I’ll start with children’s assessment. We had a group of third-grade students draft a list of who they believed were important public figures in Estonia. We used the list to make a presentation for our foreign pen-pals entitled “Famous Estonians”. Tied for first place in the children’s ranking were Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, a teenage world-champion freestyle skier, and Leelo Tungal. Clearly, Tungal is not an “ordinary” children’s author, but a symbolic figure.

Tungal’s writings deal with children and their families and span the media of common reading materials, schoolbooks (her ABC-primer characters Adam and Anna have endured for decades), song repertoires, journalism, and public performances. Although the author has written many librettos and drama pieces, she has definitely enjoyed her greatest public fame at the Estonian Song Festivals, at which song authors are called to take the stage before hundreds of thousands of cheering and clapping audience members expressing delight with an intensity uncommon for Estonians. Tungal’s lyrics have been used in pieces for both children’s and adult choirs. Thus, she belongs to all Estonians, and her works can be found in most of our homes. She can frequently be seen speaking on behalf of children and as a patron of children’s protection and family events.

However, Leelo Tungal’s name is probably associated most with children’s literature. Her latest thick collection of children’s poems is entitled Südasuvi (Midsummer), and in it the author’s pen has truly glided luxuriantly and liberally in a summery way. Naturally, she also includes poems about winter and other seasons: as a magazine editor (Tungal has worked at children’s magazines since 1973 and has edited her own publication, Hea Laps, since 1994), she knows very well that an author should write children poems about every time and topic.

Tungal’s children’s poetry is exuberant: she often finds multiple good ways to develop the same motif, and each is led to a resolution that is precise. Her thirst for rhythm and vigor in producing sound elements are irresistible. It is as if poetry is a physiological state for Tungal: her primary form of speaking.

Leelo Tungal has discussed about how she got her name: in June 1947, the year she was born, the XII Estonian Song Festival was held in Tallinn, and one of the more popular choral songs performed was “Leelo”. The word signifies Estonian folk singing in general, and Leelo Tungal can certainly be regarded as a folk bard. Still, whatever is topical in Estonian society at the moment can always be found echoing in her poems.

Tungal’s children’s poetry is upbeat: you could even say that it’s hard to find any of her children’s texts that don’t contain something funny. This aspect fascinates children. Jokes are infectious and boost courage. Jokes often arise from unexpected associations, and it’s great to re-read a story to experience a joke anew. Tungal’s stories, which are built on alliteration and shifted meaning, are not always easy to understand, but once you pick up on the joke, you want to re-read the text again and again. At the same time, the poet perennially has a smile and a candidly compassionate word for those who have had a rough time in life: a child who is better understood by his or her dog than by other people, a child who has no father to take to the school’s Father’s Day celebration, etc. Tungal’s stories often include unexpected twists. A mother and father take a break from their children and set off on a trip, but while they’re away they sadly hug the kids’ teddy bears. The narrator encourages a teacher to hit him (“Hit me, dear teacher / with your soft hand…”), but in the last stanza, it turns out that the narrator is a ball, with which the teacher hasn’t had time to play in a long while.

In Tungal’s children’s stories, she calls on the reader to notice and resolve problems: she is riveted by the theme of children whose lives lack something important, such as parental care or friendship. Nevertheless, her storytelling always carries a cheerful tone.

Just like many other very talented children’s writers, Leelo Tungal shouts out: “don’t just lock me away in the children’s room!” Luckily, her poetry collections for adults have also received favorable reviews. She has been praised for her formulaic precision and sincerity, and she is fearlessly open: her entire life, as well as contemporary cultural history and social life, have been recorded with a genuineness that is occasionally painful.

Some of Tungal’s poems have undergone odd developments since they were first penned. When she was just a schoolgirl, Tungal wrote Oma laulu ei leia ma üles
(I Cannot Find My Song), a poem that carries the dreams and yearnings of a young woman. A few years later, it was used as the lyrics for an exceptionally beautiful song written by the renowned composer Valter Ojakäär and performed gently, hauntingly by Heli Lääts – one of the most popular stage figures at that time. Over the last decade, however, the song is better known from the cover performed by the folk-metal band Metsatöll, in which it has a wild and aggressive character. In 2008, the Metsatöll version of Oma laulu ei leia ma üles became the theme song of the TV series Tuulepealne maa (Windswept Land), which deals with the Estonian nation’s hardship-filled history. A young woman’s secret thoughts were transformed into a piece in which the difficulty of finding her “own song” signifies the problems of national self-awareness, and the worry about the fragility of identity. Just as the TV show’s title conveys Estonians’ place in a windswept land, so can every twist in history force many of us to “sing another’s song”: to go along with a new regime. But perhaps that meaning similarly shows that in the somewhat downcast reflections of her younger days, Leelo Tungal struck an emotional chord in all Estonians.

Overall, a very clear boundary exists between Tungal’s poetry for children and for adults: the door to the children’s room is safely closed when the adults walk alone.

Even so, there is occasionally a sense of border violation. As a singer in a mixed choir, I’ve rehearsed for many Song Festivals Urmas Lattikas’ song Väike maa (Little Land), the lyrics of which are a slightly truncated version of Leelo Tungal’s poem See väike maa (This Little Land). The poem was published in a collection of children’s poetry, defining its genre. Among the other lines carrying the spirit of the Estonian homeland is: “where the winter sun sets anew as it rises, where the school path is lined with dark ice like glass”. During choir practices, we naturally sing phrases over and over, dozens of times, and I always strive to imagine (working in education, I admittedly have a lovely image of school paths frozen in my memory) what my fellow singers – those stern and businesslike representatives of respectable professions – are thinking and feeling about those words. The song rings out, reverent and sacred. Tungal has managed to convey a specific, very ordinary image from childhood memories which brings a wide array of people together.

Tungal’s most important work of prose –
a trilogy, the first two parts of which have been released so far: Seltsimees laps (Comrade Child) and Samet ja saepuru (Velvet and Sawdust) – is rooted in the attempt to bring childhood memories to life with exceptional vividness. Hopefully, the third part will soon be finished. At the core of the autobiographical series’ plot is the arrest of Leelo’s mother, a school director, in 1951, as part of Stalin’s ideological cleansing. The author tells the entire story from her own point of view: at the beginning of the trilogy, she is a young girl just turning four years old. When discussing the book, Tungal has emphasized the fact that 150 teachers were arrested at that time. (A larger wave of deportations had taken place in 1949, when more than 20,000 people were taken from Estonia.) Since quite a number of memoirs have been published by famous Estonian cultural and public figures (as well as by lesser-known authors), one might ask what makes Tungal’s story special.

On the literary level, Tungal is exceptional for her acute attention to detail and very graceful understanding of the possibilities offered by writing for children.

As the author herself has explained, she has attempted to write the story several times over the course of her life, and now, in her later years and possessing a wealth of life-experience, she has decided in favor of conveying memories from the mouth of a child. Some readers have expressed doubt about whether such a young child would be capable of remembering everything that happened to and around her in such great detail. However, one must take into account the fact that Tungal was an only child and spent a great deal of time in the company of adults, who frequently forgot that she was listening and consequently allowed a thing or two not meant for children’s ears to slip. One noteworthy individual was Leelo’s father, who was also a teacher and an active cultural organizer in the community. In spite of the tragic situation, he managed to think of his child’s needs: building an environment for her that was as safe as possible, encouraging her to see joy and continuance in life, and – just like the other family members – helping the future writer to mentally record and give consideration to that sad period.

For the most part, children’s memories consist of what they are told. However, many people who write for a young audience can confirm that if someone consciously delves into his or her childhood memories, then new doors will start to open, as in a gallery, causing the adult to recall specific situations, images, light, smells, sounds, surfaces, and objects his or her hands once touched. A skilled receiver can filter a rich picture of an era out of the sharp scent of a black leather jacket and the manner of speech in a foreign language, being up on the shoulders of one’s father or him riding a motorcycle, stirring Soviet songs playing from a radio, or stitching together a doll’s fabric body. Additionally, the child’s inadequate ability to interpret situations strikingly highlights the tragedy of the story: her mother is sentenced to 25 + 5 years in a prison-camp and settlement, and when the child returns from staying with relatives for a couple of weeks, she asks whether 25 + 5 years are over yet. The fear and anticipation she suffers while waiting for the return of her mother pervade Seltsimees laps, as she constantly imagines her mother’s homecoming. One especially painful scene unfolds at the circus: a place which should be entertaining, but which only ends up magnifying her uncertainty with its strange and unaccustomed sights.

The filigreed tracing of a child’s thought process imbues Tungal’s novel with universal human power: it is a story about fear and the preservation of hope. At the same time, the autobiographical work broadens opportunities for understanding the rest of the author’s bibliography: does the cheerfulness of her children’s poetry actually convey her father’s instructions on how to get by in life, to be happy and kind?

The designs of two of Tungal’s children’s poetry books feature poppies, and one of them, which was dedicated to her mother, is entitled Mooni avastamine (Discovering a Poppy). Poppies grow in abundance near Tungal’s home, and the author’s identification with the surrounding environment is clearly perceptible in her poetry. However, poppies also have a special significance in relation to war and peace: they prefer calcium-rich ground, which frequently develops as a consequence of intense warfare. Thus, the flower is also a symbol of peace and endurance. Leelo Tungal’s works, and her personality, give us hope for that.

Mare Müürsepp  (1958) is a researcher of children’s literature, a teacher and an author. She is actively involved in issues concerning child-raising and early
education, and has published textbooks and scholarly works.