Children's literature in Iran: From tradition to modernism

The children's literature in Iran has a very old history which dates back to more than 3000 years ago, when the first Persian families narrated rich oral literature.

Including lullabies, folktales, rhythmic fables, generation by generation.
Recently a lot of clay exercise tablets have been found as an evidence that used to be educated by teachers and they would write their exercises on these tablets in 1500 to 2000 B.C. Also in addition to children's oral literature, the children enjoyed from written stories which dated back to the Sasanides period. This claim was proved when a Pahlavi manuscript of "Asurik Tree" (the story of palm date and the goat) was found about 2000 years ago.

The extensive research on the history has proved that although there are a lot of similarities between the historical patterns in the west and the east, during the middle ages, children's literature in Iran is different in certain aspects, inter alias, one can refer to the very progressive views of the Iranian philosophers toward children and the concept of childhood in the Islamic period.

Then we reach the Islamic era when the children were educated in traditional schools which were called Maktabkhaneh. In these schools children learned some parts of the holly book, Quran. Modern educational system which was inspired by western countries was established in Iran in the middle of 19th century (constitutional era), but the turning point occurs in the late 19th century and early 20th century, when new educational concepts entered the scene by those Iranian intellectuals who were educated in western countries and thus the number of modern schools gradually intensified.

In the beginning of 1920 only about 5 percent of population were literate.
At that time the most important task was finding new ways to increase the number of literate children. Children in new educational system needed modern textbooks. The pioneer educators tried to contribute in preparing new textbooks which could answer to the special needs of children.

Finally, the modern children's literature started about 1930, when several pioneer writers and poets wrote stories and poems for children and a lot of children's books from western countries were translated and published. In spite of these activities, not only the rate of illiteracy among children was high, but also the Iranian children hadn't enough books yet.

By 1960s, with the development of modernism, everything had been changed. The reform which started at this time extended to the educational system. A group of recruit soldiers were sent to remote villages and more than half of the children became literate. By establishing the first institutions for children's literature, the situation of children's literature in Iran changed. Children's Book Council of Iran (CBCI) the first non-governmental organization and Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults, founded and supported by queen Farah, both were established with the aim of improving children's literature in Iran and encouragement of reading among children and young adults in 1963 and 1965. Children Book Council of Iran by holding sessions or seminars with the participating of children's literature experts, arranging children's books exhibition for encouraging parents and children to read, reviewing the children's books and training librarians for schools, had a significant role in promoting children's literature and improvement of the quality as well as the quantity of children's books.

Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults by establishing a lot of children's libraries in most of cities and sending mobile libraries to small villages had a very important role in motivating children to read. The Institute, by supporting and encouraging young writers and illustrators, could publish a lot of quality children's books which were accessible to the children in deprived provinces through its libraries.

After the Islamic revolution in 1979, the fundamentalists started
changing the so-called western cultural structure. They tried to
find a new interpretation of children's literature compatible with the revolutionary values. Hence, they highly supported the works of children writers inspired by Islamic ideological values. This policy continued also during the Iraq-Iran war, when the government needed the young generation's support for the war. The Islamic government tried to control, not only the educational system to limit teachers and librarians to textbooks and to govern a very hard censorship on school libraries, but also presided over the "Institute for the intellectual development of children and young adults" which led to expulsion of many librarians from the Institute's children libraries and cleansing the libraries from books which were evaluated as "harmful books".

After the war, in 1990s, a more realistic group in the governmental institutes familiar with international attitudes, started to consider children's literature without focusing on ideological values. At this time a group of independent writers who had been isolated during these years, found more opportunities to be active and create literature for children. The young generation and women started a new movement to demand their rights. For responding to the special needs of different groups of the society, a lot of NGOs were formed. Some of these NGOs are the organizations which are related to children's literature and encouraging children and their families to read. During this time many young people, women in particular joined to the children's book council of Iran, for encouraging reading in schools and families. A lot of young researcher on different subjects has joined to The Encyclopedia for Young people which have been started as an extensive and national wide net project since 1978.

In past decades, the independent writers and young talented illustrators have published quality books and have tried to be a voice in international scene. Among these creators we can refer to some of our author candidates who have been nominated for Hans Christian Andersen Hooshang Moradi Kermani 1992, Mohammad RezaYousefi 2000 and the last one M. H. Mohammadi the candidate of 2006 and those young illustrators who have received appreciation from Bratislava and Bolognia book fair.

So far, this movement hasn't been successful in changing the situation in the way that Iranian children's literature could flourish. The main obstacle on the way is the conservative and bureaucratic structure of the Iranian educational system. The educational system is an authoritarian one. No innovative method has any place in this system. The school libraries are just small warehouses of books, and most of the books in these libraries are selected by a special institute in the affiliated educational system. The structure of educational system doesn't invite the students to cooperate actively. The children are limited just to their text books. In this way the schools which could be the very good costumer for the quality children's books actually don't buy books and the market is faced with deep depression and stagnation a very difficult situation. Only the publishers who are supported by the government can survive at all.

Recently, the societal and cultural needs in Iran have motivated the new generation of experts in children's literature to focus on theoretical issues. Thus, the process of considering children's literature as an expertise started and historical studies were considered as a basic requirement for expanding a developing children's literature in Iran. As a result of these attempts a handful of researches have been conducted.
Perhaps the most important research done during recent years is the project on "The History of Children's Literature in Iran."

This project is undertaken by The Institute for Research on the History of Children's Literature in Iran (IRHCLI). The primary mission of the Children's Literature Research Project was to identify, find, access and analyze historical documents related to children's literature and publish them in a multi-volume series titled "The History of Children's Literature in Iran". The Institute has already published seven volumes and the project will extend to ten volumes.

The HCLI project begins with oral literature and children's reading material in ancient times followed by the Islamic period reading material, the appearance of the first printed children's books in the mid-nineteenth century and the development of children's literature up to the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

The history of children's literature is not a historical report of the development of children's literature in Iran. It is an analytical study that not only surveys the changes in children's status, but also shows the evolution of the educational system that helped children's literature emerge. The issues the HCLI has focused on include: When did Iranian society start considering children as different from adults; how have thinkers defined the child and its special needs; when did children's literature begin; and in which historical period were the first books produced?

Research on pre-Islamic and Islamic works makes it clear that there are very few texts addressed directly to children. However, many passages can be found in general literary works that are written for children and are clearly addressed to the young reader. This has been discussed extensively in the first two volumes of the HCLI.

The turning point occurs in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, when the appearance of new educational concepts, the continuity of oral literature and folklore, development of a more simple Persian prose, the increasing number of translations from the West, the start of the printing industry in Iran, establishment of new schools, the study of child psychology, and the rise of pioneer personalities as early publishers of books for children transformed Iranian children's literature. The project will conclude with an examination of the developments in children's literature during the 60s and 70s when Iranian children's literature flourished.

The historical research and theoretical discussions on children's literature have created new perspective for academic research. A new generation of scholars who have taken children's literature seriously and considered it as a scientific and academic subject, have started to do research on different aspects of children's literature. As a result of these attempts the new criteria and standards for research works are forming which would develop the academic works in Iran.