Toot-toot… trumpet-blowing time!!! A smashing wee book by a super children’s author I met a few Bologna book fairs ago made it onto an important shortlist of outstanding international fiction for children, launched at this year’s book fair.
I’m talking about the more than 400 outstanding books from around the world that were submitted to Book Trust for their In Other Words project, eight of which were selected by an esteemed panel of judges to appear in a rights catalogue for distribution to UK and international publishers.
The book in question is a middle-grade, coming-of-age cum semi-historical novel called Non Chiamatela Crudelia Demon by Anna Lavatelli.
What’s it about and why did I champion it?
I think I must have seen the same potential that Emma Langley, one of the judges in the competition, picked up on:
“A fascinating period of history that’s rarely given an airing in UK fiction for children. I really wanted to read more.” Emma Langley
I also read some convincing reviews:
“Anna Lavatelli sheds light on a period of history that has received very little attention in children’s literature but manages to do it with a light touch and turn it into a page-turning read for children.”
“A page from world history books nestling between the pages of a children’s novel with a strong plot that revolves around the early teenage experience, when you’re “neither one nor the other” (child nor grown-up) and struggling to work out your place in the world.”
So how did I pitch it?
Here’s some of the blurb I wrote to accompany the book on its journey:
This book starts as a garrulous tale of teenage angst and turns into a slower-paced, dramatic account of life in fascist Italy and Stalinist Russia. The young narrator, Katia, tells how she used to be at odds with her world and how misplaced anger led her to vandalise the property of an elderly lady. Her friends are sent on work placements but Katia is ordered to visit their victim, the elderly Olga Mautino.
The two strike up an unlikely friendship and the old lady introduces Katia to opera music and Tolstoy. Over Italian ice cream in elegant cafes, Olga recounts how her family fled Italy for Russia, only to end up persecuted and separated for ever. As Katia journeys into a dark period of history that she knew nothing about, and hears the painful details of Olga’s past, she finds the clarity and peace she needs to deal with her own present.
The uplifting ending – Katia ultimately accepts Olga’s request to write down her story – is as gentle as the times they spend together. The literary flourishes from Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko make the sentiments expressed by elderly Olga all the more compelling.
Why would UK readers like it?
The secret to this novel, I believe, lies in the realistic voice and captivating way the historical background is embedded. The narration flows effortlessly, entertainingly even, for the broadest of reading abilities while still engaging the more experienced reader. Literary flourishes, such as short excerpts of a poem by Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, are among its many valuable features. The book strikes the right balance between characterisation and situation, so readers will shout, “yes, that’s exactly what it feels like” as well as, “wow, who would have thought”. They are allowed to learn – maybe for the first time like the narrator herself- about life in Fascist Italy and Stalinist Russia while enjoying Italian street cafe culture and delicious ice-cream. An absolutely genius combination.
But is it written well?
Taking middle grade readers to a world they might not know, using prose and poetry
Potential UK/US publishers might want to know something more about the quality of the writing, or even get a feel for what it sounds like in English. For a full sample, go to the Book Trust website here. Or if you can read a little something I put together earlier:
Non chiamatela Crudelia Demon is told in the first person, the protagonist a teenager looking back, a year or so later, on how she behaved, the problems she had with her parents, and how she received a community service order for harassing an elderly woman when she was fourteen.
The idea of the journey Katia has been on, and what she learned from it, emerges immediately in the slightly wistful, wiser note we hear in the narrative voice, at times addressing the reader directly. The tone is very chatty and familiar, but never becomes annoying because of the way her delivery is pitched as that of an “older” Katia (a year later) looking back from a more mature vantage point. This makes the narration flow and triggers in the reader the desire to settle down, just like Katia and Olga did in an elegant Italian cafe, to find out what that journey was.
I was permanently miserable, either too big or too small for whatever it was I had to do, always having to rely on grown-ups for the simplest of decisions. My life was empty, boring, and I couldn’t think of a way to fill it with something different. I felt like a hamster on a wheel, spinning round and round but never going anywhere.
I blamed everyone else for how I felt, venting my anger at random, you know what it’s like. I knew, deep down, that I only had myself to blame. I was the one who was lost. To make matters worse, I had to put up phony smiles and grown-ups gushing, “Oh, to be fourteen again, what a marvellous age!” A crap age, more like. But people grow up, don’t they? They forget.
The idea of varied voice – the “older” and younger versions of Katia; the family that Katia fails to appreciate and the family that Olga loved and lost; the thawing of Katia’s icy attitude as she learns about the icy chill of the concentration camp; the transformation from an unforgiving to a more understanding teenager; the realization that “Cruella de Vil” is not a villain but a kindly old lady with a tortured past; and ultimately, the love that remained in Olga for Russia, and all Russians, despite the suffering it brought to many families – could be said to be reflected in the structure and literary flourish of the prose itself. Anna Lavatelli regularly alternates long and short sentences, switching bolshy teenage speak for gentler, more poignant language the more we venture into the beauty, but also the anguish and pain, of Olga’s life in Stalinist Russia:
One night someone stole my shoes. We used to keep them on all the time, but there were light-fingered thieves among us, people who’d slip them off you before you knew it. If you had no shoes, you couldn’t work. But you had to work to eat. Katia untied her laces and handed me her boots.
“What will you do?” I asked.
“I don’t need them where I’m going.”
I thought she’d found a job in the hut. Sometimes they’d have us empty the latrines.
My sister was dead before night fell.
The growing depth, in both character and plot, are captured beautifully in the poems of Yevgeny Yevtushenko:
Snow flakes are falling…
Some day I shall go…
About death I’m not worrying
I’m mortal, I know.
It’s Russia that I love so
with my backbone, my blood,
its rivers when iced, or
when lively they flood.
Deep in heart, feeling anxious,
I hope against hope
that I did help my Russia
to the extent I could cope.
It may once and for ever
forget me, with ease,
but I wish it would never
ever cease to exist.
I do not believe in.
If Russia keeps living
I’ll keep living as well.
The English translation is very careful to maintain the flavour and register of the teenage voice in the Italian, updating it where necessary to be believable, but remaining, on the whole, faithful to an original which could be said, in places, to have a slightly urbane, rather than an edgy, urban, feel.
As the story advances, we realize this is intentional, the author using language to create the distance needed to hint at a journey, the growing up, that takes place in between. The connection with the young teenage self is cleverly maintained, as Katia confers with the reader about things only teenage readers like herself will understand.
To help place Non chiamatela Crudelia Demon, an obvious parallel, in terms of historic content, would be The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. The two share an ability to convey power and poignancy more through what is not said than what is. In this case, much meaning is also hidden between the lines of Yevtushenko’s beautiful verse.
In terms of authenticity and the classical depiction of young angst – To Kill a Mocking Bird or Catcher in the Rye might be useful comparisons. This is not to say Lavatelli’s novel is akin to a great American classic (although it could well become a contemporary one) it does shares the same strong characterisation and point of view, inviting readers into a period of history, and making an albeit gentler attack on entrenched attitudes, in an equally authentic but less vernacular voice.