As I am typing out these words (on a touchscreen keyboard, no less! Woe betide all couch potato writers too lazy to replace their iPad keyboard batteries), my thoughts frantically scatter over the numerous giants of children’s literary thought that deserve opulent praise and thorough study. That’s Michael Ende and his Jim Button stories; that’s Croatia’s Ivana Brlic Mazuranic and the Brave Adventures of Hlapic the Aprentice; that’s Bozena Nemcova and her Grandmother or the deliciously enchanting Three Nuts for Cinderella. These are all masterpieces in their own right, bedazzled with awards, commemorative stamps, monuments, and feature films produced in their honour.
I’d like, however, to allot the remaining two slots on my list to the proverbial dark horses: one, a Soviet “variation on the theme of” to L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The other is a fantasy classic that, in my opinion, asks to be part of the children’s literary curriculum.
And so, without further ado…
Much like Tolstoy drawing oodles of inspiration for his endearing Buratino from Collodi’s Pinocchio, Volkov, a Soviet novelist and mathematician, embarked upon a loose translation of Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. In Volkov’s version Dorothy is called Ellie, Toto can talk (when in Oz), and the general themes are, in accordance with the canonicity of Soviet children’s literature, profusely steeped in the narrative of class struggle. It’s not just good versus bad magic that lock in a thrilling duel – it’s the working class fighting for dear life against the feudalistic overlords. In short, things are serious and there is a lot at stake. Volkov’s tribute to Baum likely didn’t incur any questions under copyright law (for there is no such thing on that, other side of the Berlin Wall), but his work was prolific, with the entire series dedicated to the lore of Oz. There’s one gem in those series, a dark sequel to Dorothy’s/Elle’s first brush with the magical realm.
– Urfin Joos and His Wooden Soldiers. After Elle returns home, the Emerald City essentially becomes a republic, a shining beacon of participatory democracy stewarded by none other than Scarecrow himself. Alas, trouble starts brewing as a misanthropic carpenter with a penchant for black magic Urfin Joos accidentally stumbles upon a mysterious weed that takes over his humble garden. Frustrated, Urfin burns the infernal parasite, only to discover by accident that its ashes can breathe life into inanimate objects. A lone wolf archetype, Urfin pours his hate into chiseling out a wooden army and bringing it to life with his accidental gift. Afterwards, all hell is unleashed as, emboldened with his newfound power, Urfin besieges Oz, imprisons Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman, and establishes a classical dictatorship. It’s up to our old friend in Kansas (with reinforcements from Toto, and her uncle, the jocular sailor Charlie Black), to restore justice to Oz. All this makes for an intense little book, as dark as it is inspiring, with every chapter an act of incredible bravery.
– Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka. Yes, I am perfectly aware these were not originally intended as children’s books, but millions of kids do read them at school, myself being one of them, and I found the experience to be thoroughly enjoyable. This is a gem of nineteenth-century fantasy and horror, casually primeval, peppered with Rabelaisean humour and scenes of country life in its gastronomic and carnival glory. There’s borsch and pierogies and vodka galore. There’s dancing and singing and farting in the haystack. There are also witches, werewolves, mermaids, forest nymphs, imps, devils, vampires and zombies and, above it all, the eternal wisdom of folklore. In Gogol’s universe, the banality of daily chores and life’s toil and drudgery is so organically intertwined with the pagan magic of the full moon, that worrying about the opulence of your wheatfield is on par with concerns that your wife, bless her heaving bosom, might be a witch. The folk life respects no division between the real and the magical. The folk life thurstily drinks up the ordinary and the uncanny, for the scepticism of the enlightened curmudgeons is alien to the wide generosity of the folk soul. I thought this in the fifth grade when I first read some of the stories from Evenings (namely The Night Before Christmas, St John’s Eve and May Night), and I still think this now, many years later. There was something fundamentally precious in reading about magic in the refrshingly non-saccharine way as opposed to most books tailored to the young’uns. There was something hopeful and extremely powerful, grounding that Other world in a tight embrace with the matter-of-fact world of hard-working adults. Gogol, that tireless student of human nature, winked at you from the pages of his book, leaving you (if you were lucky enough to get exposed to his writing at a young age) perpetually curious, always hopeful, eternally on the lookout for the juicy syncopation of magic amid life’s measured andante.
Image: a still from Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka film (entitled The Night Before Christmas).