Monday, January 16, 2012

Guest Post by Olga Bukhina: Russian Magic Realism for Young Adult Readers

I’d never considered inviting anyone to write a guest post for the Bookshelf until I met Olga Bukhina at the American Literary Translators Association conference in November. When I learned that Olga specializes in translating young adult books from English into Russian and writing about YA literature, I remembered Bookshelf commenters’ questions about Russian young adult fiction that I couldn’t answer. So I asked Olga if she’d like to write a post about Russian novelists who write for young adults. She agreed.

Olga’s translations include Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy and Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden, and she is the co-author of Язык твой - друг мой (Your Language Is My Friend). She co-wrote Your Language with her sister, with whom she often collaborates on translations. The book is part of Liudmila Ulitskaya’s series for children. Olga also writes about YA books for a new blog created by the Working Group for Study of Russian Children’s Literature and Culture during the November conference of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies.

I was especially happy to learn Olga wanted to mention Miriam Petrosyan’s Дом, в котором… (The House That…), a book that’s been highly praised by adults of all ages but that I was disappointed not to enjoy. (The House is also the subject of Olga’s latest WGRCLC post.) A huge thank you to Olga for writing this post!

Three is a magic number, and there are three names in Russian magic realism literature for teenagers. All three are women relatively new to the literary world.

Muscovite Dina Sabitova writes about parents and adoption; she writes out of experience. Already a mother of two, she adopted a 16 year old girl. Her book Where Winter Does Not Come (Где нет зимы) was published by Samokat (2011), one of the most interesting small publishing houses for children in Moscow.

This book is about two children, a teenage boy Pavel, who has a very serious attitude toward life; and his little sister Gul’, who dearly loves her rag doll, Ljal’ka, made by her grandma. This doll is one of the narrators in the book. The grandmother, the corner stone of the family, dies, and the mother soon disappears. Two children are left to their own devices with very little money and an even smaller supply of food. After an attempt to manage on their own, they are taken to the orphanage, with two “protectors,” Ljal’ka and an ancient house elf Aristarkh who is invisible to all but Pavel, left behind in their old shabby house.

It is a tragic story; and the book’s unexpected turns and twists make the reader’s heart ready to stop. It is the most uplifting story imaginable, full of hope. After the news about the death of her mother, Gul’ loses her desire to live. She does not even care about the loss of her beloved Ljal’ka. Deus ex machina style (apart of the fact that this part is actually based on a true story), the mother of Gul’s best friend decides to adopt her. Happy end? Not yet.

Sabitova’s most recent book, Your Three Names (Три твоих имени, Rozovij Zhiraf, 2011), is about a little girl who gets a new name and a new life in each version of her story. Ritka/Margo/Goshka’s life goes through various ordeals: drunken, poverty-stricken parents, foster care, and an orphanage.

Miriam Petrosyan, an animator from Erevan, wrote a huge volume about the life in a boarding school for children and teens with various physical problems (and of course, mental and psychological). The House That (Дом, в котором, Livebook, 2009), which got several prestigious awards, is an epic drama and a phantasmagoric, nightmarish story of kids who are stuck with their disabilities. For them, the House is a safe haven and a prison at the same time. Each group of kids lives in its own dormitory and forms a Pack with its own Leader. Many of them are in wheelchairs or with prostheses; for many, the House is the only home they know.

Each kid has a nickname, Sphinx, Blind, Smoker, and even Death (and girls, Mermaid, Witch, Ginger). We never learn their real names, or the names of the principal and counselors. The reality of life, with its regular school program and everyday breakfasts and lunches, intermixes with dreams, nightmares, and fantasies creating a heavy, dense prose that’s enjoyable and scary to read.

Ekaterina Murashova is a child psychologist in St. Petersburg and the author of three novels. The Correction Class (Класс коррекции, Samokat, 2007) is a miniature Petrosyan House/class for physically disabled and mentally handicapped children with whom teachers (and often their parents) have no idea what to do. With the help of a new student, others in the class are now able to take refuge in a dreamland where they are not disabled any more, and everyone looks “beautiful and serious.” Some things from that magic land can even be taken into the ordinary and difficult “real” life.

The Alarm Guard (Гвардия тревоги, “Samokat,” 2008) is again about a class, but a very different one. Kids of this class are organized in a group which helps everyone who needs their help, from a crow on a tree to a homeless child in a manhole. It is a book about collectivism in the best meaning of this word and about individual responsibility for this world.

One Miracle for the Whole Life (Одно чудо на всю жизнь, Narnia Publishers, 2010) brings together those who are rarely seen together: nice, “clean” kids from a city school, a gang of under-aged criminals, and two extraterrestrial siblings. It is a story of miracle healings of deadly diseases and the wounded, suffering hearts of children and adults.

Can these stories be told without magic realism? No, they are too full of pain, suffering, and, indeed, the most real reality of life.

Up next: Two of Gogol’s Petersburg stories, then Bely’s Petersburg, then, probably Bykov’s Ostromov. I’m also reading Solomon Volkov’s thoroughly engaging St. Petersburg: A Cultural History; I’m reading the book in Antonina W. Bouis’s translation.


  1. Thank you both for this post! As one of those who has been wondering about young adult literature in Russian, I'm delighted to have this list of titles. Can't wait to see which of them I can track down for my library.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Shelley F-V, particularly because you are, indeed, one of the people I was thinking of! I'm glad the list is helpful and hope you're able to find some of the books for your library.