What is the purpose of children’s literature? Looking back to my childhood, I often think of what was read to me before dozing off in bed. Some stories integrated morality and ethics: be kind and generous to others, respect your parents, etc; some were fanciful and fantastic; while others existed solely for the purpose of shutting me up for a few minutes out of the day. But I do not recall a single book written in English that was created to portray the realities of an unjust world– the real world. My parents (like most parents) desperately strove to shield me from the unpleasantness of life, so why would they read me a children’s tale that revealed them?
Mahi Siyah Kuchulu (the Little Black Fish) is unique in this sense because it addresses adult themes such as injustice, oppression, and struggle. Written by Samad Behrangi (1939-1967), a teacher, social critic, folklorist, translator, and short story writer from Iranian Azerbaijan, the story concerns a small black fish that leaves the safety of a local stream to venture out into the world. As he discovers the vastness of the ocean, he also comes into contact with various animals that either represent the oppressed class or the oppressors. He is faced with many obstacles and threatening creatures, and ultimately sacrifices himself to save the lives of others.
Today, Mahi Siyah Kuchulu is recognized as one of the most beloved stories in Iranian children’s literature. Mentioning the name of this tale to a member of our parent’s generation conjures memories of their childhood as well as the Revolution. Though banned during Pahlavi rule due to its nature as a political allegory, the story of the Little Black Fish became an important revolutionary tool. Written on the eve of open armed struggle in Iran (The first guerrilla activities started in 1971), the story symbolized the lives of young revolutionaries killed by the ancien regime. In one of the most famous lines from the story, the little black fish addresses the issue of resistance in the face of death. “Death could come upon me very easily now. But as long as I’m able to live, I shouldn’t go out to meet death. Of course, if someday I should be forced to face death— as I shall— it doesn’t matter. What does matter is the influence that my life or death will have on the lives of others.” This line resonated strongly with many revolutionaries who believed they were sacrificing their lives for the emancipation of the oppressed.
As a young schoolteacher from a humble background, Behrangi worked among children in rural Iranian Azerbaijan and had come to identify with their suffering and despair. His short stories were written in defense of social justice. He believed that children’s literature should inform children of the real lives of the poor and their struggles against hardship. It was also meant to confront authoritarianism wherever it existed:
“It is no longer the time for limiting children`s literature to the arid and authoritarian advice and instructions, such as ‘Wash your hands and feet and body’, ‘Obey Mum and Dad and the elders’, ‘Don`t make noise in front of a guest’, ‘Wake up early in the morning’, ‘Smile at people in order to be loved’, ‘Help the poor as the Charities tell you’ etc., the result of all of which is the child`s being kept unaware of the serious and important problems of her/his life. Shouldn`t we tell the child that in your country there are boys and girls who have never seen a piece of meat on their plates? Shouldn`t we tell the child that more than half of the world`s population are hungry, and why they are hungry, and how hunger could be diminished? Shouldn`t we give the child a true and logical understanding of the history and development of human societies?. The child must know how hard her/his father works to bring food to the family! The child must know how her/his older brother struggles and is drowned under the hardships of his life! That other child also must know how her/his father has become rich through aiding the survival of this dark and suffocating plight!”
The Little Black Fish challenged the notions of traditional children’s literature by addressing themes of revolution, justice, and oppression. To this day, I still have not encountered any other children’s book that has covered such adult concepts. For this reason, it is still loved and read to children all around the world.
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