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From Tolstoy to Soviet Futurism to ‘Catlantis’: 10 Children’s Books from Russia

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This brief tour of literature for young people from Russia is part of a month-long series celebrating world literature for children as part of WorldKidLit Month, on twitter at #WorldKidLit.

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From Inside the Rainbow

When I lived in Russia in the 1990s, kid lit wasn’t my focus—I was supposed to be studying authors like Alexander Pushkin and Leo Tolstoy. And yet it wasn’t long before I discovered Tolstoy’s literature for children, and that some of Pushkin’s poems had been turned into beautifully illustrated children’s classics.

Indeed, a friend of mine loved her illustrated edition of Pushkin’s Ruslan and Lyudmila so much she intended to name her future children Lyudmila and Ruslan. The poem—about the lovely Lyudmila, the evil wizard Chernomor, and the warrior Ruslan—has been translated by Roger Clarke and is available in English.

But despite my friend’s recommendations, back in the wild ‘90s my favorite Russian children’s books were from the naughty «Вредные советы», or “Bad Advice,” series by Grigory Oster. Regrettably, despite selling more than five million copies and winning a major IBBY award, Oster’s silly-fun books have not been translated.

But Russian kid lit’s once-upon-a-time comes long before Oster, with roots in the nineteenth century. In the 1850s, the scholar A. N. Afanas’ev collected Russian fairy tales, modeling his work after tale-collecting done by the Brothers Grimm. Around the same time, Tolstoy founded his first school and began writing stories geared toward children.

A vibrant children’s literature survived, and even flourished, during the early Soviet years, as noted in the collection Inside the Rainbow: Russian Children's Literature 1920-1935.

Indeed, as author Philip Pullman writes in The Guardian, Soviet authors like Alexander Vvedensky and Daniil Kharms both found their adult poetry impossible to publish during these early Soviet years. So they turned to writing for children.

Of late, Russian children’s literature has had a difficult time, both in the market and from a censorious government and public. In 2016, as her middle-grade novel Catlantis launched in English translation, Anna Starobinets wrote about the difficulties she had bringing out her work in Russian. According to Starobinets, this was due in part to a new law that purportedly aims to “protect children from any information that may harm their health and development.”

As Dennis Abrams wrote in Publishing Perspectives, Russian children’s publishing also faces other difficulties. Many parents don’t have the purchasing power to buy new children’s books, and the market has been overwhelmed by translated imports.

Yet despite the difficulties, there are treasures to be found. We begin at the beginning:


Top image by Gennary Spirin's The Tale of the Firebird

Ruslan and Lyudmila

This is a classic among classics. In order to rescue his beloved Lyudmila, who has been abducted by the evil wizard Chernomor, the warrior Ruslan must complete an epic and perilous quest! Roger Clarke’s translation is published as a book for adults, and yet the story is also a favorite of children. For readers 10+.

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Russian Fairy Tales

Another foundational work, this collection of Russian fairy tales was originally published in 1855 and introduces readers to wonderful characters like Koshchey the Deathless, Baba Yaga, the Swan Maiden, and the Firebird. In this edition, more than 175 tales are culled from Afanas’ev’s seminal multi-volume collection. Any child who’s loved Italo Calvino’s Italian Folktales will love this collection. Illustrated by Alexander Alexeieff, translated by Norbert Guterman. For readers 7+.

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Classic Tales And Fables For Children

Another must-have for the budding Russophile’s literary collection is Leo Tolstoy’s writing for children. Tolstoy was just twenty-three when he opened his first school on the family estate. His later school carried the motto, “Come when you like, leave when you like.” Part of what must have kept children enthralled were Tolstoy’s fresh, charming stories. These were often inspired by fables, but also carry his essential humanist touch. The stories from this volume mostly come from his Azbuka, or ABC Book, and Novyie Azbuka, or New ABC Book. Edited and introduced by Bob Blaisdell. For readers 7+.

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Inside the rainbow

The early Soviet period saw a wealth of talented authors and illustrators. Although this book is primarily for parents, the illustrations can also be enjoyed by all ages. It includes more than 250 examples of book design from this period, with vibrant Futurist and avant-garde aesthetics. As Philip Pullman writes, “The illustrations are the main point of Inside the Rainbow, and there are hundreds of them, brilliantly coloured, full of wit and ingenuity, breathtaking in their elegance of form and design.” Edited and translated by Julian Rothenstein.

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Baggage

Baggage is the charming story of a woman and her wild luggage. It’s translated from a Russian poem originally published in 1926, with illustrations by the avant-garde artist Vladimir Lebedev (1891-1967).

“Last week a lady checked her baggage:

A suitcase, a hatbox,

A couch, a painting, a package, a pouch,

And last but not least, one cute little pooch.”

Translated by Jamey Gambrell. For readers 4+.

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Heracles' 12 Great Labours

Moscow-born Sedov is one of the most well-loved contemporary Russian children’s authors. This book offers a fun way into ancient Greece—the narrator is an eyewitness who turns his jaundiced eye on the classical stories of the hero Heracles. Sedov uses contemporary language to tell “how it all really happened.” This and Tatyana Kormer’s bright illustrations keep the book moving. Translated by Melanie Moore. For readers 7+.

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The Tale of the Firebird

The Firebird—a creature you’ll also find in Afanas'ev’s classic fairy-tale collection—is said to be the most beautiful in all the world. Ivan-Tsarevitch, the Tsar’s youngest son, goes off looking for one and soon finds himself flying over mountains and woods on a talking wolf, confronting the wicked Baba Yaga, and rescuing a princess from Koshchey the Deathless. Spirin adapts this classic fairytale, translated by Popova, and also illustrates it in rich, voluptuous style. Translated by Tatiana Popova. For readers 6+.

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Breaking Stalin's Nose

This 2012 Newbery Honor Book—also a Washington Post Best Children’s Book of the Year and ALA Notable Children’s Book—was written by the Russian-American author Eugene Yelchin, born in Leningrad to a Jewish family. He originally worked in the Russian theater before emigrating to the United States in 1983. The book is set around Sasha, who is just now old enough to join the Young Pioneers, and yet nothing seems to be going right. For one, he accidentally damages the bust of Stalin in the school hallway. For another, his father is arrested. For readers 9+.

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Catlantis

In this acclaimed middle-grade novel, a house cat turns out to be descended from the magic Catlanteans. Baguette always seemed to be an ordinary house cat, but not so! He is a descendent of the Catlanteans, who once lived in peace and harmony on the isle of Catlantis. Baguette falls in love with the alley cat Purriana, and she insists, in classical folk-tale style, that Baguette do a heroic deed before she’ll agree to marriage. A fantastic and silly modern classic. Illustrated by Andrezj Klimowski, translated by Jane Bugaeva. For readers 9+.

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Playing a Part

This young-adult novel is both a coming-of-age and coming-out story set against the backdrop of a Moscow puppet theater. Its author, Daria Wilke, now lives in Austria, and the book has been banned in Russia because of its sympathetic portrayal of a gay character, Sam. The book is told through the eyes of Grisha, who works in a theatre where Sam acts. During the course of the novel, Grisha learns to stand up for the people he loves. Translated by Marian Schwartz. Ages 12+.

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Marcia Lynx Qualey is a court poet, ghost writer, and itinerant scribe with a focus on Arab and Arabic literatures. Writes for The Guardian, The Chicago Tribune, Deutchse Welle, The National, and ... Show More

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