reigning political climate of the times (35, 44). Lithuanian illustrator, Domicelė Tarabildienė, having "welcomed Soviet rule" in 1940, initially adopted the techniques of socialist realism, which also happened to be financially rewarding, but in the relatively liberal atmosphere of the 1960s, "took to experimenting with photomontage" (72, 74-75, 91). Children’s publishing in Lithuania was hugely impacted by the mood of the Swinging Sixties: under the twin influences of Pop Art from the West and a period of growing economic prosperity in Lithuania, illustrator Algirdas Steponavičius drew The Monstrous Vacuum Cleaner for the children’s magazine, Genys (1967), exemplifying a fondness for "photomontage, typographical design, and primitive drawings, and colour paper-cuts," typical of "what is considered child art" (124, 136-7, 145, 172). Algirdas Steponavičius and the illustrators Birute Žilytė, and Albina Makūnaitė also pioneered a reinvention of folk art, to affirm a "uniquely Lithuanian identity." Through folk art, illustrators surreptitiously introduced "Christian iconography" including "images of saints," contrary to the atheistic agenda of the Soviet State (147-8, 150, 156). However, as the authors note, illustrators’ propensity for folk art, which commonly depicted "cruelty" and "grotesque characters," may have frightened actual child readers. The authors contend, therefore, that "Soviet Lithuanian children’s books of the 1960s afforded space to artists to experiment," which "makes them interesting to us today," "rather than the fact that they appealed to, or were read by children widely" (150, 162, 173).

Despite the richness of the picture books unpacked by Another History, however, the study exhibits some serious shortcomings. The content appears to be aimed at the general reader since research material is not cited, a list of bibliographical references is but a page long, and no index is featured. Rhetorically troubling, however, is the fact that while Another History is positioned against existing gaps in "standard picture book histories, or even in scholarly literature," the lack of a literature review may fail to persuade a critical reader of the study’s innovatory qualities (5, 53). Ultimately, then, while Another History certainly ignites readers’ attention towards a hitherto-overlooked history of picture books, the study remains suspended within the uncertain status of an informative coffee table book.

Malini Roy
Independent Scholar, Germany