A skilled enchanter of children

If there is a magical recipe for children’s literature, Vasso Psaraki seems to have discovered it. «The Wise Book of Soumoutou» (To sofo vivlio tis Soumoutou»), from Patakis publishers, is the latest example of a rare gift for divining what children want. Superbly illustrated and made entirely by hand (also available in a numbered collector’s edition), the book is a collection of mysterious potions and spells compiled by Soumoutou, a witch who lives in a stone tower with her apprentice Toutou. Young readers who attended a series of workshops Psaraki gave recently at the National Book Center (EKEBI) were enchanted, and not surprisingly. What child wouldn’t like to learn how to customize dragons, become invisible, travel underground and use bats’ wings to fly? Kathimerini English Edition asked Psaraki about her latest book, which was three years in the making. It was her young readers that inspired Psaraki to write «The Wise Book of Soumoutou,» she explained. «The adventures of Soumoutou had already figured in three novels, in each of which she referred to her Wise Book. I had lots of letters from children wanting to know about it, and at some point I felt I had to produce it. I ordered a huge book from a bookbinder and started to make it, with the help of friends. I’d ask anyone who came round to add a recipe.» All the references in the latest volume come from recipes mentioned in the other novels, which Soumoutou has compiled from her extensive library and with the help of another 12 witches. That was the difficult part, because Psaraki decided to present each witch’s contributions in a different style and handwriting. «It was difficult but also good fun,» she explained. «Their writing had to be different; the images had to be different. I used pastels, collage, engravings and other methods. It took me three years.» Now she is making «The Children’s Wise Book» with the help of the children she meets when she visits schools. They love participating and each class makes a page of their own. At one school, for example, the children brought along recipes from their mothers and grandmothers. This means the book has acquired a life of its own: «It doesn’t stop when you do,» said Psaraki. «It has a future.» Originally an illustrator, Psaraki began writing her own children’s books at the instigation of a friend to whom she had recounted a story drawn from observations of nature. «We have a piece of land at Marathon with an old abandoned pool. It was full of frogs that were so noisy you could barely sleep. But one night when there my husband and I went out just in time to catch sight of a huge white heron that had eaten all the frogs except one, which refused to be photographed it because it was so frightened.» That story became «The Frog with the Yellow Stripe.» But it really started with the pictures, she said. «The text was more like captions.» Her observations of nature are recorded in photographs, sketches and brief texts in a beautiful small illustrated non-fiction volume, «The Little Album of Nature» (2003, Patakis). What does she plan to do next? «Now I want to do something that’s not mine; it’s more difficult than your own, though that has its difficulties too. But something else makes you go beyond yourself, do things you hadn’t thought of. And it enhances your own work later.» The author Vasso Psaraki was born in Athens in 1945. She started as an illustrator in 1975 and later began writing children’s literature. She has illustrated 54 books and written 14 of her own. Her work has been exhibited in group and solo shows and has won awards in Greece and abroad. In 1998 she won the Greek State Award for Illustration.