Alyona Timofeyeva and Nina Murray share a review and English sample of Russian-language chapter book Little Quarantine People which first appeared in The Alma Review in November
Review by Alyona Timofeyeva
At the very beginning of the pandemic, there was a joke that every writer is obliged to create at least one quarantine work. And what if it is not just a work, but a whole quarantine world?
In just two years, our lives have changed beyond recognition. And if now we remember the first months of madness in quarantine almost with a smile, back when we were living through them, it was definitely not a laughing matter. Especially for those who have small children.
Kazakhstani writer Ksenia Zemskova was among just such people. Ksenia has three children, two of whom do not even go to school yet. I’ll let you imagine what fun reigned in the house during the quarantine. But Ksenia was not at a loss and, after watching the pranks of her toddlers, she decided to write a book.
The second author, Elena Klepikova, has children who have grown up a long time ago. But a mother’s heart is always sensitive, especially if it is also a writer’s heart.
This is not the first book that the authors have written together. Before this, there was a poetry collection Two Letters (2018) and a teenage novel The Queen’s Crawl, or Times of Change (2019).
Little Quarantine People is a collection of stories about an ordinary Almaty family of four people. In the center of the story is a pair of siblings, Danik and Diana. Just when they are getting pretty bored in lockdown a magic mirror falls into their hands. From this moment, tempting adventures begin. The children encounter everyday problems, so routine they are hardly noticed, from completely different angles. Young readers, together with the heroes, go to medieval Paris struck by the plague epidemic; they travel into the human body to find out how the immune system fights viruses. They make masks and medicines for fairy-tale characters and invent new means of communication which no quarantine can disrupt.
Little Quarantine People is written in the genre of magical realism. ‘The Little Quarantine People’ is how the magic mirror—a character in its own right—refers to Danik and Diana.
“You must be having an epidemic then!” the Mirror said. “Now I see why I had to wake up. I am always there whenever the family is in danger. And—I do like you, little quarantined people.”Little Quarantine People, by Elena Klepikova and Ksenia Zemskova
The book is written in Russian, and has been translated into Kazakh. Published in hard-cover, it looks like a flip book, complete with gorgeous colorful illustrations. The book is not sold in retail stores, because its publication was grant-funded.
The inventive and empathetic story delivers public health lessons: why it is important to wash one’s hands and wear a mask; how infectious diseases spread; and the use of quarantines to stop them. A thousand copies of the book were distributed to the Kazakhstani libraries. The book won the Altyn Kalam-2020 award and was nominated for the Daraboz award the best children’s and adolescent literature.
Little Quarantine People is a guide-book to the world of childhood. No matter how old the reader is, he or she will surely want to join the indomitable Danik and Diana. And then surely visit his or her parents. Because the main thing this book teaches us: no virus is too terrible if you have family around.
A complete English translation of the book is also now available. Any interested publishers should contact for more information and to enquire about the rights.
Little Quarantine People
An excerpt translated from Russian by Nina Murray
The Fairytale City
I got my homework done first thing in the morning, then helped Mom clean all groceries with disinfecting wipes (Dad had just made a trip to the store), washed the dishes, and finally got around to our box. Dee was already waiting for me. She fidgeted with impatience. I opened
the box and whispered softly, “Hello, Mirror…”
“Good morning, Mirror!” Dee yelled.
“Quit hollering, I’m still asleep,” Mirror’s voice mumbled. “Alright. Hi. What do you want to see today?”
I badly wanted to see outer space, but before I had a chance to say anything, Dee blurted out: “A fairy tale! Please, show us a fairy tale.”
Space would just have to wait. I sighed.
“As you wish,” the Mirror said. “Look!”
The glass showed a swarm of multi-colored dots, and then we saw a city. It looked very real, beautiful and large. There were houses built of stone and green parks. Bright flowers bloomed everywhere.
“Wow, Danik, look!” Dee pointed at people moving around. “That Puss-in-Boots right there, Snow White, and Pippi Longstocking!”
I didn’t know where to look first: Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet walked down one street, and the Seven Dwarves went up another! Masha and the Bear sat eating ice-cream in a café. In the fountain in the middle of the square, Mowgli and the Little Mermaid played chess.
“How come they are all together here?”
The Mirror laughed—it sounded like a silver bell tinkling.
“Because this is Fairytale Capital! Count Dracula is here too, and he is a regular citizen, not a villain. He is married to Maria the Magic Weaver, from the Russian tales. All fairy-tale characters live in peace and quiet here. They go into specific tales, er, how do I explain it… like actors to the stage. When they are done playing their part—they come home, here, to their regular lives.”
All of a sudden, we heard a loud “Ahchoo! Ahchoo!” Count Dracula stood on his balcony, amid the roses that climbed from up the wall of his house, and sneezed repeatedly. He went inside, and came back with a thermometer in his mouth. After a minute he took it out, looked at it, and shook his head. He started to cough again and went back inside. Soon, we heard another sneeze, and in a short time, all citizens of the city were sneezing and coughing. Most of them left the streets. Shops and cafés closed. In the parks, only the wind rustled in the tops of the trees. The city looked abandoned. That’s when I realized: It did not matter that the citizens were all fairytale characters—they still got infected by a very real virus.
“Mirror! We have to help them!” Dee cried. “If we don’t, we might not have any more fairy tales!”
“Right,” I said. “We must help!”
“As you wish!” the Mirror said. We heard the familiar ding and fell into darkness.
About the authors
Ksenia Zemskova is a poet, children’s writer. She graduated from the Higher Literary courses at the Gorky Literary Institute, was published in Russian, Kazakh and Ukrainian literary magazines. Participant of the young writers forums in Russia. Leads a seminar of prose and children’s literature at the Open Literary School of Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Elena Klepikova is a novelist, children’s writer, and essayist. She is the author of eight and co-author of six books, and the laureate of the literary awards “Golden Feather of Russia”, “Korneychuk Prize” (Ukraine), “Daroboz”, as well as laureate and prize-winner of literary prizes and competitions held in Russia, Kazakhstan, Germany. She has publications in literary journals and collections of Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Germany. Her stories and fairy tales have been translated into Kazakh, English, and German. She leads a seminar of prose and children’s literature at the Open Literary School of Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Klepikova and Zemskova have been writing books together since 2015. Their first book Two Letters. A Dialogue in Poetry was published in 2017. Their young adult novel, The Queen Does the Crawl, was published in 2019 by the Meshcheryakov Press (Moscow, Russia). Little Quarantine People was awarded a national Altyn Kalam prize as the best Russian-language book for young readers in 2020. Translation and publication of the book were supported by Chevron and the U.S. Consulate in Almaty. Their writers’ recent book, Many Years From Now is short-listed for the national Ibrai Altynsarin award for the best children’s book of 2021.
Alyona Timofeyeva is a writer, essayist, and drama critic from Kazakhstan. She studies international affairs at the KIMEP University.