The Truth About Romania's Children

(not for children's use)
For many years after the fall of communism, the association between Romania and children meant a hellhole: European champions of neonatal and infant mortality (16.7 % in 2003, down from 26.9 % in 1990), juvenile AIDS (almost 9000 cases of pediatric HIV infection, half of Europe's), and child abandonment (9000 cases yearly after 2000, or 1.8 % of newborns), squalid orphanages, child abuse (2930 cases registered in 2005), juvenile delinquency (11,400 cases in 2005, of which 2188 involving violence), addicted lacquer-sniffing waifs – a pedophile's paradise, dropouts (1.5 % and 2.4 % rates in primary and secondary schools respectively, in 2003-2004) and child slaves toiling in sweatshops and farms, others living underground and begging on the streets (around 5000 nationwide), corrupt authorities seeking bribes for illegal adoptions, child trafficking (for the benefit of childless families in the West or, according to urban legends, for use as organ donors. Almost 500 cases were identified in 2005; the most recent was revealed by The People on May 27, 2007). According to a 2004 study, 2.5% of 11-12 year-old students had taken marijuana at least once, 0.4% heroin, 0.3% ecstasy, 0.2% cocaine, and 0.1 % LSD. (More data are available at,, While the problems related to poverty can be ascribed, without a doubt, to Ceauşescu's iron-fisted brand of communism, others, such as the use of drugs or school abandonment, are comparable to similar ones in Western countries. For Romanians, though, the tragedy of these side effects of communism, which eventually turned into its nemesis, is spiced with irony: 1966 is the year of the anti-abortion decree promulgated by Ceauşescu – not for religious or ethical reasons, but because he believed that a nation thrived by numbers. Over the following two decades, thousands of would-not-be mothers were killed or maimed in illegal abortions. Twenty-three years later, in December 1989, more than 1000, most of them very young people, died in a belated children's crusade to overthrow Ceauşescu's tyranny. They were the unwanted children of the 60s and 70s, the true children of the Revolution, who had now turned against their spiritual father.

Had the system failed to brainwash them?

With a few obnoxious exceptions (when the Workers', later Communist, Party was explicitly brought up), children's literature written during the communist regime was not as harmful as one is wont to believe. I know this assertion may draw a storm of objections, so I'll use a preemptive reply: as a child, I read scores of books published in the People's (later Socialist) Republic of Romania, besides heaps from "comrade countries" like the USSR, Poland or Hungary and I never fell prey to any Marxist dream; moreover, even in retrospect, I found most of them at least as educative as Winnie-the-Pooh or The Three Musketeers. The logical riposte may be that those very books are largely to blame for my remark. Yet, either way we look at these productions (roughly half of this issue consists of works printed between 1948-1989, most of them by two publishing houses for children and teenagers, Tineretului and Ion Creangă), they follow the rules of the genre:

• the themes
are those of concern to the target reader: the "realistic" ones deal with growing up, school, or relationships with adults. Adventure books are a bridge of sorts between this category and pure fantasies. But even the fairy tales, modern fantasies and nonsense lyrics, despite their being more gratuitous and jocose, may retain a pragmatic-educational side. Many works – from The Enchanted Grove to The Children's Crusade – will blend fantasy into reality. I know, from my own experience as a teacher and father, but also from more reliable sources (e.g. D. W. Winnicott, Human Nature, II, 2), that even older schoolchildren mix reality and fantasy quite naturally, before they become able to tell them apart; how else can a dragon weighing 0.5 tons (no more, no less), equipped with mace, spear, yataghan, AK-47, all carefully listed, intervene in a perfectly normal five-grader's composition paper about a real battle described in the history book?
The question is open whether death, war, imprisonment, sexual abuse, divorce or similar traumatic events are appropriate in children's books. Although it may vary with the type of culture, the oldest answer lies in folk tales, where misfortune and ultimately death are inherent to life. Happy-ending is not the rule, although the "good guys" are expected to win at the end of the day; the heroes' moral conduct is often questionable, when morals are not downright discarded: in Prince Charming of a Tear Born, the darling of Prince Charming betrays her mother, whom he kills as a result, then January's daughter lies to her father and betrays him for the benefit of the same Prince. The Story of Păcală (one of many) looks like a series of sadistic Laurel & Hardy-like routines, in which the alleged "good guy" goes on a wild murder spree, killing scores of people, innocent or not (including his own baby, in a horrific way), not to mention the beasts, as casually as in a garish shoot'em all. Nothing can stop this serial Terminator, a possible incarnation of Death himself, and no one seems to deserve his pity – or ours. (The episode with the parson's dead body being ferried around is resumed in a comic key by Batzaria in The Death and Resurrection of Gobbles.) But this tale is old and it was published in 1892, long before socialist realism put a ban on unhappiness.

Following the arrival of communism in Romania in the wake of World War II, war and the ensuing poverty are the background of early books, providing the loophole for occasional bourgeois-lambasting. As for lashing out at Anglo-American imperialism and racism, a funny, but no less sorry, example may be found in The Black Crooner's Girl. However, it is hard to assess to what extent such poetry could have affected – or infected – a child's mind. A stock phrase, popular among authors or children's theater people, says children can't be easily fooled. Socialist-realist adult literature was blatantly tendentious (read: ridiculous), yet it inflamed the imagination of many grownups; but when the target is children, mother wit seems to prevail: e.g. in Action P. 1500 (1957), a family ("the basic cell of society") on the brink of divorce will be saved with help from the community (not the Party) – a cherished pattern in the first years of communism, one to be usually found when

• the protagonists
are children themselves. The picture of "red" literature is mild, falsely dramatic, and in fact rather black-and-white: being sloppy, lazy or late is the most serious misconduct among schoolchildren (Why Spiridon Was Late, The Group, A Detail, etc.); the culprit is promptly ridiculed, chastised, and finally helped by the "collective"; all ends well, with the diligent (eminent pioneers, of course) proudly wearing their cult objects – the red scarves. I am not aware of any Romanian replica of Pavlik Morozov who snitched on his parents to the secret police, for real or for fictional, and was killed in retaliation by his family.
The alternative to either young or mature characters is animals, which have no political color, but can be assigned socio-economic class features if needed. On the other hand, the mature heroes open the door for proletarian ideals: parents to be proud of are usually miners, tractor drivers, constructors, textile workers or some other manual laborers (The Bricklayer); all the same, somehow at odds, the young reader is constantly reminded of the importance of school and education in general (Dreamer of a Thousand Dreams, Dumpy Picks a Trade, etc.). In the same vein,

• the consequences
of what the protagonists do have an instructive or moral purpose (in Hollywood fashion), or inspire love for one's work, school, parents, homeland, etc. Can anyone deny that herein resides the noble (and practical) mission of children's literature in the largest sense? In our case, misuse and abuse ruined even the loftiest intention: Jean Piaget and A. M. Weil (Le développement chez l'enfant de l'idée de patrie et des relations avec l'étranger, in Bull. International des sciences sociales UNESCO, t. III, 1951) noticed that the idea of homeland, just like the concepts of social justice and rational, esthetic and social ideas, only acquires an adequate emotional value after the age of 12, a fact that communist propaganda either ignored or disregarded. Then again, abuse will ruin even the loftiest intention: the bathos and bombast that smothered motifs like Homeland, Mother, or Heroes From The Past in the "red" culture exposed them to demonetization for at least one generation and paved the way for a postmodern, ironic mood.
In parallel, a world apart was largely forged by ludic linguistic invention, sometimes pushing the limits of nonsense far past a limerick's (Cassian – her poems in a fictitious language are yet to be "translated", Buzea, Naum, Melinescu and others).

• Given the need for brevity
, stronger as one goes back in time from prepuberty, and complemented by an increasing need for illustration, the child's level of understanding and capacity to focus require a specific dynamics of the style, which favors quick successions of events and lively dialogues rather than reflection and lengthy descriptions. It's true, exceptions occur even in books intended for children alone – a sure recipe for much kvetching and yawning in and out of class (similar effects may be detected when the language employed involves too much looking up in the dictionary or asking others – but this is precisely what learning is about, isn't it?); yet on the whole, the rule is observed. Full-length novels for elder children, such as those by Mitru (with a historical subject – one of the fixations of Ceauşescu's regime, seeking roots and justification not only in the recent "bourgeois-landowner vs. working class" past, but also in the ancient or medieval one), Anton or Leu, evince an almost inevitable tendency to prolixity or philosophizing. Other, even longer-playing, novels published during communism, without necessarily bearing a tribute to it (such as Tudoran's Anchors Away! or Chiriţă's Cireşarii series) already require an adult's skill and patience to read.

A six-year-old child's brain has grown up to at least 90 % of its final, adult size. According to recent research (see Claudia Wallis, What Makes Teens Tick, TIME magazine, June 7, 2004), the ostensibly minor finishing touch, i.e. the shaping of the last portion of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, responsible with planning and moderation (the "area of sober second thought"), is yet to come about, but not before the age of 25 – a far cry from Piaget's findings that set the apex of cognitive development at the age of 12. In this light, it appears less surprising that, under the Royal Marriages Act of 1772, still in force, marital plans of a member of the British Royal Family under 25 can be vetoed by the monarch, or that a 1652 Romanian code of laws did not grant one full adult rights until the same age of 25.

The pubertal surge of hormones takes over the still immature brain, steering the teenager's conduct into risky, reckless acts, and the changes in the way dopamine works beg for the pursuit of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll, if not rebellion. The fuse that may spark off this explosive mixture, scientists say, is a matter of brain physiology: because of their reliance on the amygdala rather than the frontal lobe, young people's assessment of others' emotions and attitudes is very often inaccurate, with fear or concern mistaken for anger or aggression. Moreover, when teens pack together, the presence of their mates adds tons to their daring – which turns out to be dangerous both to themselves and to whoever may stay in their way. Knowing this, it comes easier to understand their heroic acts during the 1989 uprising, as well as some of their apparently irrational behavior in everyday life. An entirely different approach (Jean Piaget and Bärbel Inhelder, La Psychologie de l'enfant, relying heavily on studies by other authors) shifts the accent onto the relevancy of belonging to a specific society or even social class, suspecting that teenage "crises" are mere "social artifacts", which – according to authors like Margaret Mead (on Samoa) and Malinowski (on New Guinea) – are not to be found in conservative societies, where preteens and teens are negligible quantities.

I identified a series of leitmotifs of teenage life in present-day Romania (a society that may be defined as traditionally conservative, but submitted to a powerful change of mindsets after World War II, first with the forced industrialization under communist rule, then – after the fall of communism – with accelerated modernization bolstered by its accession to the European Union), illustrated below with examples from the supplement of the Academia Caţavencu satirical weekly, Academia de gaşcă (approx. Cool Academy), written by students from almost 40 (as of June 2007) high schools. Few are characteristic only of Romanian and, in a broader perspective, East-European – or former communist – countries:

• the founding legend
of the school: many highbrow schools were built in the second half of the 19th century, during Romania's first modernization, one of the few things from the distant past which students seem to appreciate. This tradition, along with a football or basketball win against a rival school, is a strong identifier. The legends often evoke a drained swamp, a cemetery or even a morgue upon which the school was erected, as well as the predictable resident ghost, which in one case is a horse. Sometimes the legend extends into a metaphor, as in a notorious poem by the most depressive of Romanian poets, George Bacovia, about the "graveyard of my youth". Today, depending on the harshness of the rules, students refer to their schools as a "quasi-labyrinthine Hogwarts" (C. Negruzzi, Jassy), convents or, in most cases, prisons, the all-time favorite nickname being the Bastille. Sometimes, the feeling of imprisonment induced by the strict rules governing the movement in and out of the fortress-school is lightened up by preposterous steps taken by management, such as smearing the school fence with burnt oil that ruins the clothes of anyone trying to jump it (Ovidius, Constanţa). Several factors contribute to this feeling:
• stern, ungifted, (too) old, or merely stupid (one can't be too careful with this epithet, with students lavishing it all too generously) teachers
and principals whose verbal parasites, tics and slip-ups make the stuff of umpteen gags ("I'd like to see the IT teacher stand on his head in the Gym class, and the Biology teacher do backup vocals at Music… I would be very curious to know if they would do their homework every day or crouch under their desks when they don't have a grade, or get nervous, at the blackboard, when they have to solve an equation or draw the amphibians' circulatory system" – Mihai Eminescu, Botoşani); overbearing, uneducated auxiliary personnel (the secretaries and the librarians are not exempt from criticism, but the hobbyhorses of cruel mockery are the guards and the cleaning women – perhaps a sublimation of the apron fetishism described by Krafft-Ebbing: "they always complain about our capacity to score from a distance when we throw the empty snack bags, apple cores or used tissues to the basket" – Ferdinand I, Bacău); all in all, "fun-poking, the curriculum, ignorance, bad taste, artificiality and professional frustration blend with delicious, placid mugs gorging on MTV and pulp literature" (Saint Sava, Bucharest);
• as soon as he/she has defeated the system, the first target of the truant
is a nearby pub/bar/sweetshop, an integral part of the school map; vicinity joints, although more transient than the schools they service, are as inseparable from these as a priest from his parish. Unlike in school, where few children get to buy what they want because of short breaks and long queues, here truants will be able to enjoy at length beer, Coke or coffee, depending on the popularity they are after and the size of the pocket money allowance, and indulge in their favorite pastimes: music and chatting. And what do these young people like to chat about?
• a universal topic is the useless disciplines
they are compelled to cram, of which Chemistry is a venerable queen. Mathematics, with help from generations of teachers, is an equally deserving bugaboo, but as a star subject, it is regarded with more fear and respect. "Our doctrine is to memorize as many textbooks as possible, remember as much theoretical information as we can, without any regard for practical aspects" (Ion Neculce, Bucharest); "Will I admonish my children in Latin, telling them not to stick their fingers in the wall socket? Is there a word for wall socket in Latin?" (Cervantes, Bucharest). A multitude of cheating methods and devices, including Bluetooth, are reviewed for term or ordinary test papers. On the other hand, there are subjects that must be studied for the school-leaving exams (the infamous bac) and the admission to college and university: the problem with these is the amount of money that parents are thus forced to shovel on private lessons, most of which – surprise! – are taught by the teachers from class. Does this call for an ethical debate on conflicts of interests or what? Well, it does, periodically… but has there ever been such a foolish government that will seriously try to root out alternative means of survival, antagonizing hundreds of thousands of underpaid voters?
As an anecdotal detail, an acid dispute has always raged between students following humanities courses (the minority) and those taking science classes, in which teachers are often involved ("the science student learns from the science teacher that humanities students are no good" – Gheorghe Lazăr, Bucharest);

• another field where reputation can be gauged is fashion
: an untranslatable Romanian word is fitze, or anything "posh" meant to make an impression on posers and non-posers alike, from flamboyant haircuts to useless accessories such as sunglasses worn at night, in front of the eyes or above them. The "trendy" lot will pooh-pooh the rockers' studded boots, while the black-shirted team will roast the pink-clad dorks' rut: to them, these are no more than a bunch of Messrs. Goe morphing into Messrs. Gobbles (see Contents). "The schoolyard is a pseudo-society, with VIPs, paparazzi and the crowd that is there to comment on those wearing shiny sunglasses, suggestive T-shirts and phones that help you cheat at test papers" (Michael the Brave, Bucharest). The income and education divide expressed in the clothing style or music genre may evolve into a deep contempt of politics (traditionally perceived as generating corruption and undeserved earnings: "We want to knock down the political class, with their paunches growing fat on our allowance money, which is not tax-deductible, is it?" – Iulia Hasdeu, Bucharest), on the "intellectual" side, or into the acceptance of wrongdoing, on the "business" side. The game extends over one's entire life: it's Dodgers vs. Suckers;
• another big favorite is music
, set off by the transition from Cartoon Network to MTV: the talk of the day opposes Western music (with a wide range of subdivisions) to Oriental music buffs, who listen and dance to manele – a Turkish word applied to a mongrel music performed mostly by Gypsies. The Westernizers claim that, under their unforgivingly caustic pressure, the latter have come to deny they even like manele, although in fact they still do. Their tiff points to a class division in the same way as, in the 1990s, rap and hip-hop distinguished between the "alley boys" from poor neighborhoods, on the one hand, and rockers or "depechers" (from Depeche Mode) on the other. What one can say for certain is that Rock has remained a steady favorite, although "rockers are 'bad' and usually bigheaded… mavericks who believe in their role as a hub of the universe" (Carol I, Craiova). The groovy music of the 1960s and the hip music of the 1970s are still cool in the 2000s;
• this, added to the movie
industry, computers, and electronic gadgets may be the reason why cool and dude, brand and lovemark, btw and lol, troll and lamer are part of the teenagers' basic vocabulary. All in all, it's only the crust that has changed: yesterday, it was the swinging 60s, hard-and-prog-rocking 70s, or new-romantic 80s; the day before, it was French chansonettes and neologisms; and before these, Italian opera, Greek chant, Turkish fashion or Slavonic prayers; now it's the CD/MP 3 player or iPod: "with your earphones on, you're automatically exempt from boring empty talk and moronic, useless bunk" (Elena Ghiba Birta, Arad) – a surprising snarl from the Yahoo Messenger generation.
Outside school, frequent concerns are also

• the dependence on the parents
: "No matter what you do, you run into a dead end: they are waiting for you to explain why you're late and drunk, while you're waiting for them to get out of your way to bed (Andrei Mureşanu, Dej);
• seeking ways of losing one's virginity
, with support from the mobile phone's memory bubbling with numbers of the opposite sex ("…with boys, it's a wholly different story: first, the metamorphosed creature awakens from the tipsiness brought on by the smell of a single beer, then remembers the glorious deeds, and if he's not quite sure, he takes the risk of calling his guinea pig. As soon as he learns he has become a wild macho, he pours twice as much mousse on his hair… he then goes to school, where he draws Bugs Bunnies in the art class and reads Thumbelina in the literature class…" – Silvania, Zalău);
• and, of course, the anger felt upon being asked to give up one's seat on the bus or tram, on an exhausted morning en route to school, or a dog-tired evening back from school, to some grumpy, disrespectful oldster
reminding one of a more civil era. Here, "one" may have a point: unlike in children and adults, melatonin, secreted by the pineal gland to signal darkness and prepare the body for sleep, shows up late in the day of a teenager, hence the daytime drowsiness, maliciously depicted as indolence by adults ("We're born stressed-out and live to laze" – Nicolae Bălcescu, Brăila). One of the objects of a teenager's loath is the ageless catchphrase "In my time…" ("There was 'more discipline in my time'; so what? 'His time' was the darkest in our history!" – Dinicu Golescu, Câmpulung-Muscel).
Funny, but as soon as the prefrontal cortex takes control, teenagers will be tempted to use the phrase themselves: dirty talking, tattoos, piercings and holding on to one's seat on the bus become less socially acceptable. Even formerly detested school uniforms
(not only were they compulsory before 1990, but students had to wear matriculation badges on sleeves, as part of a hard-and-fast dress code) are no longer such a bad idea either: they may be turned into identifiers to be proud of, like a country's flag or a football club's emblem (after 1989, "after rejecting the school uniform, we adopted the stars'. The corridors have changed into catwalks for the young ladies who are now undistinguishable from the lady teachers" – Gheorghe Şincai, Cluj-Napoca).

A few words must be said about the selection criteria in this anthology: the bulk of the contents overlaps with the school years (middle childhood through adolescence), while the literature for toddlers, especially where the graphics outweigh the text, is represented rather symbolically. Also, just as kidults and adultescents find some cartoons, children's stories or games amusing, the reverse may happen: although targeted at an adult audience, the novels by Ilis, Rădulescu, Cara or Simona Popescu, to cite just a few, contain long passages that may function as children's literature; this double status justified our choice. Folk tales, a rich segment of Romanian oral literature that could make up the content of a separate issue by itself, are presented mainly in the rendering of classic authors.

P.S. As this issue was getting ready for print, a Romanian movie about a young woman who decides to have an illegal abortion during the Ceauşescu regime (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, directed by Cristian Mungiu) won the Palme d'Or in Cannes.

by Adrian Solomon