Review by Olga Bukhina
Playing a Part (Шутовской колпак) by Daria Wilke
Translated from Russian by Marian Schwartz
Published by Arthur A. Levine Books, 2015
Published in Russian by Samokat, 2013
Cover design by Sharismar Rodriguez
Recommended age: 12+
Playing a Part by Daria Wilke is a rare case of a contemporary YA book that came from Russia and was published in the US. You need a bit of a scandal for a Russian book for teens to be translated into English, but it does not diminish the quality of the book by any means.
In Russia, this book is now considered not suitable for children and even for teens. The book is now printed with the age marker 18+ on the cover. One needs to be at least eighteen years old to be allowed to buy this book in the bookstore, although, it was written and first published as a children’s book by the children’s and YA publishing house Samokat (Scooter).
Why such a drastic change in the book’s age designation? Just about time when the book came out, the Russian government started reinforcing a new law prohibiting what they call the “gay propaganda” in children’s books. Playing a Part was the only children’s book at that time talking about the issues of sexual orientation. The founder of the Samokat Publishing House, Irina Balakhonova, received the 2015 Jeri Laber International Freedom to Publish Award, given annually by the International Freedom to Publish Committee of the Association of American Publishers. Judging by the readers’ reviews on the major Russian bookselling website labirint.ru, the book received equal amounts of praise and hatred from those who have bought it.
The book boldly talks about the coming of age of a boy who is in search of his sexual identity. Grisha is a Moscow schoolboy, the son of two puppeteers, and he grew up as a “theater kid,” spending all his time there. In the theater, he feels free and happy, not like at school where he is bullied by his classmates.
“There’s school every day, of course, but only on Mondays is it all-powerful, and there’s no getting out of it. Because there’s no theater in the evening.”Playing a Part by Daria Wilke, translated by Marian Schwartz
His older friend Sam, who is also a friend and a co-worker of Grisha’s parents, is openly gay. He is a role model for Grisha, but not in a sense of sexual orientation; he rather is an example of an honest and loving person with a serious attitude towards life and work. Sam is forced to leave Russia because of the extreme homophobia in Russian society.
Grisha’s life is complicated: he is not just bullied in school; his own grandfather wants him to be a true macho man and despises him for what he sees as being a sissy. Grisha does not yet know if he is gay or not; the choice he needs to make is still ahead of him. The theater taught Grisha that every word on stage has a particular meaning, and he has a keen ear for false notes, even though in school he pretends to be a “jester” in order to defuse bullying. First and foremost, Grisha is a true friend.
Grisha also wants to help Sashok, another “theater kid,” a girl whose sexual orientation is clearer in the book. Sashok is about to have a complicated heart operation. To lift up the spirit of his best friend who is panickily afraid of this medical procedure, Grisha decided to make her a Jester puppet. The Russian title of the book, A Jester Cap, both directly and symbolically refers to this project.
About the author
Daria Wilke currently lives in Vienna; she has published several more books in Russian, including Summer Rain for a Hero (Грибной дождь для героя), Between the Angel and the Wolf (Между ангелом и волком), On Another Side of the Morning (На другом берегу утра), and The Garbage Man (Мусорщик). She is now beginning to write in German.
Olga Bukhina is a translator, a writer, a children’s books specialist, and an independent scholar based in New York City. She has translated over forty books from English into Russian: young readers’ novels, graphic novels, and picture books as well as historical fiction, non-fiction, and scholarly books. Olga has co-authored three children’s books for the Children’s Project of Ludmila Ulitskaya. She writes about children’s literature for various journals, collections, and online publications in Russian and in English. Her book The Ugly Duckling, Harry Potter, and Others: A Guide to Children’s Books About Orphans was published in Moscow.