Non-fiction and informative books for children have become permanent features of the international children’s publishing industry, as well as staples in national school curriculum, and are defined by their subtle balance between fact and entertainment. Focusing primarily on the sciences, technology, manufacturing, and engineering, these texts have gone from dry textbooks, communicating complex scientific theories in the simplest way possible, to a form of amusement, where these theories are transformed into fictionalised adventures exploring ‘alien’ topics or worlds of technology.
In the ‘reconstruction’ of the Soviet publishing industry of the 1920s and 1930s, the role of informative children’s texts on science, technology, and production, was hotly debated amongst literary critics (see Putilova). Recognised as being a key area in the development of the new Soviet culture, there were debates over the ways in which knowledge of science and manufacturing could be condensed into appealing forms for children. The creation of these texts reveals the central role of the child in the establishment of the Soviet Union as a leader in science, technology and manufacturing. The appearance and wealth of these Soviet publications highlighted a pioneering role that the USSR played in the integration of children into scientific progress in the twentieth century – an area of children’s publishing that was relatively under-developed in Western nations until the 1940s and 50s. Thus, these books must be also be examined outside of the boundaries of their ideological context and taken for what they are – a superlative form of scientific education for children from the youngest ages. Educators with left-wing sympathies outside of the Soviet Union viewed them in such a way, with one commenting that Mikhail Il’in’s book for teenagers, Russia’s New Primer, ‘presents in graphic form that extreme devotion to science, technology, and machinery which agitates contemporary Russia’ (Counts, p.vi).
My contribution will examine this zeal for scientific and technological education through two texts that seek to integrate children into the factual processes of science and manufacturing, bringing their physical and metaphorical life-cycles into the life-cycle of the Soviet Union’s ‘One Factory’. I will demonstrate how industry and production is depicted as the living centre of the Soviet Union, through the creation of non-fiction and informational children’s books on industrial themes. These examples present children as already being part of the Soviet efforts of labour as ‘deti-rabotniki’, ‘little workers’, who play an integral role in industrialisation. The texts can be interpreted as efforts to create a children’s, and thus more entertaining, form of the Soviet ‘production novel’, a dominating generic presence in Soviet literature of the time. Whilst the adult’s genre of the Soviet production novel is often viewed as a prime example of the stifling dogmatism of Soviet literary and cultural production, my examination of the children’s production novel counteracts this view, presenting the genre as one of endless possibilities for creating books that entertain and educate. The focus of children’s books on visual, rather than textual, qualities, provides authors with the opportunity to circumvent ideological considerations and focus producing entertaining texts to inform children in a pioneering way.
The first example I will use is Chto my stroim? Tetrad’ s kartinkami [What are we building? An illustrated exercise-book] (Leonid Savel’ev, 1930), a ‘kniga-tetrad’ [textbook-exercise-book]’ that allows children to both read and interact with the (national) storytelling process. Placing emphasis on the ‘my [we]’ of Soviet production, the textbook positions the Soviet child as being already physically and psychologically within the ‘One Factory’ – children are encouraged to associate themselves as workers in the present, not only in the future. Significantly, the workbook element provides children with opportunities to ‘fill in the blanks’, allowing them write themselves into the plans for Soviet technological progress. The text’s illustrator, V Tambi, worked and trained within the ‘Leningrad School’ of illustrators (led by Vladimir Lebedev) and their influence is strongly felt in the illustrations of Chto my stroim? Yet Tambi was distinguished
from his contemporaries; his body of work focused on the illustration of production, manufacturing, and machines – an area that had fascinated him as a child and shaped his later career – making him a central figure in the representation of production in Soviet children’s books.
Secondly, I will examine how another text, Puteshestvie po elektrolampe [A Journey through an electrical lamp] (N. Bulatov and P. Lopatin, 1937), turns the process of manufacturing into an adventure for two Soviet children, who imagine themselves into a size from which they can explore the inside of their father’s broken lamp. The book uses photomontage and photo-realistic illustrations to superimpose cinematic-style images of the children into their miniature world of discovery, blurring the boundaries between non-fiction and fantasy. Puteshestvie po elektrolampe is visually whimsical, but informative in tone, demonstrating the inner workings of electrical items and wiring plans. However, the illustrations reveal an important subtext – by shrinking children into a size through which they can explore the inner workings of technology, they ultimately become part of the product themselves, an example of the integration of children into the life-cycle of the Soviet ‘One Factory’.
Putilova, Elena, Ocherki po istorii kritiki sovetskoi detskoi literatury: 1917-1941 (Moscow: Detskaia literatura, 1982), particularly Chapter 4, ‘Diskussiia o detskoi literature 1929-1931 gg.’
Counts, George S., ‘A Word for the American Reader’ in Mikhail Ilin, New Russia’s Primer, translated from the Russian by George S. Counts and Nucia P. Lodge (Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1931).