The Problem Novel in Russia?

By Kelly Herold

The problem novel–stories with a “problem” (poverty, racism, gang warfare, sexual identity) at their core–is central to “Western” children’s and Young Adult literary traditions.  From The Catcher in the Rye and Seventeenth Summer to The Chocolate WarThe Outsiders, and Speak, children in the West have read stories in which children and teens confront issues and problems similar to or different from those in their own lives.  Sometimes these problems are “solved” (much more likely in the American tradition) and sometimes they are not (Britain, Scandinavia, Germany), but the problem novel remains the center of Western children’s and especially Young Adult literature.

But not in Russia.  And publisher Julia Zagachin (Rozovyi Zhiraf publishing house)* discusses why she is now publishing translations of Western problem novels as part of a long discussion at Snob.ru.   The discussion begins with this paragraph:

Юлия Загачин давно рассказывала, что хочет издавать жесткие и правдивые книжки для детей и подростков. О настоящей жизни, которой живут наши дети в школе, в городе и в семье — о дедовщине, о коррумпированных сообществах, о тяжело больных братьях и сестрах. Скорее всего, без «хэппи-энда», но с реальными проблемами.

The discussion that follows is lively and demonstrates some of the opposition to the problem novel in Russia.  One commenter writes, for example, “Хотите отнять у детей последнее – надежду и хэппи энд?…ого вы хотите вырастить? Зачерствевшие души без веры и надежды, которые не будут плакать над птичкой, потом над кошкой а потом над человеком?”

It’s a fascinating discussion about the role of books for children and young adults, so I hope you’ll head on over and read it all.
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*I do find it ethically unusual that a major magazine would “print” a statement from a publisher who is discussing soon-to-be published books.  What Zagachin writes and the discussion that ensues, however, is pertinent and very interesting.

Reading Children´s Books in Russia Today

By Kelly Herold
  • Books for Children make up 8-10 percent of Russia’s book market
  • 1 in 5 publishing houses in Russia focus on children’s books
  • Books for preschoolers are most popular

Sorokin also writes that there is a lack of “new names” in the Russian market, especially when it comes to realistic, problem literature and poetry for school-aged children and teens.   In the article, he also discusses non-fiction and comics,  as well as printing costs and location (China) for Russian children’s books.  All in all, an interesting article.

Review: Irena Brežná. Die beste aller Welten. Berlin: Edition Ebersbach, 2008.

Sozialistisches Lebensgefühl: Aus dem Genre der Tragödie [1]

Irena Brežná. Die beste aller Welten. Berlin: Edition Ebersbach, 2008.

Der Roman Die beste aller Welten wurde von der slowakisch-schweizerischen Autorin Irena Brežná geschrieben und bezieht sich auf die 1950er und 1960er Jahre in der Tschechoslowakei. Die Stimme des Mädchens kommt aus jenem Abschnitt der Geschichte Europas, wo im östlichen Teil des Kontinents der offizielle Anspruch auf den Aufbau einer sozialistischen und daher gerechteren – Gesellschaft erhoben wurde als im Westen. Es spricht ein von ihr erschaffener Mensch.

 

Anhand von Brežnás Roman kann man zuverlässig die „pädagogische Herangehensweise“ der sowjetischen Ideologie studieren, ihre Logik und Inhalte sowie das ganze Weltbild, das sie im Kopf der „neuen Menschen“ entstehen lassen wollte. Dieses sozialistische Weltbild erkunden wir mit Hilfe eines Kindes, dessen Umgang mit der Welt der Erwachsenen vor allem aus Neugier besteht und das – wie viele Kinder – eine besondere Begabung für das Nachdenken über Träume hat. Wer, wenn nicht ein Kind, kann sich am besten mit einem utopischen Entwurf auseinandersetzen?

 

Die Wahrheit des kindlichen Bewusstseins ist die Methode bzw. das Instrument dieser literarischen Studie darüber, wie sich der Sozialismus „anfühlte“. Wir folgen der aufrichtigen Stimme des Mädchens, seinen kindlichen Auffassungen und direkten, furchtlosen Fragen an die Welt der Erwachsenen. Es deckt den leidenschaftlich ideologiegetränkten Heroismus des sowjetischen Lebens auf und steckt seinen mythischen Rahmen ab. Dieser Mythos erzählt von der Tragödie und ihren Helden, denn er erzählt von Kampf, Revolution und Krieg – und selbstloser Aufopferung. Doch das Mädchen liebt diesen Mythos und vertraut ihm, es fühlt sich darin geborgen – viel mehr als in der eigenen Familie. Ihre Gedankenwelt zeugt von einer eigenartigen Symbiose mit jenen utopischen Visionen, mit denen sie tagtäglich konfrontiert wird. Sie übernimmt den humanistischen Impetus der herrschenden Idee. Sie vertraut dem Versprechen, dass der Kampf und seine Opfer eine gerechtere und somit glücklichere Welt näher rücken lassen und strebt solidarisch mit dem Mythos inbrünstig dieses bessere Leben an. Doch den verschiedensten Formen der Gewalt, die im Namen einer besseren Welt immer wieder neue Opfer sucht, stehen kindliche Neugier und Lebenslust gegenüber. Das Mädchen lernt, dass man mutig sein soll, und es zeigt seinen Mut, indem es immer wieder neue Fragen stellt.

 

Brežná zeichnet gekonnt die kindliche Lebenslust und die neugierige Leidenschaft für die Freiheit, mit denen sich das Mädchen in der sozialistischen Welt mit ihren tragischen Widersprüchen auseinandersetzt. Aber auf vielen Seiten des Buches spricht auch ein politisch völlig unberührter Mensch, ein gewöhnliches Kind mit allen seinen typischen Sorgen und Freuden. Das gab es in der sozialistischen Welt auch.

 

Review by Anna Schor-Tschudnowskaja (Sigmund Freud University, Vienna, Austria);  Edited by Larissa Rudova, with the author’s permission


 

[1]A full version of this review was published in Europäische Rundschau 3 (2009): 99-104.

Review: Others. Other. Otherwise: Ludmila Ulitskaia’s Children’s Book Series

Others. Other. Otherwise: Ludmila Ulitskaia’s Children’s Book Series (1)

Ludmila Ulitskaia began publishing her book series for children–Other, Others, Otherwise–in 2006 to promote understanding of and tolerance towards other people and cultures. A collaborative project, Other, Others, Otherwise [Другой, другие, о других] is sponsored by the Institute of Tolerance, founded in 2003, and two major Russian publishing houses, Eksmo and Rudomino. Twenty books, each written by an author invited by Ulitskaia herself, will complete the series, which is intended for readers between 11 and 15 years of age.

To date, Eksmo has published twelve books:

Вера Тименчик. Семья у нас и у других (2006);
Анастасия Гостева. Большой взрыв черепахи (2006);
Раиса Кирсанова. Путешествие по чужим столам (2006);
Раиса Кирсанова. Ленты, кружева, ботинки (2006);
Арина Бутовская. О дохлой кошке и живых котятах (2008);
Лариса Винник. Я не виноват (2008);
Андрей Усачев. Всеобщая декларация цчеловека в пересказе для детей и взрослых (2008);
Анастасия Гостева. Дух дома дома? (2008);
Наталья Борисова. Про про профессии (2008);
Константин Скрипкин. ВИЧ и СПИД. Что с этим делать? (2009);
Антон Березин. История с деньгами, или детям до 16 путешествовать по времени разрешается (2010);
Ирина Ясина. Человек с человеческими возможностями (2010).

 

Ulitskaia’s series takes young readers away from the world of high fantasy that dominates contemporary Russian children’s literature back to history and real life. Central to her agenda are such social issues as diversity, tolerance, and understanding of the “other.” Ulitskaia argues that since Russian people live in a multi-national state, it is time for them to acknowledge that “different nationalities have cultural traditions strikingly different from what we consider ‘normal’ or ‘correct.’” [i] Otherwise, says Ulitskaia, the state of Russian society will remain “horrific” because the majority of people refuse to take responsibility for the “brutal minors with wooden brains” who murder “black students, Chinese vendors, and Tadzhik girls” in the public places of big Russian cities. [ii] The responsibility for these murders, Ulitskaia argues, is collective, and she hopes her books will help overcome “misunderstanding, irritation, hostility, and even hatred” of the “other,” of the people who are not enemies, but not “like us” either (Pisatel’, 12). Moreover, says Ulitskaia, it is time to realize that Russian authorities manipulate the concept of “the other” (the oligarchs, people from the Caucasus, or migrants) to create scapegoats for the country’s mounting economic and social problems.

 

Undoubtedly, Ulitskaia’s series makes children think about the contradictions, ambiguities, and complexities of human life. Some books in the series may seem challenging and even shocking but they all provide a lesson in diversity and frequently bring up issues that traditionally have been reserved for adults.

 

Reviewed by Larissa Rudova

 


[i] Anton Zhelnov. Interview with Ludmila Ulitskaia: “Drugie—ne chuzhie,” Vedomosti 150 (August 15, 2006): n.p..
[ii] “Pisatel’ Liudmila Ulitskaia: ‘Nashi knigi o cheloveke, kotoryi ne takov, kak vy.’” Izvestiia 106 (June 19, 2006): 12.

Review: Children’s World: Growing Up in Russia,1890-1991,  by Catriona Kelly. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007.

Children’s World: Growing Up in Russia,1890-1991,  by Catriona Kelly.
New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007.

 

Catriona Kelly’s monumental account of Russian childhood demonstrates how the prevailing values about modernization and education shaped the childhood experiences of those who were born and raised between 1890 and 1991. The book explores how the Bolsheviks’ utopian dream of creating an efficient system of pre-school, primary, and secondary schooling determined the manifestations of Soviet children’s public and private lives that were often influenced by prescriptive literature and the media. The book examines the success story related to the high standards of literacy achieved during the Soviet period, and gives a detailed account of children’s lives in institutions, orphanages, and Stalin-era camps, highlighting the shortcomings of the notion of rational education based on the utopian impulse to bring about the rapid modernization of Russian society. Kelly’s study offers numerous illustrations of how the legacy of the Enlightenment in Soviet Russia led to the exclusion from the curriculum of any religious and pagan forms of thought, including suppression in the 1920s–1930s of fairy tales and many popular pre-Revolutionary books. Kelly suggests that the Bolsheviks inherited an inadequate system of education, along with Western ideas on child development, that were incorporated into the project of an accelerated childhood subordinated to the concerns of the cultural elite and its rationalistic vision of social engineering. Kelly’s study outlines briefly the impact on Soviet education of the policies and ideological beliefs of such well-known figures as Nadezhda Krupskaya, Maksim Gorky, Anton Makarenko, and Vasily Sukhomlinsky. The book pays tribute to Soviet children’s literature, focusing on such writers as Samuil Marshak, Korney Chukovsky, Aleksey Tolstoy, and Arkady Gaidar, and explores themes and values articulated in Soviet films, radio programmes, and plays.

 

Kelly’s book contains three parts: ‘Imagining Childhood’, ‘Children on their Own: Street Waifs, Orphanage Inmates’, and ‘Family Children’. It covers much ground on such topics as the representation of childhood in Russian books and media; the ideological concerns of Soviet education; the relationship between adults and children; prevailing ideas about childhood and parenting; children’s leisure and sport activities; the experience of mothers; social and health institutions, including childbirth services and provision for abandoned children and orphans; children’s rights; and special emphasis on children’s creativity and high literacy standards. In a well-balanced manner, Kelly assesses the move from very low literacy levels to a respectable position among the developed countries and convincingly demonstrates that the policy of an expanded education system gave most children wide access to sports and the arts. Kelly’s encompassing study will be of immense interest to a wide range of readers, including social historians, anthropologists, cultural studies specialists, and anyone seeking to understand the effects of a Soviet childhood and the problem of trying to generalize about the diversity of educational practices.

Reviewed by Alexandra Smith, University of Edinburgh

Review: Vera Timenchik, Семья у нас и у других (2006)

Social Issues in Ludmila Ulitskaia’s Children’s Book Series: Family (2)

families_2007Vera Timenchik’s book, Семья у нас и у других (2006) conveys liberal sensibilities and openly discusses questions that until recently were never raised in Russian schools: xenophobia, school bullying, war in the Caucasus, ethnic intolerance, divorce, homosexual marriage, and marital age. Timenchik centers the book’s plot on two 12-year old friends: Kirill is a native Russian born in Moscow; Daut is a recent immigrant from Abkhazia, an area in the Caucasus. Kirill’s family is small and liberal; Daut’s family is, on the contrary, large and patriarchal. Yet, despite their differences, the Kirill and Daut become friends and learn to accept each other’s differences.

 

Семья у нас и у других challenges the traditional concept of “we” vs. the “other” as she discusses the issue of “normalcy” in marriage practices. From Kirill’s mother, the boys learn that in some European countries, marriage between people of the same sex is legal and that in some liberal democracies, including the US, gay couples can adopt children. This is perhaps the first Russian children’s book in which homosexuality is mentioned at all and in which gays are not treated as the criminal “other.” What is also interesting in this discussion of gay marriage is that Kirill’s mother does not tell the boys what’s right and what’s wrong with sexual practices but rather presents other practices as alternatives.

 

Timenchik rejects a monological authorial solution of controversial issues, as is usually the case in educational children’s literature, but rather lets her readers know that mainstream culture is not the only one and that there are many marginal or marginalized cultures that should not be suppressed or neglected. Timenchik offers her young readers not answers but choices and makes them think about diversity and ways of dealing with it. The book warns, however, that challenging cultural stereotypes often goes hand-in-hand with struggle or conflict.

 

Reviewed by Larissa Rudova

Review: Andrei Usachev’s The Universal Declaration of Human Rights Retold for Children and Adults (2008)

Social Issues in Ludmila Ulitskaia’s Children’s Book Series: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (3)

Andrei Usachev’s The Universal Declaration of Human Rights Retold for Children and Adults (2008) is a marvelous fairy tale about a Little Man who lives in a little house with a little garden. One day the Little Man discovers The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the public library, reads it, and from that moment on, realizes that there is nothing wrong with his being little. This discovery changes his life and gradually, he begins to change the lives of others by telling them about their universal rights regardless of their differences. They may be big, small, green, red, fat, illiterate, poor, men or women, but they are all equal, and once they realize that, they can become friends and change the world for the better.

 

Post-Soviet society has been described as “passive, atomized, and unprotected from its own state.” [i] It is a society in which the “basic trust” in oneself and others has been destroyed and solidarity is almost impossible. Who to accept? Who to reject? Which cultural, social, or political practices to follow? These and many other questions are unanswered still for the majority of Russian children and adults. In the atmosphere of a continuing cultural and social identity crisis, Ulitskaia’s series comes as a great facilitator for understanding the need for trust, cultural integration, diversity, solidarity, and other virtues of a socially progressive state. All the books in Ulitskaia’s series, regardless of their topic, send one message: “Although people are not alike, they should recognize their differences and learn not to fear them.”

Reviewed by Larissa Rudova

[i] “Sotsiologiia homo post-soveticu’s?” Conference paper. Ziegmund Freud University, Vienna. 19-22 March, 2009.

New Issue of PMLA

This just in from Larissa Rudova:

The new issue of PMLA (Vol. 126, No. 1) has a section devoted to the study of children’s literature.  Larissa writes,  “The section “Theories and Methodologies” (pp. 152-216) in the fresh PMLA issue (January 2011) is dedicated to children’s literature and includes such articles as, for example, “Queer Theory’s Child and Children’s Literature Studies” (Kenneth Kidd); “Comparative Children’s Literature” (Emer O’Sullivan); “Goodbye, Ghetto: Further Comparative Approaches to Children’s literature” (Kiera Vaclavik); “On Not Defining Children’s Literature” (Marah Gubar).”

Anglo-American Graphic Novels about the Soviet Space Program

In the past couple of years, two graphic novels–one American and one British–have been published about the Soviet space race.  The first of these, Laika, by Nick Abadzis, was published by First Second in 2007 to great acclaim.  If you haven’t read this one, I highly recommend it.

Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing calls Laika “haunting” and “sweet,” and Betsy Bird of A Fuse #8 Production (and the most well-known children’s book blogger in the U.S.) concludes that Laika, “…is an ode to dogs themselves. To the animals that we befriend and love and, ultimately, destroy. It’s also about history, humanity, and the price of being extraordinary. No one can walk away from this book and not be touched.”

(Don’t miss the comments to the Boing Boing post.  In them, you will find the lyrics to a Polish children’s song about Laika and well as a reference to other artistic works about the first dog in space.) 
Now a new graphic novel has come out in the U.K. (December 2010) commemorating the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s space flight.  Titled Yuri’s Day: The Road to the Stars, this graphic novel aimed at a teen and adult audience is attracting some interest in Russia.  Nick Dowson reports for The Moscow Times that Yuri’s Day–written by Piers Bizony, illustrated by Andrew King, and designed by Peter Hodkinson–has been well received and will soon be translated into Russian.  Indeed, the authors of Yuri’s Day are responding to comments and corrections at their website for future editions of the graphic novel and for the Russian translation.  It’s an interesting process, that’s for sure.

Here’s a review of Yuri’s Day: The Road to the Stars by Graham Southorn at Sky at Night Magazine (a BBC site).

A Russian Reimagines “The Lord of the Rings”

last ringbearerI’ll admit it: I am not a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series.  But, most teenagers are and The Lord of the Rings trilogy serves as Young Adult fiction for teenagers all over the world, including for Russian teens.

Kirill Yeskov, a Russian writer/paleontologist/biologist, published a reimagining of The Lord of the Rings, titled The Last Ringbearer (1999), which tells the tale from Mordor’s point of view. Yisroel Markov has translated The Last Ringbearer into English and it is available for download here.

Laura Miller, Salon.com’s book editor, reviewed The Last Ringbearer this week, writing:

The novel still has some rough edges — most notably, a confused switching back and forth between past and present tense in the early chapters — and some readers may be put off by Yeskov’s (classically Russian) habit of dropping info-dumps of military and political history into the narrative here and there. For the most part, though, “The Last Ringbearer” is a well-written, energetic adventure yarn that offers an intriguing gloss on what some critics have described as the overly simplistic morality of Tolkien’s masterpiece.

Salon has also published Yeskov’s essay on The Last Ringbearer and The Lord of the Rings, an essay well worth reading for Yeskov’s views on Tolkien’s trilogy and because Yeskov explains why and how he retold Tolkien’s tale.  Yeskov writes, 

The Last Ring-bearer” was written for a very specific audience, too – it’s just another “fairy tale for junior scientists” of which I am one. It is meant for skeptics and agnostics brought up on Hemingway and brothers Strugatzky, for whom Tolkien is only a charming, albeit slightly tedious, writer of children’s books. Those were the people who got the biggest kick out of the novel; theirs were the reviews that used the expression “sleepless night,” dear to any writer’s heart, most often.