An inventive, subversive writer brings out the child in us all

Eugene Trivizas is the worst kind of subversive. He makes children jump up and down, turning a quiet afternoon into a riotous assembly; he makes them squish pages of books in their haste to find a favorite part; he instigates frequent interruptions; he undermines the adult world. This is hardly surprising, seeing as he moonlights as a professor of criminology at an English university when not inventing childrens’ stories of brilliance. He has an insider’s knowledge of how to break the rules and get away with it. But as a true storyteller, he also knows how to give the revolutionary and the strange the patina of the profound. At a level that we over-the-hillers can understand, that of the message, Trivizas overturns the world of traditional, well-known stories. In what is probably the best known of more than 100 books he has written to date, «The Three Little Wolves» and «The Big Bad Pig» (which has sold some 2 million copies in English worldwide), it is the poor little wolves who are the victims of a house-blasting hog. But, here, no one turns into anyone else’s bacon. Because, when the wolves run out of ways to fortify themselves against the ever more inventive pig, they resort to living in a fragile house of flowers. It turns out that the Big Bad Suspect Pig only wanted to get into the house because he wanted company. But the most subversive bit of the tale is when one remembers the beginning. The little wolves’ mother has provided the advice that leads to the source of their woes: Beware of the Big Bad Pig, she tells them before they go off to build their own home. So much for parental authority. This work is a successful example of the trend to overturn ancient tales and make them more palatable at a time of heightened awareness of children’s sensitivities. But when you start reading Trivizas’s books to children you see how much of a saboteur he is at a deeper level and how quickly things can go awry. I discovered this when I took his latest four books for a test drive last Saturday. «The Donkey Which Brayed» (with drawings by Liza Iliou), «The Grannies with the Yo-yos» (illustrated by Vangelis Eleftheriou), «The Sea-bream and the Mackerel» and «A Lonely Puppy» (both illustrated by Stephen West), have just been published by Ellinika Grammata, in Greek. The trouble starts when the children (three in this case study – aged seven-and-a-half, four and nearly three) realize that there are new books in the house with titles such as «To gaidouraki poy garize» and «Oi yiayiades me ta yo-yo.» There is no delaying an immediate reading. We all sit on the couch, one child to the left and two to the right, which leads to wild jockeying for a good position. Finally, the eldest lies on the top of the back of the couch, like a mermaid on a rock, peering over my shoulder. The children know fully well that these books are meant to be looked at. The illustrations are excellent. Each artist creates a different, provocative and complete world. Among these four books, the two favorites would probably be Liza Iliou’s drawings of the lazy donkey who was forced to work as a servant for a cruel and ugly witch, and Stephen West’s world of sea creatures as they line up for all-out war. The drawings, too, undermine parental control. You cannot keep the pace you want – with musical rhythms, significant pauses and dramatic crescendos – because by now you too have been swept away by the author’s inspired linguistic inventions. You cannot turn the page before everyone has had his fill of each disgusting insect in the wicked witch’s kitchen or every sea creature lining up for a Trojan War over a worm that hides a hook. You have to stop and turn back, or push ahead, because a three-year-old dictator saw something out of the corner of her eye or another wants to count the butterflies or another wants to show you what another just did. Everyone’s excited and you just want to get on with the story because, you too, want to know what’s next. Because Trivizas’s tales take flight in the language. A poet, he pushes Greek – already a voluptuous, mellifluous language – to its limits. He invents words, yokes disparate meanings together, presents the weird as everyday and the everyday as magical. His language is daring and his wild imaginings gain legitimacy through the basic goodness of his stories. This is a world both fantastic and real, played out in a few dozen pages. And the greatest magic he pulls off is that in bringing out the child in himself with such artistry he brings out the child in all of us. In the end, there were four of us equally enthralled, equally young, on the couch last Saturday.