Aidi Vallik: What can you say about Ann?
Aidi Vallik, author of several collections of poetry, has talked a few times about how she came to write books for young people.
As a teacher of literature at the Haapsalu Wiedemann Gymnasium, she has often had to face the problem of today’s children not wanting to read books any more. This young curious teacher then began asking her children all sorts of questions, trying to find out what kind of book they would like to read. And she learned that the book must speak about the children themselves, describe relationships between them: an obligatory love story, some sex, rows with parents and friends, a tragic incident. On the basis of these pieces of advice, Vallik wrote her first book “How are you, Ann?” (“Kuidas elad, Ann?”). The author later half-jokingly admitted that she was not in the least surprised by the success the book enjoyed, as it was written precisely in accordance with her students’ instructions!
The story is thus a construction: but so what? Such a sensitive genre as literature for young adults requires that the author clearly keep in mind her potential readers. Of course, other factors besides construction are essential. For example an ability to notice and understand the world of teenagers, an ability to make friends with a young reader, and last, but certainly not least, writing skills. It should be remembered that the first Ann book was not Vallik’s debut, as she had been writing poetry for a decade.
What furthered “Ann's” popularity was the literary situation at the turn of the millennium. On the one hand, a new generation of authors emerged who perhaps only a few years ago could have been the readers of the “Ann” stories. Unfortunately, most of them did not write anything that would have been of interest to young adults. Or if anyone did, his or her book failed to attract any attention. A few years ago, for instance, a lot was said about Hiram’s trendy book with silver covers, “Mõru maik” (Bitter Taste) – a book about relationships set in an English-language environment in an anonymous big city. Many young people, alas, simply did not find it amongst so much variety in the bookshops.
At the same time, the tradition of more simple prose in the Estonian language designated for younger readers had practically died out in the literature of the 1990s. In the past, promising authors of novels for young adults published their first literary efforts in the magazine Noorus (Youth). The magazine has now folded. However, the need for this kind of literature has obviously survived, and thus the Estonian Literature Information Centre, together with the publishing house “Tänapäev”, announced a competition of stories for the young. “How are you, Ann?” won and was published in spring 2001.
After that, the author started getting letters from enthusiastic readers, demanding a sequel. A year later, “Mis teha, Ann?” (“What now, Ann?”) was published.
These books are, in a sense, poles apart. The first book mainly tackled the relations between mother and daughter. The teenage Ann (a thoroughly Estonian name, by the way!) finds her mother’s diary, where she discovers that the younger days of her strict mother had been quite stormy: filled with cheap alcohol, a bohemian lifestyle and casual sexual encounters. Ann learns that the man she has always thought of as her father is in fact not her father. Unable to cope with the shock, she runs away from home. Together with a few friends, she settles in an empty cottage near the summer resort of Võsu, where they decide to live a “full” life that naturally would end in disaster if Ann’s mother didn’t come to the rescue.
The second book, in contrast, tells about the relations between father and daughter. The attention is once again focused on Ann, who meets her first true love. But the book also tells the story of her stepfather. The reader will inevitably compare Ann’s father, whose childhood and younger years were spent at an orphanage, with Ann's new boyfriend Gregor, who also comes from an orphanage. The two men, who have grown up without parents in a similar environment, form a sharp contrast: Ann’s father managed to escape from his difficult situation and to create a cosy home for his family, whereas Gregor turns out to be a crook and a drug dealer who cheats his trusting friend out of large sums of money. Incidentally, this is a true story that happened in Estonia – the son of a wealthy father squandering enormous amounts of money with the help of his dubious friends.
Both of the Ann stories have rather simple constructions and predictably happy endings. One might of course wonder, a bit sceptically, how so many things could happen to an ordinary little girl in Estonia? The author’s position here is immensely sympathetic. Firstly, unlike a great deal of literature for young adults, Vallik has managed to retain her ability to also present parents sympathetically. She does not accentuate her characters at the expense of their parents. In her books the parents are not totally bad and the long-suffering children are not perfect, nor perfectly misunderstood. Aidi Vallik claimed in an interview that one of her aims was to bring children spiritually closer to their parents. The passages describing the young days of Ann’s mother and father certainly are some of the best in both books.
Still, the main character should on no account be underestimated, especially since many young readers identify themselves with her. In many ways, Ann is a typical Estonian girl. She is pretty, gets on reasonably well at school, comes home in the evening at the promised time, but also does crazy things behind her parent’s back. Ann’s parents let her do all these things. The author stresses that parents shouldn't interfere. What’s meant to happen will happen anyway and each person must learn to make his or her own decisions. Help should be offered in really serious situations, and the trick is to recognise those situations.
Judging by her books, Aidi Vallik must be a wonderful teacher. She has indeed said that teaching is a tradition in her family, a tradition common in Estonian literature for children and young adults: many excellent writers for children have been connected in one way or another with the teaching profession. Schoolteachers and pastors in Estonia have always been keen to tend the garden where new generations of readers grow. Although critics have not always been positive about their efforts, and big national awards are scarce, in a situation where literature has to wage a seemingly hopeless battle with the mass media, such a teacher, in the context of a small culture, can have a greater impact than three prominent award-winners put together. It’s quite simple – those who have read the Ann stories will start looking for more. Perhaps at some point they will want something more demanding. And then they might turn to the books of Juhan Viiding, Mihkel Mutt, Mati Unt, Viivi Luik, Tõnu Õnnepalu, Mehis Heinsaar, Ervin Õunapuu.