Review by Ekaterina Shatalova
Recommended age 10+
This year sees the 75th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany by the Soviet Union and Allied powers. The war affected almost every family in the country so it is no wonder that so many Soviet and Russian books are devoted to this topic. It is crucially important to pass on the memory of what happened to children, but to talk about grief and death is not an easy task. Children see war in a different way compared to adults. That is why we need picture books for older children such as A Boy with Chubby Cheeks by Elena Korovina (Елена Коровина), who is a language tutor, Montessori teacher, journalist, and health worker, and who works a lot with children.
First published in 2009 in Cucumber children’s magazine, it won the hearts of the readers by its simple, yet very deep tone. Last month it was published as a picture book by Nikea, one of the largest Orthodox publishing houses in Russia, accompanied by warm illustrations by Viktoria Kitavina.
‘Lyoka would come up to the window, looking at the sky. Will it ever be peaceful again?’
This story depicts the early childhood of an ordinary little boy called Lyoka (a pet name for Artyom) living during the siege of Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg). He has the most adorable chubby cheeks, and life around is filled with joy and laughter. As he turns five, the war begins. Excited at first, he is jumping around the house with a toy sword not understanding why his mum is crying. With her husband gone to war, Lyoka’s mother teams up with her neighbour Shura and her little daughter Irishka. They think of escaping Leningrad, but as it is too risky they decide to stay and look after each other. The siege is shown in its true colours: hunger, exhaustion, death. Everything is described so casually and routinely that it makes it even more horrid. One by one, Lyoka loses everyone until he finds himself, half-dead, at some orphanage. Every day he watches how another child is carried away. But with time food portions are getting bigger, and one day the siege, which lasted 900 long horrible days, is finally over. As the war ends, Lyoka’s father reunites with his son. The memory of the siege has left a mark on Lyoka’s entire life and he becomes a priest. Now he himself has four sons, four grandsons and three granddaughters.
Although hard to read without crying, this book serves as a reminder (especially nowadays) that even in the darkest hour you have to keep faith and hope.
There are some images from the book, more information (in Russian) and a short video trailer on the publisher’s website.
Please get in touch if you’d like a sample translation or more information about the book.