25 Nov Alki Zei: an ambassador of Greece for children’s literature
For Greece Alki Zei represents the major figure of contemporary children’s literature.
The innovative and avant-garde novels, short stories and plays that she has written have obtained many distinctions and awards, including a State prize, an Athens Academy award, various national and international distinctions and, ultimately, the Honorary Doctorate proclamation of hers by the Universities of Cyprus and Salonika. Her autobiography, entitled “With a pencil Faber-Castell number two” and published in October 2013, became immediately a hit and a best seller and was awarded the 2014 readers prize, a competition lead by the largest bookstore chain in Greece.
Her writings carry high human values and offer great pleasure of reading, thus resulting to be indelibly impressed on memory.
For 50 years now she has affected with her works a large readership in Greece. Because of the values they carry, many of her books are studied at school and her most popular novels are often performed on stage. Others have been serialized for television. The love and affection of children and grownups, who had read her books while young, is so strong that every public event for a book of hers is crowded by people who want to meet her and express their gratitude.
A main feature of her stories is the projection of her own life experiences on her heroes’ lives achieving to present to the younger generations events of the troublesome recent Greek history in a collected but sharp way. At the same time, moral values, like for example solidarity, daring or sincerity, emerge from her books, as well as discreet ideological messages, but with no attempt to moralize or preach.
Her work is characterized by realism, social concern for contemporary problems of urban society and respect for historical truth. Despite the realism and seriousness of their subject matter, her books stand out for their optimistic view on life and their delicate humour, without lacking either the gift of fiction, therefore constituting admirable literary works.
The viewing of reality, historical and social, through the eyes, the speech, the spiritual and psychological maturity of children, makes her texts particularly attractive to the child reader.
As she states “It’s true, history emerges through the lives of my characters. Having lived through a war, an occupation, two civil wars and two dictatorships, everything that I myself have experienced is built in my characters. If I chose to write for children, it is because I wanted to put down important moments of the history of our country, that my generation has lived, as I’m afraid that if these events are not recorded they’ll be forgotten when we will have been gone. You see, always and everywhere, textbooks write only what power wants the
So what one knows by reading Alki Zei’s books, in particular Wildcat under glass, Petro’s war and The purple umbrella, which altogether constitute a trilogy on Greece’s history between the decade 1936 – 1946, is the atrocities of war (Second World War), the oppression of dictatorship, the hardship of the lack of freedom, the torture of hanger. But at the same time these difficult and uneasy themes are incorporated in intriguing adventures with lovely characters, funny stories and a lot of suspense.
“Famine is a horror story on its own, she says. If someone sees it in cold blood, he would wonder whether we should tell children such a horror story. It’s what I describe in Petros’ war, where the two young heroes threw away Petros’ deceased grandmother, whom he loved very much, because if they declared her death for burying her, they would also have to deposit her bread coupon, which was precious for their survival! But, alas, that was a true story that happened indeed during the Nazi occupation.”
Alki Zei’s books are a lot known outside Greece as well. Most of the titles of her works have been published in a large variety of languages and a number of countries around the world, not to mention the adaptations of her works for Cuban television and the inclusion of some of her works as textbooks in Italy and Cyprus. What is though especially remarkable, is the admiration that is often expressed for her work by foreign publishers, translators, literary critics and agents, making of Alki Zei an excellent ambassador of Greece’s literature, like Kazantzakis, Kavafis, Seferis or Elytis.
Another trait of her work is its timelessness. Wildcat under glass, first published in 1963 and translated in about 35 languages, continues today to charm the readership within Greece and abroad. Apart from the various international distinctions and honours it has gained, it is now considered to be a classic work because of the fact that foreign publishers seek nowadays to republish it, despite the unavoidable truth that the book is envisaged more as a product that has to bring profit than as a cultural good.
Motivated by her vast love for children, she is very much involved in their sensitization for reading. She participates regularly in literary exchanges at schools, libraries and bookstores where she meets and discusses with children. She strongly supports the work of teachers who encourage children to read books, believing that the teacher’s role is much more influential in this respect.
«Today our children are confused because grownups are also confused, Alki Zei says. It is really pathetic that a child feels the despair and agony of unemployment since the age of primary school, knowing that no matter how good education he takes there will be little prospect when he grows. When the young have no hope, no country can progress. However, education, reading and open mind are elements that can change the image. Consequently, what we want is that children read enough books so that they are able to think and this is the only hope for something better. »
As we go through a period of crisis and ideological bewilderment, we seek new values and directions. Alki Zei’s work is full of values and model behavior that lead to an active, responsible and humanitarian attitude. One thing is certain: that with her books, but also with her personality, she leaves an intense effect and, as a literary critic has put it for Alki Zei: “what she has done and what she is doing is almost a national benefaction”.