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.
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