Greek books for children try fresh look and new approach

Children’s books in Greece are moving into the future with new themes, fresh treatment and an innovative approach to presentation. Where titles intended for the very young often labored under an excess of worthiness and an all too apparent didactic intent, the latest crop of titles evince a refreshing understanding of what children want. Best seller That’s not to say that tried and true won’t work any more. Kedros has had a runaway best seller with Sofia Hatzikokolaki’s «Ta Epangelmata pou den iparchoun pia…» (Bygone Trades), published this year and already in its sixth edition. Charming illustrations by Violeta Diamanti-Meletiou accompany short poems describing the large cast of colorful individuals who were a common sight in Greece until the 1950s, when the author was growing up, but who have, for the most part, disappeared. Gone are the itinerant knife-sharpeners, tinkers, milkmen, carriage drivers, water carriers and mattress makers depicted here, but many of the trades mentioned live on, at least in the inner suburbs of Athens. Who hasn’t seen a shoeshine man, a chair repairer or a chestnut vendor? As for the grocer with his donkey delivering vegetables, even the Olympic Games closing ceremony paid tribute to his present-day successors, the Gypsies with their pickup trucks who keep up the tradition. Being different One area where the authors of Greek children’s picture books have often been less daring than many of their counterparts abroad is the choice of themes and the treatment of sensitive topics. That is changing, however, and a title just out from Ellinika Grammata is a refreshing example of a new approach. «Thelo mono na paixo mazi sou» (I Only Want to Play with You), a new picture book written by Merkourios Avtzis and superbly illustrated by Nikolas Andrikopoulos, broaches the delicate question of a child who is different from the others. Manos is a little boy with a ready smile who adores playing. Anna-Maria and Alexis, who live in the same street, reject him because he looks strange to them: Manos has Down’s Syndrome. It’s a simple tale of one child trying to join the group, being spurned repeatedly yet persisting in his attempts because, as he says, «I only want to play with you.» But when he follows the other two who have gone to hunt butterflies, events take a different turn and Manos helps his new playmates find out things they never knew. Turning point This straightforward tale is told as a story, not a lesson, appealing directly to young readers. The illustrations add to the magic, capturing the yearning of Manos, the adventure of playing outdoors and an extraordinary moment when the three children catch sight of their faces reflected in a pond. The ripples of the water swirl their images around, making all three faces look alike. That moment of fearful recognition and identification is the turning point. The booming world market in children’s activity books is reflected in local production too. The Papdopoulos publishing house is one of many that have started to put out more innovative titles for children. Their latest is a series of four books by illustrator Mark Weinstein. The «Play with Fairy Tales» books are adaptations of classic fairy tales that include activities designed for children aged 4 to 7. Interactive books build on the pleasure of reading by drawing the child into the process of constructing a story while practicing basic learning skills. From simple coloring in and coloring by numbers, the young reader moves on to selecting appropriate pictures or dialogue from a range of possible choices at the back of the book. In «Little Red Riding Hood,» the reader helps the heroine find her way through a maze of trees to her grandmother’s house, while in «Pinocchio» the hero and Geppetto need help escaping from the shark’s belly. Some activities are freer: In «The Wolf and the Seven Kid Goats,» children can work from their own imagination to illustrate the dream of the wicked wolf. Alphabet More conventional in style but attractively presented are two more titles from Kedros. For the youngest readers, Giorgos Marinos’s «ABC,» illustrated by Katerina Veinoglou, weds illustrations that look as if they’ve been done by children – think of potplants sprouting flowers made of letters – to catchy rhymes that make the alphabet unforgettable. Older children and adults who appreciate a new slant on traditional tales will like the intensely local flavor of «Paramythia tis Peloponnisou» (Fairy Tales of the Peloponnese) by Zoe Spyropoulou and illustrated by Costis Valasis. Air of change In the main, Greek children’s books rely on established recipes for success, but as this small sample of new titles indicates, change is in the air. Greek participation in children’s book fairs abroad makes local writers, illustrators and publishers aware of what others are doing in the same field, which is one of the book industry’s most creative and productive sectors. And that cross-fertilization helps talented writers and illustrators at home.