Carla Plieth is a current MPhil student at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Research in Children’s Literature. She comes from a background of English and German literatures and linguistics, and is very happy to have the chance to devote her time exclusively to children’s literature.
Children’s literature has always had an auditory element to it for me. My parents read to my sister and me every evening from when we were very young. We would lay in bed, enraptured by the spoken words our parents could make out of the printed ones on the page. Even though we would have loved it, our parents couldn’t read to us all day long. We also weren’t allowed to watch much TV, so we were given records, cassettes, and CDs to listen to. Some included songs and short stories, some were fairy tales, but mostly we listened to what is known as “Hörspiele” in my home country Germany: acoustic, dramatised recordings including spoken words, music, and sound effects. They are different from audio books as they use several speakers who perform a dialogue, rather than purely read a novel; they act it out, just not visually. Initially produced to be aired on the radio, thus the English term ‘radio drama’, at least in Germany these recordings have long left the radio to be distributed in physical formats such as records, cassettes, CDs or mp3s. Therefore, ‘audio drama’ is the term I have come to prefer to us to talk about the medium that influenced my own childhood literature so extensively.
When I started the Master’s programme at Cambridge, I knew that children’s literature differs from country to country, from culture to culture, and that it means something different to each and every child (and adult). However, I was unaware that the so-called audio culture I grew up in was unique to German-speaking culture, that there weren’t supermarket aisles full of CDs and cassette tapes with colourful pictures and often clichéd, not seldom problematic, but in their own right always entertaining, stories. I remember my parents often letting my sister and me browse that aisle in our local supermarket while they did the shopping. Only for special occasions such as vacations, holidays, and birthdays did we usually get new episodes, but the library was our friend, and had an array of episodes to borrow. Oh, the disappointment when the only episodes available there were ones we already knew! Although we didn’t have a cool cassette box featuring our favourite characters to collect and store out tapes in, we probably listened to approximately 100 different stories during our childhood. Nowadays, many audio drama series are only a click away on Spotify, YouTube, and audible, while my peers and I had to endure scratched CDs, tape jams, and trying to figure out which chapter we had ended with last time.
Cassette box featuring popular children’s audio drama character Bibi Blocksberg Image credit: images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/I/71gl1Cfn-3L._SL1000_
Children’s audio dramas have a long tradition in German-speaking culture and, like all of literature, are subject to socio-cultural changes and developments. Although there are some series aimed at adults, the majority of popular German audio drama series are aimed at children: original audio dramas such as Bibi Blocksberg, Bibi & Tina or Benjamin Blümchen, which are directly created and designed as audio dramas, and adaptations from book series such as TKKG, Die dress ??? (from the American series The Three Investigators) and Fünf Freunde (adapted from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five). All of them have shaped generations of children, becoming part of popular culture in German-speaking countries. Growing up, no children’s birthday was complete without a Benjamin Blümchen pie, there were serious discussions about whether TKKG, Fünf Freunde or Die dress ??? was the best audio drama crime series, and there was always a group of children playing horse-riding in the fashion of Bibi & Tina on the playground at school.
Elephant Benjamin Blümchen and his pie, Image credit: http://www.coppenrath-wiese.de/images/coppenrath-wiese-kinder-benjaminbluemchen-h.png
For many of my peers who didn’t read much, audio dramas were among the most important media of children’s literature (besides TV and film) they had access to and consumed. Oftentimes, the audio drama series are part of multimedia, with an abundance of merchandise being sold from toys to clothes and even food as well as film and stage adaptations, magazines, and games contributing to and making money out of the popularity of the series and characters. Usually, the audio drama series were and are the most popular, even when TV adaptations exsist or the series are book adaptations to begin with. Starting in 1978, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series was adapted as an audio drama series with new episodes being published until present day. The long-lasting popularity of the audio dramas resulted in Enid Blyton and her stories still being well-known in Germany (although once Blyton’s original novels were adapted, new episodes were directly written for audio drama production). Between 2012 and 2018, five successful Famous Five films were released in Germany as well as four St. Clare adaptations (known as Hanni & Nanni in German) between 2010 and 2017, all highly Germanised.
German trailer for the first of the recent Famous Fiveadaptations (2012) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-WaULF0gL2w
Despite, or rather because of, the various series’ and characters’ popularity and commercial success since their appearance in the 1970s and 80s, they are often considered non-valuable and dumbing-down for children by parents, teachers, and critics. Nevertheless, the series appeal to many children, and it’s almost impossible to imagine German popular culture without them. Interestingly, while the series centre around child protagonists – or in the case of Benjamin Blümchen, a highly anthropomorphic elephant – and are aimed at a young audience, many series are no longer primarily consumed by children. Many adults (still) listen to the children’s audio drama series, bid large sums of money on old, rare cassette tapes, or simply put on an episode before getting off to sleep. But what is it that makes these series so appealing that people continue to consume them way into adulthood, collect them like comic books, and celebrate the characters as their childhood heroes like others celebrate Harry Potter or Pippi Longstocking?
While there are adults that still re-read their favourite children’s books or watch movies they enjoyed as children, I believe that the nostalgia experienced and expressed is even more prominent in the consumption of audio dramas. Usually, individual audio dramas are listened to by their audience much more often than a book is re-read or a film re-watched. I remember one friend who used to listen to a single episode of her favourite audio drama series every night for months on end, finding stability in the well-known story and characters. Some of my friends in their 20s still listen to the audio dramas before going to bed, to relax and calm down after a long day as listening to the audio dramas usually doesn’t take much effort due to them not being challenging in either form or content.
‘Nostalgia box’ of the German Famous Fiveaudio drama adaptation containing the 21 episodes based on Blyton’s original stories with original illustrations from the 1970s and 80s, image credit: //images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/I/91-9Q8UwVvL._SL1500_.jpg
In contrast to many children’s texts that are multimodal, e.g. picture books or films, audio dramas are unimodal. Thus, only one sense, the auditory sense, is needed to experience them. It’s difficult to do anything else when reading a book as both one’s hands and eyes are already occupied with holding and reading it. Listening to an audio drama as a child, however, gave me the opportunity to play simultaneously, to draw or keep me entertained on a long car ride. And audio dramas are, if in most cases certainly not complex or sophisticated, entertaining: the various speakers engaging in a dialogue make the stories easy to listen to, the sound effects and music bring a dynamic to them that is often missing from audio books. I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to my array of audio dramas but coming back to them as an adult, I soon realised how much I indeed still remembered, not precisely complete plots but rather individual lines of dialogues, intros, jingles, and certain speaker’s play with voice and intonation. They certainly evoked a feeling of nostalgia, but also reminded me of how sexist, racist, xenophobic, and overall problematic some of them really were, how flat and predictable the dialogue was, and how obviously didactic some series wanted to be.
I believe it not only interesting but also necessary to pay critical attention to audio dramas for children, e.g. with regards to media theory or reader-response theory. Similar to the way the interplay of visual and verbal text in picture books is analysed, how dialogue, narrator’s comments, music and sound effects work together in audio dramas also lends itself to analysis. Some German media and children’s literature scholars have paid attention to audio dramas for children, applied concepts from e.g. narratology to audio dramas, and tried to define and analyse the genre, yet secondary literature is still scarce, especially in comparison to the extent of children’s audio drama’s influence in German (popular) culture. Critical analyses of children’s audio dramas in English are even rarer, if non-existent. I’ve tasted blood now and hope I’ll be discovering and writing even more about audio dramas for children, also in cultures other than the German-speaking one.