Category: Children’s books

Notable Children’s Authors Unbeknownst to the Anglosphere. Part 3.

Notable Children’s Authors Unbeknownst to the Anglosphere. Part 3.

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…

Alexander Volkov

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.

Nikolai Gogol

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). 



Notable Children’s Authors Unbeknownst to the Anglosphere. Part 2.

Notable Children’s Authors Unbeknownst to the Anglosphere. Part 2.

I continue my short survey of world’s beloved children’s lit with treasures from the Old World. First up:

Sholem Aleichem

Everyone knows The Fiddler on the Roof, immortalized by the kind-eyed Tevye the milkman, his delightful handle of a family, and the songs from the musical, plaintive and festive at the same time, much like life itself. Sholem Aleichem’s genius, however, cannot be fully appreciated through just one work. This Yiddish Mark Twain, as he was once nicknamed, sings an ode to the Jewish stetl as it weathers the storms of pogroms, revolutions, and other historical cataclysms that befall Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th and the dawn of the 20th century. His laconic prose is brilliant in its simplicity, and it’s this literary honesty that seduces the reader, grownup and child alike.

Motl the Cantor’s Son. This touching story Aleichem never got to actually finish, yet it was still published, to become an instant hit, translated into many languages. Motl is a boy, quiet and sullen, yet also mischievous and always hungry, especially for fresh challah and milk. His family is not a whole lot of fun, seeing as they just lost their father, money is tight, and the older brother is a ruthless disciplinarian. Nevertheless, good hope prevails through kind neighbors, hilarious antics, crazy money-making schemes, weddings, funerals, new babies, unexpected sicknesses, and other juicy stuff of life. The readers follow Motl as half of his stetl migrates through Western Europe and finally settles in America, only to continue their adventures in the face of wholly new challenges. The new Promised Land is filled with wonders like skyscrapers, bubble gum, running water, and the spectre of the American Dream served on a plate of hot dogs. Aleichem paints for us a study of life in all of its joyful and unsavory colours as seen through the inquisitive eyes of a boy who never stops dreaming.

Tove Jansson

Yet another Swede (or, to be precise, a Swedish-speaking Finn. For more great Scandinavians please refer to Part 1 of my list). Jansson was a lesbian bohemian with an impeccable sense of humour, lover of the rugged Finnish outdoors, and a prolific illustrator. Today, her huggable marshmallow Moomins are popular the world over, their illustrations, toys, games, and other assorted merchandise putting an often-obscured Nordic country on the literary map.

The Moomins (all 7 books). Legend has it that Jansson came up with her first Moomin after quarreling with her sibling over Immanuel Kant (what a nerd…). On the toilet wall, she sketched “the ugliest creature imaginable” and inscribed it “Kant.” And thus, the first Moomin was born, heralding the advent of the whole brood of ’em: Moomintroll, Moomimamma, Moomipappa, Snork, Snufkin, Hemulens, Sniff, and other characters inhabiting the beautiful Moominvalley. But do not be deceived by their cuteness and fluffy tails. These are complex creatures who are tasked with tackling challenges like loneliness, fear, sadness, rejection, orphandom, nostalgia, and other rather grownup stuff. This is not your cookie cutter nuclear family with its predictable “aww” moments. Rather, this is an assortment of vagabonds who come together from all walks of magical life, letting the warm blanket of family love grow around them, sometimes by chance, sometimes by necessity. Beneath their cute and adventurous muzzles, the Moomins are a serious lot doing quite a lot of grown up psychological work. Jansson, distracting her young readers with all this fluffy Moomin fun, actually engages in gargantuan yet hidden labours to refine their growing souls.

Nikolai Nosov

A classic Soviet literary giant, Nosov, much like Gianni Rodari (see Part 1 for details), made sure his works are rife with allegories alluding to themes or class warfare, the morally superior proletariat, and the heartless potbellied capitalists. It’s all beneficial though – reading these books in childhood just makes one work more conscientiously in adulthood (spoken from experience).

Dunno (Neznaika). Neznaika, whose name is derived from the Russian phrase “ne znayu,” meaning “I don’t know,” is a member of the lilliput folk inhabiting Flower City. Even though the childlike citizens are tiny, the fruits and vegetables are of normal size. The folks thus develop complex agronomic techniques of growing them, each member of this interdependent ecosystem tasked with a specific role which he or she fulfills with collectivist dedication. Neznaika, as his name indicates, is a dummy, and a lazy one at that, skirting his responsibilities with ribald machismo. He’d rather crash his friends’ convertible into the Cucumber River instead of watering the tomatoes or fighting off the caterpillars. This is the classic “grasshopper-who-sang-all-summer” archetype. Neznaika crashes hot air balloons, goes on a trip to futuristic Sun City, takes a rocket ship to the corrupt capitalistic state on the Moon, gets thrown in jail for not having money to pay for his meal at a restaurant, languishes in a rat-infested basement while working poverty wages and (you guessed it!) helps organize a communist revolution. In short, through a series of funny and serious trials and tribulations, we get a sinner reformed, a productive member of society who learns the value of hard work and friendship. All good lessons to learn in life, regardless of what socio-economic model you are a fan of.

(The next and final part of this list is coming shortly).

Image: Learning Torah, Elena Flerova. 

Notable children’s authors unbeknownst to the Anglosphere: Part 1.

Notable children’s authors unbeknownst to the Anglosphere: Part 1.

It has always outraged me how readers in the English-speaking world are wickedly deprived of easy access to international literature, especially the works being translated from other languages. What a crying shame, and what injustice! The “Rest of the World” more often than not enjoys a far more comfortable literary vantage point, its reading menu deliciously diverse, while the audience in the Anglosphere is scandalously deprived (although they don’t know it so they’re not typically pissed off). Well, I know it (thank you, Eastern European upbringing!) and I am pissed off, so here is my modest David to the book industry’s behemoth of a Goliath. First, I’ll tackle the young’uns. And so, without further ado, here’s the list of some notable children’s books authors and their most dear works, which I wholeheartedly believe deserve an honourable spot in those budding minds and hearts via systematic inclusion of these literary gems into our sterile, uninspiring, colossal-waste-of-time scholastic curriculum.

1. Astrid Lindgren.

Where do I even start… Astrid Lindgren, that beloved daughter of Sweden, has given us so much more than Pippi Longstocking. I particularly recommend:

Karlsson-on-the-Roof. Karlsson is a middle-aged, potbellied, and boastful little man who lives somewhere in the vicinity of a chimney in the perfectly ordinary apartment building in Stockholm. Forgot to mention: he has a little propeller on his back which enables this Pillsbury poster boy-lookalike to fly, navigating the Scandinavian city landscape and its stucco roofs and the occasional pointy gothic cathedral. Karlsson, for all his lovably curmudgeonly ways, befriends a kiddo, a boy named Svante, a child a lot less self-confident than his pudgy new friend. The pair’s adventures, antics, and mutual Bildung ensue, as at the grand finale both emerge the kinder, stronger, more mature versions of themselves.

Mio My Son. Bo, a boy distinctly unloved by his adoptive parents, one day discovers that he is, in fact, a son of a kind and benevolent king of a magical land far, far away. In his rediscovered motherland Bo, now called Mio, has a remarkably loving and charismatic father, a beautiful white horse, a new best friend, and wonderfully hospitable subjects who treat him to snacks, hugs, and entertainment. Alas, the boy must become a man by battling the evil knight Kato who kidnaps and imprisons the kingdom’s children in his ghastly castle of fire and ice. This is a story filled to the brim with love and the inescapable necessity of sacrifice on the path to a fulfilling and meaningful existence.

2. Selma Lagerlof.

Another Swede, Selma Lagerlof was a suffragette, an anti-fascist, and the first female writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1909. Her most well-known and internationally beloved work (it’s so popular in Sweden that the main character is immortalized on a Swedish banknote) is one I heartily recommend below:

Niels and the Wild Geese. This is a tale of adventures, magic, ethics, humility, and the peculiar joys of growing up. Niels is a disobedient young rascal with no respect for his parents and a somewhat sadistic attitude to the animals on the farm where he lives. In the best folk tale traditions, Niels insults a tomte (a Swedish version of a hob, a grumpy house creature that loves to trick or punish silly boys and young maidens). Tomte shrinks him to the size of a thumb. Niels, now reverse-bullied by the suddenly giant farm animals, flees with a flock of migrating geese, and thus a journey ensues, a geographic dance across the wonderfully diverse Sweden, peppered with curious encounters with other animals, talking monuments, sad young men in lonely cities, and the king of Sweden himself. At the end, the geography lesson is learned and the sinner is reformed, while the vivid memories of Niels’ adventures still stay with me, decades later.

3. Gianni Rodari.

An Italian communist and a recipient of the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Medal for children’s literature, Rodari was a prolific and brilliant author, his writing intelligent, funny, insightful, and filled with love of all things Childhood. I would like to recommend not one, not two, but FOUR of Rodari’s works, starting with…

The Adventures of the Little Onion. Cipollino is said little onion, a fun-loving, quirky boy living an impoverished yet happy life with his assorted vegetable friends and their pompous and cruel upper-class fruit overlords; their town is plagued by oppression, inequality, and other class problems (this book was a massive in the Soviet Union – you can see why). But ideology aside, Cipollino’s adventures teach solidarity and courage against injustice in many heroic acts: there are the hilarious pranks on Count Orange, duchesses Cherries and their assorted sellout brown-nosers, the busting of the vegetable political dissidents out of prison, a bloodless revolution and the penultimate triumph of the callus-stemmed vegetariat. Cipollino is, essentially, Harry Potter, the chosen boy that dethrones a despot and his odious regime of injustice.

The Blue Arrow. What could be better than a toy store? A toy store during Christmas, of course. Alas, its adorable residents think otherwise. They long to end up in the arms of children, but not the whiny, insufferable, spoiled brats who have it all but still twist their parents’ arms for more. No, the toys yearn for the little hands of the poor children whose parents, toiling daily for that proverbial slice of bread and a drink of water, could never afford fancy toys from the city’s preeminent toy store. The solution is glaringly obvious – the toys board the Blue Arrow, an elegant little toy train, burst out of the store on one fateful and opulently snowy winter night, and venture on a peregrination across the city. They encounter kindness, heartkbreeak, loneliness, poverty, danger, and, ultimately, the pure, undistilled joy that comes with bring a miracle during the most miraculous time of the year. Read this story to the children in your life if you want to cultivate compassion, generosity, and humility.

The Cake in the Sky. One morning, ordinary citizens of an ordinary Italian town, chained to their monotonous jobs, traffic, chores and other joyless mediocrities, wake up, scratch their butts and, mid-yawn, realize, to their shock, awe, and outrage, that there’s an unandentified flying object taking up half of their boring old sky. Firefighters, policemen, and scientists are brought in, helicopters and cannons are out. But one little boy and his grandfather conduct their own investigation and are first to discover that the UFO is a delicious cake. Little by little, the grumpy city-dwellers shed their balls, chains, and facades, stripping away the suffocating burden of adulthood. What emerges? The return to innocence, steeped in laughter, hugs, ice cream, chocolate, and fruit syrup. And above all that, the pink apparition of Childhood, for whose warm embrace we all yearn.

Fairy Tales Over The Phone. Imagine yourself, a parent on a business trip, stuck in some hotel with severe-looking curtains and positively depressing wallpaper. Your daughter, far away back home in her adorable pajamas, is expecting a bedtime story which you are tasked with delivering, business trip or no business trip. Mind the fact that this is the 50s so you must do it telephonically, and inter-city calls, put through by cute girls with massive headphones covering their delicate ears are obscenely expensive. You must entertain your daughter effectively in a couple of minutes or less. Go! Gianni Rodari presents us with a precious string of such short stories, each funnier than the previous one, guaranteed to have both the teller and the recipient laugh their toes off (and then dutifully fall asleep, one on her adorable bed, the other in the designer stillness of a business suite).

Part two of my list to follow shortly. 

Image: Still from Karlsson on the Roof film (1974).