#20BooksOfSummer is an annual event hosted by Cathy Brown of 746 Books and runs from 1st June until 1st September With the aim to clearing a target of 5, 10 or 20 books from your TBR but with very relaxed and fun rules.
Here is my joining post & List!
The Tzar’s Curious Runaways by Robin Scott Elliot
In the days after the death of Peter The Great, Tzar of Russia, the Tzarina has made it clear that his living collection of human curiousities will be swept from the Winter Palace, the nobles take that as a sort of invitation to lay waste to the numerous dwarves and those suffering from afflictions such as gigantism, skeletal problems and neuro-muscular disorders.
Katinka, the ballerina with spine deformities, Alexei, a gentle teenager with gigantism and Nikolai the Dwarf escape the palace with the aid of a sympathetic guard, and one of the late Tzar’s advisors who gives them a map that seems enchanted to help them find their way to a new home, where Katinka is from, far, far across the steppes in the Ural Mountains. But this is a dangerous trek for any Russian, let alone three who are not only visibly different, but being hunted.
The fact that our tale features not just one but three teens with diagnosable visible body differences, but more so who are the protagonists having an adventure like any other child could, is a point to raise praise for.
Neurodiverse, disabled, ‘differently abled’, body differences and limb different children have been more represented in children’s literature in the last decade, but there is still a long way to go. There are notable and brilliant exceptions but rarely these children are a protagonist and if they are, it is often within an ‘issues’ book such as on bullying or campaigning for equality or they magically get cured.
Whilst this wanders into the issues and discrimination they have experienced in life and will face on their journey, at its core this is three body-different children having an adventure and feeling free for the first time in their lives with their differences not in spite of them and coming to recognise that there is no one else they would rather be.
“I wont, you know… I won’t apologise for what I am.”Nikolai to Katinka
Katinka has ‘a crooked back’ implied as a hunchback in the blurb although little more is developed of this, we can assume acute kyphosis or scoliosis or perhaps a rounded back from infantile rickets or malnutrition made worse by hypermobility. She was taken from her home aged 6 to dance for the Tzar’s court (which ironically we know today would have made her spinal condition worse) and educated in the royal nursery to act as a reminder of their privilege to the Princesses. But she is full of dreams and potential, we see the frustrations of what it must have been to be poor, female and with a visible disability in this time as Katinka is worth a thousand Princesses in heart, intelligence and courage.
Alexei, a teenaged boy with gigantism was destined for a life as a bodyguard to the Tzar, well until Peter went and died! Alexei tires and hungers easily but is brave and open of heart, but of very few words, but when he does there is deep wisdom and truth within them, he uses those words to the best effect.
Nikolai on the other hand is full of words, but missing a name. When Kat rescues him, gives him a name and invites him on their escape Nikolai is petulant, bitter and negative, but we come to learn his heart is hard for very sad reasons. Dwarves we know from History were treated appallingly and Peter the Great ‘collected’ them and used them to both ‘entertain’ and embarrass his court through humiliation.
The way this unlikely trio, learn how they belong and fit together like a Matryoshka is a beautiful story and we are lifted by Katinka’s hope, Alexei’s loyalty and Nikolai’s biting wit throughout the ups and downs of their epic voyage to find a home.
The three of them ran and laughed and yelled and hooted and screamed and leapt and whirled their arms around like windmills in a hurricane.
However, I admit I had a few personal itches, not issues, itches. I fully am aware that this may be my own sensitivities flaring being the parent of two children who have an undiagnosed genetic condition with short stature for their ages (unrelated to dwarfism), and have been teased by peers for it; but may be more so for readers who themselves experience discrimination for their disabilities or conditions.
Whilst accepting that it is historically accurate (and sadly still contemporary) I personally felt uncomfortable with the repetition throughout of the word ‘Freaks’, and wobbly about sections depicting the flashbacks of Nikolai which are very sad and unbearably cruel even though it reflects historical accounts.
For this reason I would not recommend this book to younger middle grade readers, nor to those lacking emotional intelligence, this is too powerful and moving a piece of writing to be treated flippantly. Or worse, laughed at because the child lacks the emotional maturity to process it.
There’s a fine line between exploring the concept of dignity, building empathy by emphasising the emotional experiences of those with such visible differences and the risk of going too far and thus possibly dehumanising or caricaturing trauma for the reader who lacks the skills to comprehend or appropriately react to it.
However, within Tzar’s at least, adventure, the kindness between the trio and the hope within the book certainly balance the reader to empathy, but it is a note of precaution for teachers and librarians to bear in mind when recommending.
I wont give up, no matter how they treat us- I promise you.Katinka to Nikolai
For those with the heart and openness to learn, it is a magical and powerful epic story of resilience, friendship and growth, as Katinka awakens to the truth of her past, Alexei learns how he is needed for more than being physically imposing, and Nikolai releases his bitter demons and finds a family who each wants the others to be in their lives, and each wants to be part of this little family.
To belong, to be wanted just as they are, nothing more or less.
I am what I am.Katinka, Alexei and Nikolai.
The Tzar’s Curious Runaways by Robin Scott Elliot is published by Everything With Words