Justin and Cheburashka, 2008
Write about your favorite book as a child. Do you remember the title, the writer’s or the illustrator’s name? Were you reading it by yourself, or was an adult reading it to you? Have you ever re-read it as an adult, maybe to your child, or just for yourself? What was the most memorable episode or character? Did it make you do anything new – maybe to become more adventurous, or change your name and identity, or learn how to read, or write and illustrate a book yourself?
If I have to only pick one favorite book from my childhood, it has to be Down the Magical River by Eduard Uspensky. It’s funny because there were a couple of books by this author, and a few of the characters from those books, which really made him a favorite author for the children of my generation, but these more popular books and characters were not my favorites. Cheburashka (an unknown little animal that was found in a box of oranges, something between a monkey and a bear, only with huge ears), and his best friend Crocodile Gena – that one was a hit. A seven year old boy named Uncle Fyodor with his love of dogs and cats who leaves his parents’ apartment in Moscow because they don’t allow him to have pets, and moves into an abandoned house in a village where he has animals and where his parents find a paradise on earth too… that was another huge hit. Both books were made into very popular cartoons, while the movie based on my favorite book has not been especially successful, and in my opinion, even though I love fairy tale movies, the film completely lacked the warmth of the book.
I still remember those evenings when before bed our dad read Down the Magical River to me and my brother Andrei (we were then 7 and 12 years old, respectively). We both could read, of course (I started reading at the age of 4, and Andrei by the age of 12 has probably already read half of our home library, which was always abundant), but the magic of sitting together in a room, on the bed or sofa, and listening to our father’s voice was so irresistible, that we asked dad to read chapter after chapter, until his voice got so tired he couldn’t read any longer, and then we had to wait till the next evening and wonder what happened to our beloved characters.
The book looked unusual, with a bright yellow hardcover featuring an illustration of a smiling three headed dragon (Zmei Gorynych – a traditional character from Russian fairy tales) and happy boyars (noblemen from Russian history) on the front, and of Baba Yaga flying in her stupa above a woodsy little pond and a fisherman fishing from a little boat. The illustrations were made by the famous Russian children’s book illustrator Victor Chizhikov, whom I adore. I remember looking into every little picture and imagining the world that I couldn’t touch and was so eager to experience, imagining what happened before the moment the artist captured and what happened after, and what was not in the illustration at all, but sort of implied, even though of course I did not know such big words back then.
The central character was a schoolboy named Mitya, who visited his grandma during the Summer break, and she sent him to visit her older relative in a far away village, where he had to walk through the woods. On the way, Mitya meets Gray Wolf, but he is not a scary wolf at all – he is kind and helpful, and his old relative happens to be the real Baba Yaga about whom Mitya only read in books before that, and with her help Mitya becomes the savior of the magical world… That combination of real life and magic captivated me forever. I’ve always been a huge fan of traditional fairy tales, but the modern tale about a boy of my age who lived in a city and went to school just as I did and had a grandma in a village just as I did… was simply irresistible.
After reading that tale, Andrei got a thin little notebook and transformed it into his own book about Mitya and all the characters, with illustration inspired by Chizhikov. I wonder what happened to that little masterpiece… Since childhood, Andrei has always been a talented artist, and his illustrations were so good that I thought they were better than the originals – he did not think so, but then, he is very modest, my brother, and when to me he looked just like d’Artagnan, our other childhood hero, he never thought so himself.
I don’t know what happened to Andrei’s masterpiece, but I do know what happened to the book that inspired it… we loved it so much that we loaned it to all our friends, neighbors, classmates and relatives who knew how to read. The book became ragged after such an intense tour around our small town and beyond, with loose pages after every return to us. Until eventually, it did not return. I had a few books that never made it back to me after I loaned them, but that book remained the most precious loss for many years…
I was twenty and studied in university, when mom brought the book from my childhood back from one of her long distance trips. It was the exact book we had back in the early 1980s! Made on the same paper, in the same format, with the same illustrations – everything was the same. It was a truly magical moment to hold this book again – and now having my little nephew to read it to. They reprinted it in 1992, only 100,000 copies (which is nothing for such a big country as Russia), and we were one of the lucky owners, years later. And only now, writing this, I realized that I named my cat, who truly became everyone's favorite and lived in our family for almost 18 years, after the little boy from this book, Mitya.
I did not bring too many books with me when I moved to America, I asked my parents to bring me this one, after my nephew grew up. It did not capture my daughter as much as it did my brother and myself back when we were kids, but it’s the spirit of our childhood favorite story and those evenings when dad read it to us that inspired one of my own fairy tales, with a three headed dragon and a little boy being the central characters. And guess who illustrates it.
Rise and Write 8-14
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