I wrote my first children’s book, The Land of Good Girls, in 2009 for my then five-year-old daughter Sasha for quite a banal reason: I’d already read to her everything that was worth reading in Russian for children her age. We had read older literature and contemporary authors as well but new titles from Russian authors came out far too rarely to satisfy my daughter’s thirst for reading (she could consume upwards of five books a day!). So, we mostly read translated literature, from Andersen and Tove Jansson to Daniel Pennac and JK Rowling.
However, while there was enough foreign literature to last Sasha and me through retirement, my daughter and I yearned for something we could relate to, something contemporary and familiar. The plot could be completely fantastical so long as it was at least partially set in a contemporary Russian town, in a present-day Russian family. And the cats and dogs and the children and their parents – let them resemble those who live right next door to us. And that’s how Land of Good Girls came about. It’s a story about Polina Petrova, a girl who lives in a typical Moscow family. Her family thinks Polina is very badly behaved and she ends up in a totalitarian-utopian otherworld where she is to be disciplined for good behaviour. It’s about how her dog Bonehead and her cat Baguette save her and bring her home and how in the end it’s the family, not Polina, who end up changing. Then came Catlantis, an indirect continuation of Land of Good Girls, with an independent plot line (about Baguette’s travel through time) but with the same cast of characters.
Children’s publishers in Russia are extremely conservative…they were scared
When I wrote Land of Good Girls I had already published a number of books for adults, which were receiving good press and selling well. It seemed that there wouldn’t be any obstacles to publishing a children’s book. However, it turned out that the children’s publishers in Russia were extremely conservative. It was suddenly clear why there were so few contemporary Russian children’s books that were good. Time and time again, publishers preferred to reissue Russian folk tales, translated classics, or a translated bestseller, or worse: to publish some horrible Russian parody of Harry Potter rather than come out with something worthwhile and new. They were scared. It was with great effort that my agent found a publisher for Land of Good Girls. Its print run sold out and a feature-length children’s film was made based on it. However, with my next book, Catlantis, we had to go through the same trials and tribulations all over again.
But an even more astounding experience awaited me with my newest children’s project. Two years ago I began working on a series of children’s books called Beastly Crime Chronicles. They are stories written in classic detective story fashion but the main characters are woodland animals.
For the first time in my life, I ran into censorship issues
The first story I wrote was called Inside the Wolf’s Den and Russia’s largest publishing house wanted to publish it. But then, for the first time in my life, I ran into censorship issues. It was all due to a new Russian law that aimed to “protect children from any information that may harm their health and development” and the enthusiasm with which my publisher decided to adhere to this law. According to the law, “it is forbidden to distribute among children any information that: may entice the desire to use drugs, tobacco products or alcohol; condones or supports violence or brutality; goes against family values” etc. Because the law leaves a great deal to interpretation the publishing house decided to approach Beastly Crime Chronicles with utmost diligence. First, the publisher rejected the sketches that went along with the text which were drawn in a comical noir style. He hired a new illustrator whose kitty cats, badgers and little foxes turned out significantly sweeter. Next, the publisher was concerned with the age range of the target audience. Perhaps “eight and up” should be replaced with “14 and up” on the cover? Perhaps these animal adventures, accompanied by sweet, touching illustrations weren’t fitting reading material for children in elementary school? After all, the text does include a terrifying event… murder! The murder of a rabbit. Not to mention – oh dear – there are hints to alcohol consumption: the drinking of Mothitos – a drink made from fermented autumn moths.
All of my most beastly personality traits came to the surface…
The two titles also worried the publisher. Inside the Wolf’s Den was too sinister – wolves evoke unpleasant associations. And as for Beastly Crime Chronicles, well, the word “beastly” implies great violence. It’d be better to call the series Funky Crime Chronicles – now that’s harmless. Unfortunately, this caused all of my most beastly personality traits to come to the surface and I broke contract with Russia’s largest publisher. Luckily, a small but very attractive and honest publisher called Clever decided it was interested in Beastly Crime Chronicles. The first book, Inside the Wolf’s Den, was published with noir-esque comic illustrations and has successfully reached bookstores. So far, none of my readers’ health nor development have been harmed.
Catlantis by Anna Starobinets (translated by Jane Bugaeva) is out now, published by Pushkin Children’s Books. Buy it at the Guardian bookshop.