Her name’s not Cruella de Vil


Toot-toot… trumpet-blowing time!!!   A smashing wee book by a super children’s author I met a few Bologna book fairs ago made it onto an important shortlist of outstanding international fiction for children, launched at this year’s book fair.

I’m talking about the more than 400 outstanding books from around the world that were submitted to Book Trust for their In Other Words project, eight of which were selected by an esteemed panel of judges to appear in a rights catalogue for distribution to UK and international publishers.

The book in question is a middle-grade, coming-of-age cum semi-historical novel called Non Chiamatela Crudelia Demon by Anna Lavatelli.

What’s it about and why did I champion it?

I think I must have seen the same potential that Emma Langley, one of the judges in the competition, picked up on:

A fascinating period of history that’s rarely given an airing in UK fiction for children. I really wanted to read more.” Emma Langley

I also read some convincing reviews:

“Anna Lavatelli sheds light on a period of history that has received very little attention in children’s literature but manages to do it with a light touch and turn it into a page-turning read for children.”

“A page from world history books nestling between the pages of a children’s novel with a strong plot that revolves around the early teenage experience, when you’re  “neither one nor the other” (child nor grown-up) and struggling to work out your place in the world.”

So how did I pitch it?

Here’s some of the blurb I wrote to accompany the book on its journey:


This book starts as a garrulous tale of teenage angst and turns into a slower-paced, dramatic account of life in fascist Italy and Stalinist Russia. The young narrator, Katia, tells how she used to be at odds with her world and how misplaced anger led her to vandalise the property of an elderly lady. Her friends are sent on work placements but Katia is ordered to visit their victim, the elderly Olga Mautino.

The two strike up an unlikely friendship and the old lady introduces Katia to opera music and Tolstoy. Over Italian ice cream in elegant cafes, Olga recounts how her family fled Italy for Russia, only to end up persecuted and separated for ever. As Katia journeys into a dark period of history that she knew nothing about, and hears the painful details of Olga’s past, she finds the clarity and peace she needs to deal with her own present.

The uplifting ending – Katia ultimately accepts Olga’s request to write down her story – is as gentle as the times they spend together. The literary flourishes from Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko make the sentiments expressed by elderly Olga all the more compelling.

Why would UK readers like it?

The secret to this novel, I believe, lies in the realistic voice and captivating way the historical background is embedded. The narration flows effortlessly, entertainingly even, for the broadest of reading abilities while still engaging the more experienced reader. Literary flourishes, such as short excerpts of a poem by Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, are among its many valuable features. The book strikes the right balance between characterisation and situation, so readers will shout,  “yes, that’s exactly what it feels like” as well as, “wow, who would have thought”.  They are allowed to learn – maybe for the first time like the narrator herself-  about life in Fascist Italy and Stalinist Russia while enjoying Italian street cafe culture and delicious ice-cream. An absolutely genius combination.


But is it written well?

Taking middle grade readers to a world they might not know, using prose and poetry

Potential UK/US publishers might want to know something more about the quality of the writing, or even get a feel for what it sounds like in English. For a full sample, go to the Book Trust website here.  Or if you can read a little something I put together earlier:

Non chiamatela Crudelia Demon is told in the first person, the protagonist a teenager looking back, a year or so later, on how she behaved, the problems she had with her parents, and how she received a community service order for harassing an elderly woman when she was fourteen.

The idea of the journey Katia has been on, and what she learned from it, emerges immediately in the slightly wistful, wiser note we hear in the narrative voice, at times addressing the reader directly. The tone is very chatty and familiar, but never becomes annoying because of the way her delivery is pitched as that of an “older” Katia (a year later) looking back from a more mature vantage point. This makes the narration flow and triggers in the reader the desire to settle down, just like Katia and Olga did in an elegant Italian cafe, to find out what that journey was.

I was permanently miserable, either too big or too small for whatever it was I had to do, always having to rely on grown-ups for the simplest of decisions. My life was empty, boring, and I couldn’t think of a way to fill it with something different. I felt like a hamster on a wheel, spinning round and round but never going anywhere.

I blamed everyone else for how I felt, venting my anger at random, you know what it’s like. I knew, deep down, that I only had myself to blame. I was the one who was lost. To make matters worse, I had to put up phony smiles and grown-ups gushing, “Oh, to be fourteen again, what a marvellous age!” A crap age, more like. But people grow up, don’t they? They forget.

The idea of varied voice – the “older” and younger versions of Katia; the family that Katia fails to appreciate and the family that Olga loved and lost; the thawing of Katia’s icy attitude as she learns about the icy chill of the concentration camp; the transformation from an unforgiving to a more understanding teenager; the realization that “Cruella de Vil” is not a villain but a kindly old lady with a tortured past; and ultimately, the love that remained in Olga for Russia, and all Russians, despite the suffering it brought to many families – could be said to be reflected in the structure and literary flourish of the prose itself. Anna Lavatelli regularly alternates long and short sentences, switching bolshy teenage speak for gentler, more poignant language the more we venture into the beauty, but also the anguish and pain, of Olga’s life in Stalinist Russia:

One night someone stole my shoes. We used to keep them on all the time, but there were light-fingered thieves among us, people who’d slip them off you before you knew it. If you had no shoes, you couldn’t work. But you had to work to eat. Katia untied her laces and handed me her boots.

“What will you do?” I asked.

“I don’t need them where I’m going.”

I thought she’d found a job in the hut. Sometimes they’d have us empty the latrines.

My sister was dead before night fell.

The growing depth, in both character and plot, are captured beautifully in the poems of Yevgeny Yevtushenko:

Snow flakes are falling…

Some day I shall go…

About death I’m not worrying

I’m mortal, I know.

It’s Russia that I love so

with my backbone, my blood,

its rivers when iced, or

when lively they flood.

Deep in heart, feeling anxious,

I hope against hope

that I did help my Russia

to the extent I could cope.

It may once and for ever

forget me, with ease,

but I wish it would never

ever cease to exist.

I do not believe in.

immortality… well…

If Russia keeps living

I’ll keep living as well.


The English translation is very careful to maintain the flavour and register of the teenage voice in the Italian, updating it where necessary to be believable, but remaining, on the whole, faithful to an original which could be said, in places, to have a slightly urbane, rather than an edgy, urban, feel.

As the story advances, we realize this is intentional, the author using language to create the distance needed to hint at a journey, the growing up, that takes place in between. The connection with the young teenage self is cleverly maintained, as Katia confers with the reader about things only teenage readers like herself will understand.

To help place Non chiamatela Crudelia Demon, an obvious parallel, in terms of historic content, would be The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. The two share an ability to convey power and poignancy more through what is not said than what is. In this case, much meaning is also hidden between the lines of Yevtushenko’s beautiful verse.  

In terms of authenticity and the classical depiction of young angst – To Kill a Mocking Bird or Catcher in the Rye might be useful comparisons. This is not to say Lavatelli’s novel is akin to a great American classic (although it could well become a contemporary one) it does shares the same strong characterisation and point of view, inviting readers into a period of history, and making an albeit gentler attack on entrenched attitudes, in an equally authentic but less vernacular voice.



Review: Girl Detached by Manuela Salvi


Great book… so happy it found a home. And so honoured to have been part of it.

Bookends and Endings

Girl Detached 1.jpgAleksandra has issues with her voice. Stress makes her stutter, and her life is one of stress. She can only speak clearly on stage, freed by the words of the character she plays. Then, when Aleksandra befriends her new neighbour Megan, and through her meets charming, handsome Ruben, it seems she has discovered a doorway into a different world, and a different Alek. But Ruben wants Aleksandra to play a particular role for him, and it is one that will come close to destroying her.

So I actually read Girl Detached three months ago, back at the beginning of December. However, it has taken me since then to get around to writing a review – not because I didn’t like it; the case was rather the opposite. I think this book is one that should be read by many (I said that it was the last truly great book I…

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Fibbing our way to fiction


Creative writing task 2


How to write fiction in two easy steps:

construct a great big confection of fibs and use it to get to the truth

elicit common human experience from something that is imagined – largely lies

[Sarah Bower]

So, with the instruction largely “to concretise a lie and turn it into a story” here’s what I came up with. Oh, I should also add that the bones of the narrative were very kindly provided by the Brothers Grimm (The Companionship of the Cat and the Mouse).

Better together in post-Brexit Britain

An Englishman, a Scotsman and an Italian were looking for a flat in London. The rents were so expensive they eventually came to the conclusion that the only way to find a place would be to share. As much as they hated the idea of having to live with an imperialist master, a jock or an itai (delete as appropriate), the three went ahead and signed the rental contract, agreeing that they would each contribute in equal parts to the household bills, would share their food but would also cough up before they scoffed up. Read the rest of this entry

Translating Across Forms at BCLT


Shaking things up

trumpetIn the spirit of keeping things fresh, instead of talking about Italian books in translation, this week/month/season’s blog (it’s been a while and who knows when the next one will be!) is going to be about something completely different: translating across forms instead of from Italian. In other words, turning a piece of prose into poetry. It’s still translation of sorts and as it’s the closest I’ve ever come to actually penning poetry of my  own, forgive me if I toot my horn a little. Read the rest of this entry

A lion for a day in London


Migration in children’s literature

Migration was the watchword at many of the events I attended at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair this year.  With Italy at the forefront of one of the biggest human tidal waves since the second world war, this was to be expected. But coupled with the swell of racism, intolerance and homophobia rearing its ugly head in the country, children’s writers feel compelled to get the stories of the people behind the headlines and the voices behind the numbers into children’s fiction. “We’ve spent too long protecting our children,” publisher Della Passarelli (Sinnos Edizioni) stated. “We’ve robbed them of their ability to empathize, to realize that even though migration may not affect them directly, it does and must concern them.” Read the rest of this entry

Marking International Women’s Day III: Bad Girls do some Cool Stuff


How’s this for someone who doesn’t blog for two months? Nothing for ages then three in twenty-four hours! I always was good at rising to occasions, last-minute cramming, skidding into deadlines with mere seconds to go. And obviously a bit less good at sustaining the momentum. Ho hum.. the world’s beautiful because it’s vario, right?   And different is good, they always say.

So, I’m packing all my favourite girl-empowering books into my 24-hour mark of respect for International Women’s Day. Next one up is another stunner from Sinnos.


cattive ragazze

Winner of the 2014 Italian ANDERSEN prize for the Best Children’s Graphic Novel, Cattive Ragazze (Bad Girls) presents 15 outstanding biographies of 15 equally outstanding writers, voyagers, scientists, activists, philosophers, singers, painters and cyclists. All brave, independent women who refused to bend to society’s idea and expectations of them. All women, some more famous than others, who made their mark on history through the years.
Hedy Lamarr was a very rich, very pretty movie star and also an inventor who won the BULBIE, known as the “Oscar” of inventing. Nellie Bly was the first women journalist to go under cover. Antonia Masanello was the only women to fight in Garibaldi’s Mille.  These three “bad girls” keep very good company in this quirky but cool graphic novel: Olympe De Gouges – Elvira Coda Notari – Nawal El Saadawi –  Marie Curie – Aleksandra Kollontaj – Alfonsina Morini Strada – Angela Davis – Claude Cahun – Domitila Barrios De Chungara – Franca Viola – Miriam Makeba – Onorina Brambilla. Read the rest of this entry

Marking International Women’s Day II: Eugenia l’ingegnosa



Following on from last night’s story of the princess who was too busy studying to accept a marriage proposal, I’d like to present this little gem – Eugenia l’ingegnosa (Eugenia the Ingenious) as part of my celebration of female protagonists, female authors (Anne Wilsdorf), and female-run indy presses (Sinnos Editrice). Oh, I do love a story with a positive takeaway. Not only is it a bargain (two things for the price of one) it’s also excellent for girls to see different role models in their books. You know, princesses are nice, but they don’t always have to be marrying princes.

So, this book’s about Eugenia. Eugenia lives alone with her family on Nascondoni Island. Until she discovers another island – Nonsodove – that looks far more interesting.  Eugenia wants to go there. She tries with a plank of wood first, and fails. She tries again with a sort of floating bridge, and fails. Try and try again, Eugenia finally makes it to the island.  All sorts of things happen there, the most important of which are making lots of new friends and discovering she has a skill for building things. 

Suffice it to say this this is not a book about princesses and pink ribbons. If you want your little girl reading stories about building bridges and revelling in the wonders of the world around us, then this is the book for her. It’s definitely going on my list of books to take into schools and libraries, translate into English and maybe stick under someone’s (publisher person’s) nose. But for now, I’m sticking it under yours as I mark International Women’s Day. 

The idea for this story came from a group of feisty female engineers and architects in Switzerland who have been fighting for women’s rights for years. “We want our book to encourage girls to be curious and not settle for the games and toys they’re supposed to play with just because they’re girls.” Valérie Ortlieb, spokesperson for the group, said, “We  need to give girls activities and models of women that they can identify with. So that when they grow up and start thinking about who inspired them, they’ll think of a woman.” 

Switzerland (and Italy) both have a gender problem in the professional, technical world. Girls make up 50% of students in Architecture faculties but ten years later, that figure drops to 20%.  Maybe if we start our daughters, nieces, grand-daughters or friend’s children reading empowering stories like these when they’re young, they maybe we can inspire the confidence and self-belief to make it where society in general expects/wants/forces them to fail.

All about women, after all, it is IWD


It’s all in the grammar

I’ve been doing lots of reading workshops with children lately. Most of them have had either female protagonists or female authors (or both). It all started with La Grammatica La Fa La Differenza by one of my favourite Italian publishers (mammeonline). grammaticaIt’s a clever book full of ingenious stories that turn Italian sexist grammar on its head. Sexist? Italy?

The best one has to be about the princess who can’t marry prince charming because she’s too busy studying to be a lawyer (avvocatA, of course).  Or a group of school children wondering why we can’t just be people (persone) instead of “men” (uomini) and live together instead of in fratellanza.  Or asking themselves why suorA is okay for a nun but assessorA is not okay for a lady councillor. Equally confused is the girl who dreams that the bank (bancA) was actually just a bunch of school desks (bancO) in the street, or the door (portA) to her house had gone and turned into a harbour (portO).  Lots of interesting conversations were had… and the idea gradually formed that if teachers are already addressing mixed groups of children collectively as just “boys” (ragazzi/bambini) when they’re young, then is it any wonder that women are often undervalued, disregarded or mistreated when they’re older?

Let’s all  just read about cream cakes instead

Well, since it’s International Women’s Day, I thought I might pop in a few wee tips about other (as yet unpublished) books by or about women. Brought to us in Italian by another little Italian indy press: Atmosphere Libri.

“…beats its way slowly and deliciously through drizzling honey, buttered baking tins, quivering jellies and slabs of chocolate..”

panna chantilly

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Women Writers of Italy: here, there, everywhere


Translators’ Perspectives

I had the pleasant experience this week of attending an event in London – Translators’ Perspectives at Waterstones, Piccadilly, organized by neo-publisher and fellow literary translator Franca Simpson – presenting six works of fiction written by Italian women and translated into English by the star-studded panel of literary translators. A large and lively audience was treated to some amazing insights into the works  translated, and why (and who) the professionals on the panel love translating.

A new discovery

Read the rest of this entry

Empower not censor


Girls in the news

This has been a good week for girls in the news. We’ve had new leader of the Labour Party in Scotland, Kezia Dugdale, launch a gender-balanced cabinet, Yvette Cooper rebut sexist claims and invitations to withdraw from the fight to become leader of the UK Labour Party, and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon make headlines with her pledge to make sure there is no better place than Scotland to be educated.


Promoting diversity…..

As a translator who likes to promote women’s issues and diversity, preferably in books by women writers, I’m quite happy to see women making their rightful way in what are quite often male-dominated environments.

As a reader taking books into primary schools and libraries, I share the Scottish Government’s belief  that, to make progress and find your place in life, early learning is fundamental. What children are reading and the models they are exposed to is a big part of that. The Scottish system seems to be a progressive one, and, luckily, not tarred by people like Luigi Brugnaro.

…or not.

Luigi Brugnaro is the mayor of Venice who single-handedly set civil rights and attempts to tackle homophobia back several decades by banning a list of 50 children’s books. Why? Because the list was originally drawn up to help preschool educators fight prejudices and stereotypes and featured, amongst other things (even M. Rosen’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt!!), a male dog who aspired to be a ballerina, a little boy who wanted to be a princess, a princess who wanted to be a soccer player, a penguin adopted by two male penguins, and a little boy who drags a little red saucepan around with him as a metaphor for living with a physical disability. Hardly subversive stuff.


So why did Brugnaro and his ilk try to stop teachers from using them in the classroom? Because Italy is still a relatively conservative, patriarchal society that is “struggling to transform itself into an increasingly multicultural and multifaceted society” [New York Times, New York Times online edition, Aug 18, 2015].

Good girl role models

If reading any of these books can help to foster inclusiveness and respect, not to mention encouraging girls to achieve their full potential in whichever pursuit they choose, shouldn’t we make sure our children are reading them?

My answer is obviously a big “Yes!!”

This month I’ve decided to share one such book (not on Brugnari’s list though) that I had great fun reading with my daughter. It’s an excellent, action-packed fairy tale quest with a female protagonist who miraculously saves the day.


In Rosa Tiziana Bruno’s I Ladri di Favole [The fairytale thieves] someone has stolen imagination in sunny Solealto. Oh no!  And nothingness has descended. Yikes! Worse still, nobody seems to care! Grrrr! Well, except for Angelina that is. Phew!  Angelina is the toughest little cookie in town and she takes to her flying fork on an intercontinental mission to bring back creativity and enchantment.

An array of characters from classic tales are rolled out in her crusade to bring colour back to the world.  As she crosses continents, pulls into corners of the earth steeped in mystery and intrigue and meets peoples of many cultures, she learns that only by giving and sharing does she stand a chance of saving the world from nothingness.


Lessons between the lines

A female hero on a flying fork who saves the world. What is there not to like? We thoroughly enjoyed travelling the world with her, perched on the end of her flying fork, trying to work out what clever ruse she’d come up with to use the many wild and wacky gifts she’d collected to outsmart the fairytale thieves. This page-turning read in bouncy prose has little readers racing to the end, when the cheery, cheeky protagonist’s ingenious solution is finally revealed.

ladri di favole

As a mother and sometimes educator, I enjoyed the social commentary  and saw the potential to use the story as a didactic tool for anything from geography to cross-cultural understanding. You could even say it has echoes of the much-loved children’s classic, The Little Prince, to it. Especially when Angelina comes to the conclusion that,  “Imagination is the kingdom of children. Adults have other kingdoms, like work and money.

On numerous occasions, Angelina ponders the behaviour of adults, how they often make mistakes but don’t like to admit them, are indifferent to injustice as long as it doesn’t affect them, or place too much importance on money without worrying about the consequences.  Sound familiar?

ladri di favole 3Having read this book during the campaign for Scottish Independence last year, I had to laugh at the tongue-in-cheek portrayal of Angelina’s mum. She had so much tidying, cleaning, cooking and ironing to do that there was no way she’d have time to have a serious discussion with her daughter about saving the world.  UK readers among you might remember the patronising Better Together lady complaining that she had tea to drink, dishes to wash, and no time to be making historic decisions.

Italian red tape, corruption and media misinformation don’t escape the author’s biting wit either, as she describes pompous police chiefs using red tape to warrant inaction, men in suits who’re on TV more for their crimes than for their politics, and the many things that, oddly, don’t make the news.

The takeaways are multiple – but perhaps the most pertinent one for publishers, educators, parents, anyone interested in using books as a springboard for learning and to encourage critical thought in children is: “Sometimes the most serious things happen without anyone realizing. When good and bad become indistinguishable. When we can’t see what’s happening, even though it’s right under our noses.” 

I can certainly identify with that… and I’d be very happy for my small daughter to start thinking about it too, while lost in a fairy-tale quest to save the world in the swash-buckling hands of girl hero on a flying fork.