by Maria Pyliotou
As published in Volume 8, NO 4, Dec. 2011
At the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21th century, a new group of writers made its appearance in Cypriot Children’s and Youth Literature, shyly at first, then dynamically and with force! The first samples have already made their presence felt at various competitions, a happy surprise for those committee members who do not insist on the established and conservative framework.
It is difficult, after four decades of successful and often unsuccessful books, for someone to see with a clear eye the emergence of a new wave in Children’s Literature.
If we looked more closely at these developments, we would realize that the same thing occured in 1974, when writers such as Tefkros Anthias, Kypros Chrysanthis and Eugenia Paleologou-Petronda passed the baton to a new generation. Yet I feel that – beyond the themes of the coup d’etat, invasion, and war – the new writers that emerged following the events of 1974 offered nothing new compared to the older generation, which of course also continued to publish (Chysanthis, Petronda, etc.). Only the didacticism of the earlier writers slowly but steadily regressed, as new approaches quietly emerged. At any rate, to date, no one has studied this phenomenon in depth – meaning, what set apart the new generation of writers from the older ones.
The emergence of important Greek writers such as Alkis Zeis, George Sarris and Pantelis Kaliotsos was instrumental in renewing Children’s and Youth Literature, and greatly contributed to the impetus for “change” during the 70-80s decade. Their influence was obviously very positive, both in the Greece and in Cyprus.
Even today, the main difference between the earlier didactic book (written from the perspective of the adult, especially of the teacher-parent) and the child-centered book (written from the perspective of the child-reader) does not seem to concern our writers for the most part, nor the researchers/specialists.
Dozens of older writers and new writers published works for children – the older writers repeating new themes in the old and safe ways, and the majority of the innumerable new writers writing like the older generation. At the same time, new publishing houses were formed, and the phenomenon of self-publishing also made its appearance. Children’s books started coming down like rain, and the situation appeared to be out of control. Naturally, the writers longed to see their work in print, and they were not to blame. Yet there was no guidance, no correct information, nor researchers-critics who would dare speak out. The few existing researchers-critics politely doled out easy praises for a variety of reasons (ignorance, interests, acquaintances, etc.). Cyprus is a small place, after all.
Amid this veritable bombardment of children’s books certain new writers – young in years, also – appeared like a rainbow after the storm. And just as the colors of the rainbow are different, ranging from intense to soft, these five writers that I have chosen to present here are different, but equally remarkable. I will discuss their debut books. I am sure that others exist, and perhaps somebody more expert than I will carry out a more complete study one day.
The first element that made me notice these five writers was the pleasant surprise that I felt upon reading their work. Perhaps some will not develop as beautifully as they have begun or will follow other paths, yet this phenomenon is important because it may influence the coming generations.
I believe that the “contemporary” or “modern” book, as I would characterize these five works, may be defined in the following ways:
It is the book,
– where the writer deviates from the beaten path, while retaining the best of the tradition,
– that is ahead its time, and on a completely personal course,
– that is prophetic and diachronic, and speaks to the children of today, as well as to the children of tomorrow and of all times,
– that dares to fight the stereotypes, and break the molds,
– that opens windows to broad horizons,
– that presents the reader with the pleasant feeling of newness,
– that rejects dogmatic approaches, lies and hypocrisy,
– that cultivates free, critical thinking, and respect for everything that is different,
– that is distinguished for its literary skill.
At times such writers are sneakily back-stabbed by conservatism or envy, but such blows often strengthen and elevate the true author who knows how to overcome them and move forward…
Before discussing the five selected books, I should not omit to mention that even some writers of the previous generation had also dared to experiment, not only in content, but also in form, shaping their works differently. I bring the following three books as examples – surely there are more but, in these three, the elements of modernity are most obvious, both in form and content.
The first book is The Land Of The Mad, Askew And Upside Down by Maroula Theodosiadou (Epiphaniou Publications, 2008) that researcher Doros Theodoulou has described as “a multifaceted, multiform, multicolored and extraordinary world, which unfolds through its fantastic stories, where the laws of the dream and the fairytale prevail, with many reversals of fate, transformations and mix-ups.” The second book is Little Orange Girl (Parga Publications, 2006) by Myrianthi Panayiotou-Papaonisiforou; an authentic fairytale that, while following in the footprints of folklore, presents an impressive peculiarity in its language, which is rich, poetic, full of color and rhythm. The book was included on IBBY’s Honor List in 2007. The third book, Some Of Ours, comes from the new writer Irene Hadjilouka-Mavri, and contains ten small stories, which are cheerful, poetic, incredibly intelligent, full of color and reversals. It is important to mention here that this book was published in 1996, a few years before the end of the twentieth century and although it took an important step toward contemporary writing, it went unnoticed.
The five books that I will be discussing in this presentation are:
– A Dangerous Journalistic Mission (Parga Publications, 2005) by Maria Olympiou
– The Village Of The Bed Sheets (Psychoyios Publications, 2000) by Kyriakos Margaritis
– The Boy That Was The Star Of The Earth (Psychoyios Publications, 2003) by Elena Pericleous
– In Sunnyland (Parga Publications, 2005) by Eleni Artemiou-Photiadou
– The Thief Of Dreams (Kedros Publications, 2004) by Panayiota Plisi
From the publishing activity of the above writers it has already become evident who among them has progressed, and moved forward; this, of course, is another matter that has yet to close its cycle, even though the signposts are already present.
In A Dangerous Journalistic Mission the fairytale faces extinction. Maria Olympiou transforms her distress about the possibility of the extinction of the fairytale and of the storyteller into an original and interesting novel. What lies behind the fairytale? And what behind the storyteller – the storyteller with the characteristic name Ah-Vah? Why Ah-Vah? Because the terrible witch Trinitrotolouoli – used in the manufacture of missiles, mines, torpedoes and other war projectiles – threatens the storyteller. Through this vital personification the writer creates a correlation to all that threatens the planet, which is life itself, the storyteller and the fairytale.
Not only is the book original and interesting in its subject matter, but also in its form and approach. It is a story that speaks to children with abundant humor, reversals, and surreal images – precisely in the way the child’s mind functions, and the way his/her needs are shaped in the process of growing up.
I present two excerpts: one from the first pages, as well as the end of the book in its entirety (Pages 11, 12, 221).
The clock strikes midnight. Paper Alice must return to her pages. Before leaving she makes her last statement:
– And at night, every night before you go to sleep, you must say goodnight to us. Say goodnight to me and to Santa Claus. Say goodnight, and we will be happy for your world of wonders…
The hours pass. The first teaspoon of light falls to the ground. Dawn… Random Alice, after meeting Paper Alice, gets into a boat and sails the seas of her dreams. She is very happy. She tries to construct a world of wonders piece by piece. She writes on light blue ribbons: I love you all. Then, she ties the ribbons to the legs of swallows. Do you think I will find a swallow on my window, too? I certainly hope so!
My screen goes black. I should recharge the battery of my computer. I take a deep breath… what we call a Santa Claus breath. I put the quill in the ink and write on paper:
Saint Self, do not forget me… I want a world of wonders inside a fairytale, too…
We will look for this fairytale in wonderland, and not only there. And when we find it, we will give it as a gift to Santa Claus, with all our love.
At last, the end!
At the beginning I told you how much I love Santa Claus and stories. Now that we have come to the end, what can I say? I will tell you what I have learned watching a part of the life of the storyteller Ah-Vah.
Fairytales hold in them all that we desire, dream of, and wish to banish away from us. Fairytales travel and stop wherever they want. Yes and, in the end, everyone lives happily ever after – and we do, too.
Now the news is a shadow of a fragile world, which is truly a valley of tears, economic interests, and fraud.
Sure, the newspapers write the news. Sure, they do no write fairytales. The news is true and objective. Fairytales are fantastic and free.
If fairytales became the news, then we would also live much happier lives!!!
The Village Of The Bed Sheets by Kyriakos Margaritis is a clever novel inspired by children’s play – a delightful text full of nostalgia and powerful messages. Surely, after food, what keeps children alive and makes them happy is play – group play, with friends.
So, in Margaritis’ novel, three boys and two girls decide to build a village at their neighborhood park. They construct their houses, hold elections, and delegate responsibilities; in other words, they create their own domain. And while life is rolling happily along, the threat comes. Some are not pleased by what the children are doing. And there you have it! A gang tries to destroy the village. The children defend it courageously, but war breaks out!
Now what? Who will win? What divides or unites Panos, Jimmy, Iacynthos, Klitos, Marika, Makis and Vasiliki? Is it certain that they will not be able to live together in the end? This is, of course, a microcosm of our world. The saying that children are a reflection of the adults around them is validated here, since the children eventually find solutions easily and correctly.
Through humor and poeticism the writer manages to engage the reader. I bring the following excerpt from page 9 as an example:
The neighborhood park was nothing special. In fact, it could barely be described as a ‘park’. Two pine trees not much taller than the ten-year-olds who played under their short shades, a lean cypress tree which was somewhat morbid yet ideal for its proud green, and two olive trees at the edge of its small area. What the park had an abundance of was weeds and soil, hot soil – doomed to be beaten mercilessly by the midday July sun – as through it was never possible for the soil to sweat or to tan like the tourists do, or to cool down with a shower.
The neighborhood around the park was a picturesque miniature community – five or six houses in all. In two lived elderly couples that were never seen or heard, while the other three or four were pregnant with children of approximately the same age – children that every afternoon kept cheerful company and that were the true heart and soul of the area, enlivening the environment with their smiles and pleasant voices. There were also a few other houses, but no one paid attention to them – they must have been rented to foreigners who limited their interactions to friendly nods and gestures because of the language problem.
Now the sun has gone down. The sea has already taken on a rose color, which shades its blue sheets. Of course there is still enough light for Iacynthos’ group of friends to keep playing – they can keep playing even by the light of the moon, never mind going home at dusk. Even so, the passersby that go for a walk at this sweet hour are not the least bit annoyed by the children’s voices, nor by the odd runaway ball from a clumsy kick, not ever by a loud child that is being chased and has nowhere to hide except behind the tall legs of grownups. Yet the children agree to keep silent for a few minutes.
It’s better in such cases – when the behavior of children perplexes adults – that adults do not try to make sense of it, because surely they will be wrong. How could the mind of a forty-year-old plunge into the fresh imagination of ten-year-old troublemakers? There they are, now, for example, Iacynthos, Klitos, Vasiliki, Jimmy and Marika kneeling on the dirty soil of the park, yanking weeds with grimaces of fatigue but also with satisfaction in their eyes. When Iacynthos’ father saw them, he called his wife and immediately took on the role of the expert. See how my admonitions about the harmful effects of these weeds have made an impression on Iacynthos?
But it’s time to reveal the mysterious intentions of the children. Why are they weeding the raggedy park? Of course, it was Iacynthos who came up with the idea – not to rid society of weeds, but to prepare the ground for the great scheme that he had previously announced to the company of smiles.
His plan was to build a village that will be inhabited exclusively by children, having in mind the Choirokitia settlement that he had visited on a school fieldtrip. He had been very impressed by the way people lived in ancient times… by the wonderful way they lived harmoniously together, without needing noisy cars for transportation, or talking for hours on telephones without seeing each other face to face.
In any case, he was not planning to build mud houses like the ones at the ancient settlement.
The wonderful story by Elena Pericleous’ The Boy Who Was The Star Of The Earth takes the reader on a delightful journey. This is a journey that everyone wants to experience: the journey to the land of the imagination, to the beautiful world of the child. The protagonist is a boy born to an unusual mother – a mother whose job it was to cook. But she didn’t cook macaroni or soutzoukakia, lentils or meatballs. This mother was always cooking up dreams. Blue dreams like the wide sky. Azure dreams like the playful summer sea. Golden dreams like the sun. Red dreams like fire. Brown dreams like chocolate.
The young reader soon learns what the woman did with all the dreams she cooked up: she would stand outside the school and when the children came out, she would give them the dreams wrapped in colorful paper. But, one day, while she was cooking, she saw her own dream emerge: a wonderful, and very different little boy.
The boy went anywhere and said anything he wanted, he enchanted chocolates, liberated books, and wanted to become a star. He was a boy that did not want to go to school, that planted a seed, that loved a dog, that didn’t want to grow up – he was a boy like every other boy.
The following excerpt from pages 68-70 describes what happened after the boy liberated the books.
The boy simply shook his head.
-If it’s really like this, I’d rather be unwound! This is the first time in my life that I feel so wonderful, said the tall man with the blond hair who, at that moment, realized that he had no name!
– And I will never wind up my stupid winder again. I’m even considering opening the door and starting to read books like mad, said the short, dark and rather plump little man.
– So why don’t we? We’ve always had the keys, but never thought of opening the door!
It didn’t take them more than a couple of seconds to unlock the door, and for a paradise of books to open up before their eyes!
Small books, big books, books with colorful pictures, new books, torn books, serious books, funny books… An entire world!
The two guards lost themselves in the world of books, in the worlds of dream and imagination. They forgot about the boy right away.
The boy simply took out his magic flute and started to play. Instantly, the books came to life, and started to sing and dance. They were free at last! The boy went out into the streets and the books followed.
They flooded the streets!
They flooded the homes and the yards!
They entered the schools!
They climbed up on all serious bookshelves!
They climbed onto the laps of grandfathers and grandmothers!
They burrowed in school bags!
They hid underneath the pillows of children!
They lounged comfortably on sofas!
They showed off in shop windows, and turned everything upside out!
They climbed onto department store shelves!
They glided down on slides at parks and play-chased the children!
They entered the banks and stopped the employees from working!
They even went into government buildings and unwound the well-wound up employees!
They even unwound all the teachers, who then decided to let the children go out to the schoolyard, or take them on unplanned field trips!
But, most importantly, they slipped into the president’s house and sat on top of his most important documents. So he couldn’t help but read them, laugh his heart out with their jokes, or cry with their sad stories.
And the result?
The whole country had been unwound for good! A presidential decree banned the act of winding up, and imposed the reading of fairytales at least three times a day. And now the country was full of sun and light, joy and laughter! It was full of children that played and of grownups that laughed, that became mad and yelled…
The country came to life!
The books were saved!
And the boy that went everywhere, said whatever he wanted, and had as much time as he needed, the boy that saved Christmas and that enchanted the chocolates, that loved and liberated books, rode away to his homeland on the back of a cloud.
And they lived happily reading books, eating chocolates and baking dreams, and we lived even more happily doing exactly the same!
Until the next dream of the boy who had liberated books comes piping hot out of the oven…
In Sunnyland by Eleni Artemiou-Photiadou is a fairytale rich in imagination and adventure, well written, with correct structure, natural plot development, and with contemporary yet diachronic messages. The writer’s experience with writing television screenplays is evident in the interesting details and lively dialogues. A rich and poetic language makes the text engaging and alive.
The story centers on a group of cicadas that lives a carefree life, while preparing the summer concert that it will give for the flowers in the orchard. But its dominion is threatened. The Melia Girls of Bee County want to dominate the world of the orchard. What mischief are they planning? And what did they do to push out the cicadas?
Of course, love and friendship win in the end because the orchard, like planet earth, is big enough for everyone. A parallel theme to The Village of the Bed Sheets plays out here with insect protagonists; it is amazing how, each time, contemporary subject matter enters into Children’s Literature through different perspectives and writing styles.
The following is an excerpt from the last chapter, from page 47:
Excitement, joy and sweet commotion among the Cicadas and the Bees. Wonderful moments await them. Only Sol-mi-re is quiet. Only Sol-mi-re is not sharing in their happiness. Fa-do-la approaches him.
– Sol-mi-re, why are you so quiet? Why are you so pensive? Speak up, Sol-mi-re!
And Sol-mi-re spoke, hurling his thunder and lightning!
– I cannot participate in this concert unless I speak up about something that weighs heavily on my mind: if you, little bees, are so good, how is it that we’re so bad? What do I mean by that? Well! Don’t you know that something has been stolen?
Si-do-mi gestures in vain, trying to get him to be quiet. Also in vain, Fa-do-la stands in front of him, trying to hide him. Sol-mi-re is determined to continue and he does.
– In our desperation we stole your yellow guitars.
– We know!
– We didn’t know what else to do to prevent you from coming to our orchard.
-We know this, too!
– We were risking going hungry the entire winter, dying of starvation.
– We know that, too. And please forgives us!
– We are not thieves but when there’s a need… What? You knew?
– Naturally, said Melody calmly. When you were leaving with our guitars, you didn’t notice that Tragoudo had returned to the platform to pick up her jacket. She had a cold and she had been carrying it with her. She saw you, and told us the news right away. And then… we understood!
– You mean… What did you understand?”
Like the previous books, The Thief of Dreams by Panayiota Plisi also moves in the realm of the fairytale, which is so tightly bound with the psychology of the child.
The title reveals that the writer deals with the beloved subject of ‘dreams’ as a necessary element for life and art – not only with the dreams in our sleep, but also with the more important ones that we create when we are awake.
In a flowing, poetic and playful language, the book begins like all fairytales: “Once upon a time,” to tell us that many years ago a child was born whose only dream was ”to steal the dreams of other children…” He was, therefore, “a thief of dreams.” The boy grew and became famous – a famous and wealthy “thief of dreams. But this did not last very long. A series of errors followed, creating an amusing confusion, full of humor, reversals, and unpredictable events.
Here is an excerpt from pages 42-45:
The day after the great disaster, the ruin of the thief’s business was the featured headline, not in the cultural news pages, but in all the world’s newspapers.
Unfortunately for the famous thief, flight delays caused the plan to fail; not that he had thought of something better than I had, in any case…
When he heard the news he became so upset that he went to the control tower and threatened the airport staff that they would never see him a passenger again, not even in their dreams.
– Thankfully, dreams do become reality, whispered a weary flight attendant.
This was the last time that the famous thief of dreams would make mention of his profession.
And they lived happily ever! Or perhaps did we live happily ever after, and they lived even better?
Never mind, this is not important…
The common element in these five books is freshness – the contemplation, the experimentation with new means of expression and different themes. These five writers have departed from the traditional, national or social issues, as well as from fashionable topics such as that of foreigners or the environment that smell of ‘didacticism’. They have followed a more free writing style.
Perhaps they have consciously felt the need to move away from tradition and to create something different. And they have succeeded. Naturally, this is not a repetition of the same themes, or the repetition of the writing style used by the older generation.
The Ministry of Education and Culture uses the following eight important criteria in judging the State Prize for children’s books. I feel it is necessary to introduce these criteria here, since I have relied on them in selecting the books discussed in this presentation:
1. Rich content
Starting with the titles of the books, the reader feels that adventure, anxiety, humor, and a wealth of images await him/her inside – elements that attract children and immerse them into a world full of reversals and surprises.
2. The quality and expressiveness of the language
In the excerpts included in this presentation, the level of the language and its expressiveness are evident: poeticism, surreal elements, and often simplicity, with short sentences and brevity – virtues that are shared by all five books.
3. Literary skill
This is the criterion where most children’s books – especially among the dozens in circulation – fall short. Errors in expression, syntax and grammar, gaps in verse construction, even spelling errors that cannot be explained away as typographical errors. The writer and the publisher bear full responsibility.
In these five books few errors are encountered. You do not come across erroneous syntax or expressions. The language flows well, and all five books stand out for their literary excellence.
I consider these books to be original both in theme and structure, as well as in plot development. The expressive means they use are also original.
5. Genuine voice
The writers do not mimic or copy; their writing style does not bring to mind someone else’s. A work is genuine when all the elements that compose it flow from the deepest wound of the writer’s soul, where experiences and dreams are woven upon a strong mast that no one can cut down or doubt.
6. Educational value
While these books cultivate the love for the fairytale, the book in general serves as a means of the continuation of our cultural heritage, and is necessary for the existence of man and life itself.
Their esthetic qualities (i.e. good and clever writing, publishing perfection, a wealth of imagery) offer a positive example that initiates children in the correct use of language, deepens emotions and opens intellectual horizons.
7. Creative imagination
These five books are the result of creative imagination, and surely assist children in cultivating and enriching their own. The young readers will enjoy their stories and, at the same time, muse on these wonderful adventures. At some point it is also likely that they, too, will try to create. It is important that every book has this beneficial effect.
8. The positive contribution to Modern Greek Literature
Each of these five books, to its own degree of success and according to the above-mentioned criteria, has contributed positively to Modern Greek Literature.
I have attempted to briefly summarize these five books and, through excerpts, to render a picture of the modern or contemporary children’s book published since the beginning of the century in Cyprus.
It is important to mention, in closing, that these five books have received various prizes both in Cyprus and in Greece.