Tuesday, March 26, 2024

The Wildcat Behind Glass by Alki Zei

I've really been looking forward to today's read. It's set in Greece in the 1930's and takes a look at the country's switch from a democracy to a dictatorship and Fascism at that time. It was published originally in Greek in 1963, was translated once into English around 1968, and is finally getting another, fresh run in the English language. It has been published in many languages since then and has received many awards. Plus, it should weave fantasy along the border of reality, while diving deep into a difficult part of history. 

I do hope this one is as good as it seems to be because...well, who doesn't love a good read?

by Alki Zei
Translated by Karen Emmerich
Restless Books
Middle Grade Historical
240 pages
ages 8 to 12 (and older)

MAY 21st!!!

After its original publication in Greece in 1963, and the 22 translations, 39 editions, and many awards that followed, Wildcat Under Glass remains a beloved children’s classic. This translation by Karen Emmerich is the first in more than 50 years and breathes new life into the timeless story. 

Wildcat under Glass follows a young girl and her family as they adapt to life on a Greek island during the 1930s under a Fascist regime. Melia and Myrto are two sisters from an Aegean island who enjoy listening to their grandfather’s tales and share a secret language. Yet, what they truly cherish are the fascinating accounts of the wildcat's adventures told by their cousin Nikos. The wildcat in question is a stuffed feline that resides in a glass cabinet in their living room, with a blue and a black glass eye, which Nikos tells them he alternates based on his mood. One summer day, their lives abruptly change, leaving them to wonder who could be behind the potential harm to their beloved wildcat. Melia’s perspective provides a unique and childlike outlook on the historical period, with a dialogue that balances playfulness and introspection. 

The book analyzes and explores social issues while maintaining a universal appeal that transcends time and place. Despite being a historical narrative, the account has a timeless quality that makes it relatable to readers from all backgrounds. Since its initial publication 61 years ago, the book continues to be recognized and loved by readers and critics alike. Wildcat Under Glass (Restless 2024) will be the second-ever English translation of the book from the Greek, and the first one since Edward Fenton’s translation in 1968. 

This iconic piece of Greek literature has stood the test of time and continues to be enjoyed by both new and old generations. Its significance has been recognized internationally, with multiple awards, including the 2007 Premio Andersen – Il mondo dell’infanzia (Italy) and the 1970 Mildred L. Batchelder Award (U.S.).


This is one of those rare reads, which masterfully weaves emotions and thoughts using imagination and harsh reality to deliver a tale that transcends age and time. 

Melia can't wait until their cousin Nikos returns and continues his stories about the stuffed wildcat, which stands in a glass case in their living room. It was killed after swimming across the ocean from the mainland to their Greece island and has two, differently colored eyes, always showing only one according to its mood...according to the stories. This time, Myrto is exceptionally excited about Nikos arrival because life around them is getting a little strange. The adults whisper and gossip about the king, dictators, and possible unrest, and Myrto is told to watch what she says or her father might lose his job. When Niko arrives, he tells his stories and plays with Myrto and the rest like always...but something's changed. His tales no longer are fueled by fantasy but carry information about the world. When he speaks about a war in Spain and possibly leaving for good, Myrto knows something's not right, but that's nothing compared to the shift in the atmosphere of everyone around her. The king has declared dictatorship, and while life still continues, it's nothing like before.

Myrto is a very playful girl, who isn't sure what she thinks of school, enjoys spending time outside, gets impatient during 'adult' events, and looks forward to the annual return of her favorite cousin. Her relationship with her sister, relatives, neighbors, and those around her comes across naturally. She's easy to relate to, and the author does a wonderful job at keeping the entire read as if it truly is through her eyes, the eyes of a middle grader. While she does have an active imagination and loves to have fun, like every other kid that age, she also picks up on the adults' worries, concerns, and mumblings...but then, what kid doesn't? While she doesn't understand everything that is going on, she does see and feel the changes, which gives this read its true impact. It's innocent, holds humor and playfulness, and weaves in imagination to create a potent mix.

The messages and historical aspects head in a serious direction, and there are moments which hit with emotion and tug at the heart. There is more than a little food for thought, and plenty of aspects can be used for discussions and offer material for classroom settings. Not only does the book dive into the historical, political and cultural aspects, but even the literary side offers many gems. Especially the symbolism surrounding the wildcat is a treat.

 Most importantly, this is a fun read. The humor and imagination keep a light playfulness humming along while the harsher side pokes in the background. I'm going to be tossing this read into my homeschooling line-up for next year because it's one that shouldn't be missed.

As an extra bonus...

Since there is so much to enjoy in this read on so many levels, the publisher offers a discussion guide packet for free! Head on over to learn more:


And here they are..

Alki Zei, born in Athens in 1923, studied philosophy at the University of Athens, drama at the Athens Conservatory, and screenwriting at the Moscow Cinema Institute. She got her start in publishing by writing YA short stories for the Greek magazine Neaniki Foni.

During the Second World War, she was actively involved in the struggle for freedom and democracy and against the German occupation of Greece. Because of it, she became a political refugee in the Soviet Union from 1954 to 1964. Three years later, she was exiled once again, but this time to Paris, France. From 1974 until her death in 2020, she lived in Athens.

Zei penned books for mostly children and YA audiences, but her unassuming and straightforward method of writing, along with her narrative skills, has allowed her work to be enjoyed by all ages. Her books Achille’s FiancĂ©e, The Wildcat Behind Glass, and Petros’ War are among the best-sold titles in contemporary Greek literature. 

Besides being a prolific writer, she was also a translator of children's books from French, Italian, and Russian, and was the Greek translator of authors Gianni Rodari and Vera Panova.

Karen Emmerich is a translator of Modern Greek poetry and prose. Her translations include Rien ne va plus by Margarita Karapanou, Landscape with Dog and Other Stories by Ersi Sotiropoulos, I’d Like by Amanda Michalopoulou, Poems (1945–1971) by Miltos Sachtouris, and The Few Things I Know About Glafkos Thrassakis by Vassilis Vassilikos. She is the recipient of translation grants and awards from the NEA, PEN, and the Modern Greek Studies Association. Recently, Emmerich was awarded the 2019 National Translation Award for What’s Left of the Night by Ersi Sotiropoulos. She is an associate professor of comparative literature at Princeton University. 

No comments: