Children's culture

Canon for Children's Culture

By Henrik Marstal, 2006

While working on the Culture Canon project, the committee hit upon the idea of establishing a canon for children’s culture. A canon that could recognise the cultural products and works that were created directly for children, that were unmistakable – but that in almost all cases had been dismissed from the adult’s canon lists and instead made to sit on the naughty step. All committees were invited to make suggestions for the children’s list and the very fact that it traversed many types of art made it markedly different than the other lists. In addition, not all committees ended up making suggestions, and comic books were introduced as a new category.

These are products whose primary qualities lie in their ability to hold the reader’s attention, challenge and surprise – naturally, on the children’s own terms and often more or less dependent on age level and intellectual development
Henrik Marstal

In Denmark, thoughts of cultural products created directly for children naturally go far back in time in the form of toys, rhymes and songs, children’s furniture etc. This has been particularly evident in the world of literature, in any case since Hans Christian Andersen wrote his first fairy tale. In The Little Match Girl, for example, he wrote about children in the same way as did other romantic authors, who were all more or less inspired by Frenchman Rousseau’s thoughts of the child as a ‘state of nature’. However, in contrast to most, Hans Christian Andersen also wrote for children, which is made more than clear in the title of his first collection of fairy tales: Fairy Tales Told for Children (1835).

These fairy tales were otherwise almost contemporaries of B. S. Ingemann’s and C. E. F. Weyse’s Morgensange and Aftensange (which are also included in the Canon Committee for Music’s list of music scores). The songs were sung by so many adults that no one considered that they were actually written about and for children. However, later it became clear that Ingemann’s clear, innocent verses formulated (an adult’s view of) a child’s perception of life with strong imagery and reassuring lines such as

“The pretty little flowers are peeping all around;
The merry birds are to each other calling.
Now wide awake we watch as across the dewy ground
The snail takes his house and goes a-crawling.”

or

“The day goes by with quickened pace
Today’s children all must hurry.
The evening glow brings calm and grace
The night-time stars are sleeping”

When the first actual children’s songbooks, such as ‘De små synger’ and ‘Regnbuebogen’, were published in the period after the Second World War, Ingemann’s and Weyse’s songs were well represented. At that time, they had long been part of children’s culture.

In 1900, the Swedish reform educationalist Ellen Key published a pioneering book titled: ‘Barnets Aarhundrede’ (The Century of the Child). She claimed that the time had come to take children seriously as children – and, of course, fully on their own terms. The book was sharply critical of society; however, the prophecy of the title was also relevant to children’s culture. The list reflects the fact that, during the 1900s, a substantial and defined child culture arose in Denmark. At the same time, it perhaps also reflects the fact that the committee members’ own childhoods have predominantly been marked by contemporary products, as the oldest work on the list dates back to 1931. The children’s classics included in the list have throughout the years held a firm place for children, from the very youngest to those slightly older. This applies to Palle Alone in the World, Lego blocks, Kaj and Andrea as well as Halfdans ABC. There is also a large number of other children’s classics for which there was no space – from Kay Bojesen’s wooden toys and the Rasmus Klump comic books to Thomas Winding’s stories and perhaps even Shu-bi-dua’s earliest albums.

It may certainly cause some people some consternation that a story from the weekly comic book Anders And & Co. (better known to English-speaking readers as Donald Duck) is included on the list. This is not only due to the fact that the comic book, ever since it was published in 1949 has brought pleasure to children and their parents, but also because the comic book has a particularly Danish angle. The comic books about the residents of Duckburg were for a long time produced in countries including Denmark, and from here exported to the rest of the world. The fact that the comic book is included on the list is also because the principal character himself – despite his American heritage – appears so characteristically Danish with his moodiness, his indolence and his constant suspicion of all kinds of authority. The other aspect is that he is an antihero, someone who constantly suffers defeat, not least to the tyrant Scrooge McDuck, the intellectually superior nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie and the persistently fortunate Gladstone Gander. Donald Duck is thus spiritually related to a long list of antiheroes in Danish culture, from Holberg’s Jeppe to Gustav Wied’s Tummelumsen, Kjeld Abell’s Larsen and Benny Andersen’s Svante.

If you look through the list, it is difficult not to draw pleasure from the fact that many, many Danes have been children in a world that held exactly these products. It is also good to know that many of the products are still appreciated by children today. These are products whose primary qualities lie in their ability to hold the reader’s attention, challenge and surprise – naturally, on the children’s own terms and often more or less dependent on age level and intellectual development.

At the same time, these are products that for many, are characterised by their origins in a welfare society, where there has been sufficient time and energy left over to enjoy play for its own sake, and where not least the language’s logical short-circuits, breakdowns and phonetic deconstruction which often characterise children’s own language have been cultivated, refined and staged in such a way that they have been able to challenge even the youngest.

Finally, also relevant is that the works’ originators have not considered children as mere receptors and commercially malleable market segments, but rather as people, with an uncorrupted view of reality, and for whom play, experience and simply living is often the only necessity. In this context, the best of Danish children’s culture can be understood as a correction to the market-controlled Disneyfication and other Americanisation of children’s culture that has been increasing since the millennium – and at the time of writing, does not appear to ever be able to be as Danish as, for example, Donald Duck. 

And, as the author and critic Carsten Jensen claims, childhood is perhaps once again on the return, because now to an increasing degree it is considered to be an incomplete version of adult life. The 20th century may well prove to be the only ‘century of the child’. Even greater reason to draw pleasure from the titles on this list, that, with one single exception, all belong there.

Children's Culture

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