“Responsible Adult,” a new exhibition at Beit Michal cultural center in Rehovot, explores the changing role of grownup figures in Israeli children’s literature throughout the decades. The exhibit presents works from beloved childhood books, ranging from the generation of illustrators that worked during the establishment of the state to contemporary artists.
According to curator Michal Paz-Klapp, a practiced editor of both the children’s literature and comic book genres, the exhibition is intended “to open a window to the values, conventions and perception of the adult’s place in the [Israeli] child’s life.”
While the majority of characters in Israeli children’s literature are children, over the years, more and more adult figures have emerged whose role, says Paz-Klapp, has shifted in parallel with changes in Israeli society.
“At the start and until the end of the 1960s, Israeli children’s literature presented adults with dignity. The role of the parents was to support and educate their children, and family values were their top priority. Parents, teachers, and other adults were presented as reliable, diligent, and responsible figures who use the exclusive authority given to them to guide and protect the child.”
Most of these conventional figures were eminently forgettable, the exceptions being “Abba Pil,” a strong and responsible cap-wearing elephant dadwho leads youngsters to kindergarten in the beloved rhyming book from 1958 by Rafael Saporta, Gan Gurim (Cub Kindergarten), illustrated by Izza Hershkovitz.
Another such character, according to Paz-Klapp, is Dod Yareah Ba Shamayim (Uncle Moon in the Sky), an avuncular pipe-smoking celestial body who keeps watch oversleeping children from on high (though the stardust smoke makes them sneeze). The character originally appeared in a 1934 book, Shirey Yeladim (Children’s Poems) by Anda Pinkerfeld Amir and has been illustrated and set to music in numerous versions since then.
Two unconventional characters from that period were 1964’s Dodi Simcha (My Uncle Simcha) by Ayin Hillel, illustrated by Ruth Zarfati, and Leah Goldberg’s 1968 Ha Mefuzar M’Kfar Azar (The Absent-Minded Guy from Kfar Azar).
Scatterbrained though they may have been, these fellows were always up for adventure – characteristics which made them, according to Paz-Klapp, “a strong symbol of Israeliness.”
As the winds of late 1960s counterculture reached Israel, adult figures in Israeli children’s literature began to change in the 1970s. Adult figures ceased to be objects of admiration and funny adults began to appear. “Not surprisingly, many of these adults were fathers, as a counter-reaction to the perfect father figure that had been presented until then.
These included Meir Shalev’s Abba Oseh Bushot (“My Father Embarrasses Me”), illustrated by Yossi Abulafia,a 1988 role-reversal tale about a serious-minded son and a dad who wears short pants to weddings, falls asleep at teacher-parent meetings, sings loudly in public, and always sleeps late.
Paz-Klapp: “A look of innocence, sloppy dress, an amusing hairstyle, a plump, unkempt body — all these and more enable the illustrators to create a warm, human association that shatters the “omnipotent” adult aura and imbue it with a welcoming, winning look.”
This tradition of adult-child heroes continued to flourishin the 2000’s: Etgar Keret’s Abba Boreah Im HaKirkas (Dad Runs Away with the Circus), illustrated by Rutu Modan, and Hannan HaGanan (Hannan the Gardener) written and illustrated by Rinat Hoffer, from 2005.
Mothers come off a bit better, as in Alona Frenkel’s evergreen Seer HaSeerim (Once Upon A Potty), originally published in 1975, where a toddler and his mother together navigate the trials and tribulations of toilet training.
This year’s exhibition at Bet Michal is a smaller, indoor version of an outdoor exhibition put on last summer in the self-styled “Children’s City” of Holon. In a 2018 interview with Calcalist, Paz-Klapp noted that the “Responsible Adults” exhibition also highlighted the stylistic changes in Israeli illustration.
“At the beginning, the common style [for children’s books] was very cartoonlike and uniform… and today it is very developed and varied with different lines and styles.”
But perhaps the most significant change in children’s’ literature stems from a shift in Israeli parenting style. “Today’s parents try more to be friends with their children,” Paz-Klapp told Calcalist.“This trend is also seen in the parental characters in the children’s books, both because of the younger writers’ experiences and perceptions of parenthood, and also because the books are aimed at a target audience with a different world view.”