[b]This year, famous writer and public figure Vladimir Lipsky celebrates at least two significant anniversaries: 35 years as chief editor of Rainbow (a children’s magazine); and 25 years leading the Belarusian Children’s Fund[/b]A laureate of the Belarus State Prize, and of the literary awards of Yanka Maur and Vasil Vitka, Mr. Lipsky is a member of the National Commission for Children’s Affairs. He’s also written wonderful fairy tales and adventure stories for young readers, creating the magical land of Bukvaria and setting other tales in real Belarus. His writing has drawn on his own life experiences, describing his mother and father and researching his family tree. He’s even written a series on famous Belarusians, with more than ten fascinating biographies now in print.
A laureate of the Belarus State Prize, and of the literary awards of Yanka Maur and Vasil Vitka, Mr. Lipsky is a member of the National Commission for Children’s Affairs. He’s also written wonderful fairy tales and adventure stories for young readers, creating the magical land of Bukvaria and setting other tales in real Belarus. His writing has drawn on his own life experiences, describing his mother and father and researching his family tree. He’s even written a series on famous Belarusians, with more than ten fascinating biographies now in print.
His writing has earned him the Russian Alexander Grin Literary Prize, which honours his stories about his family: Mother. A Son’s Prayer; and Father. Letters to the Sky. They also recognise his many years of service to children’s literature. Alexander Grin (whose true surname is Grinevsky and whose father hailed from Belarus) is known for his novels Scarlet Sails and Running on Waves.
His creativity is supplemented by charitable endeavours, which have brought him the Nobel Prize for selfless work in the spirit of kindness and humanity. He has also been awarded the Order of St. Demetrius ‘For Mercy’: presented by the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, Alexy II.
For many of us, childhood is the happiest time; it passes fast but remains with us, like a dream, at the edge of our consciousness. Vladimir’s friends joke that he is ‘stuck’ in his childhood, having found not only a ‘gold mine’ of creativity, but purpose. More than half of his sixty books are aimed at children. We might wonder how he has found the time, especially with his work for the Children’s Fund! Now, aged over 70, he has dedicated a book to his daughter and to his son, to his grandson Anton and to his granddaughter Masha. He notes that he never stops learning from children.
This year, Mr. Lipsky’s unusual book, Sun Overhead, has been published, in the form of a 202 page diary by a grandfather to his youngest grandchild, Tolik — who has just begun school, aged seven. The ‘story’ unfolds, showing how the boy has grown from a baby, gradually gaining confidence in the world around him. Somewhere in the middle, in the 95th entry, the grandfather confesses, as Tolik starts kindergarten: ‘I’ve long believed that children should be ‘brought up’ but now believe in a new wisdom: we shouldn’t create anything new in a child’s mind unless it builds on what already exists. That’s the answer! I want Tolik to be more than an empty vessel into which teachings, suggestions and ready knowledge are poured. I don’t want you to be just a voice recorder, repeating anything you’re told. I don’t want you to be an elevator, driven by others, or a mat on which everyone wipes their feet. I want you to be an engine producing your own energy. This will bring success in life. The ‘fuel’ for this motor, I think, should be health, brains and character. Acquire all these and develop; then, you’ll become a man!’
Reading Sun Overhead, I was inte-rested to look through the ‘grandfather’s eyes’ not only at his grandson but to understand the author’s soul. The grandfather and grandson make discoveries together: ‘how small cucumbers grow, why a single branch can display both green and red tomatoes, how butterflies arrive and why fish yawn without water’. Sometime after Tolik’s birth, the entry reads: ‘You, my friend, are ten months old and I am already 66. I tell you secretly: I continue living as if in childhood and youth. I do not feel my age in my outlook, in my pace or in my expectations. I want to look at the world with wide eyed wonder, joy and delight, as you do. With the eyes of love! This is the main thing.’
My friend, the writer Victor Kazko, also speaks of a lively grandfather in the foreword to his children’s book, which has over 300 pages. He notes at first that ‘in Belarus, there are no old men without jokes and gimmicks’. Then, he reveals his biggest secret: ‘Grandfathers fool their grandchildren into thinking that they are creating original tales’. Tales such as those narrated in Queen of White Princesses may appear to be recounted from years of listening and experience, drawing on imagination, but are certainly not an original vision of the world.
Naturally, we can all argue that our imagination is formed in childhood and never leaves us. Psychologists believe that all our habits and opinions, hopes and fears are shaped in those early years. Our character is formed from the youngest age. Like famous poet Sergey Mikhalkov and legendary Eduard Uspensky, Mr. Lipsky plucks those childhood intuitions deep from his soul and presents them to today’s young readers.
What drew you to children’s fiction, and writing in general? Anyone who has read your Parents and Children, which are in the form of diaries, or has turned the pages of your biography, knows that you began by working at Grodno Combine near Nesvizh, then joined the Komsomol, but that most of your life has been spent at the magazine Rainbow. How did that transition occur?
Now I’m of a good age, looking back, it feels as if I’ve worked for children all my life. Why is this so? I think the answer is that I didn’t have a real childhood of my own, so I took my first steps in that world through writing. Believe me, I still look at the world through children’s eyes, despite being over 70. It’s as if I’m in a land of childhood, playing with those toys that I never had and feeling emotions I never experienced before. In my latest book for Tolik, my grandson, I recall the Nazis burning our village, when I was just 3 years old. It was the small village of Shovkavichi, in the Rechitsa District, in Polesie. They were peaceful people who deserved nothing bad to happen. I recall, or maybe my imagination has brought to life the stories relatives told me, that partisans came one Sunday morning, shouting that the Nazis were coming and would burn the village. They showed us where to run and gave us just five minutes to get ready. My mother took me by the hand and told the other five children to stay close. We left everything, except for my father taking our icon and some potatoes to feed us children in the forest. My parents thought only of how to save us. I’m very grateful to them for that love, which inspired me to write my books about my mother and father. We lived in that forest in tents, then in earth huts, staying there until the end of the summer, through autumn and then the winter of 1943. All six of us children stayed alive and healthy.
‘We live in an earthen house: a hole in the earth covered with twigs, branches and turf. In short, it’s like a fox’s hole or a wolf’s den. The Nazis forced our residents of Shovkovichi to live in the forest like animals. Those conquerors came to burn our houses. What evil had we done you? Only God knows how our mother managed to feed us. She patiently took up her cross through the war. She warmed us with her care, fed us with tenderness, entertained us with her inventions and elevated us with her faith. You are in my heart, Mummy!’
(From ‘Mother. A Son’s Prayer’)
You experienced war through your own childhood and could not play freely, which is why you like to create a new childhood. Did you have any toys in the forest?
While we were living in the earthen house, when I was 4, my brother made me a gun. There were partisans there, so that influenced our games. He took a stick, fastened a stone to it and then a rope for me to hang it over my shoulder. I recall walking with that gun in the forest, entering one of the other earthen houses and saying seriously, “I’ve returned from war; maybe, you have some food to share?” I was hungry. The lady inside replied absolutely sincerely, “Son, we have nothing except a piece of pancake.” I answered, “That’s ok.” I took it, sat and ate. The woman began crying, which I didn’t understand at the time but do now. She was crying at children playing such games. I also want to cry sometimes, when I see children in Afghanistan or Africa, under 7 years old, holding real automatic guns. Who will they grow to become? I’m grateful to that woman, as that piece of pancake was a great joy to me.
Do you still like toys, spending all your time with children?
Yes, I’ve travelled all over the world, as people say, and bring back toys from different countries. For example, I have a clockwork horse that plays music from the USA, a monkey from Mexico, a laughing toy from Berlin and others. I played with them with my grandchildren when they were younger, which inspired some fairy tales. Several of my works were inspired by real prototypes. I remember playing with my little daughter Marina, who was entrusted to my sole care for two days. I gave her all the toys, so she wouldn’t cry. Later, when my wife returned, I offered Masha any toy she liked to keep hold of but she replied, “Can I take you?” She now has her own daughter, student Masha, and Tolik, aged 7. I wrote about my son Igor in ‘Grishka’s Adventures’, and about his son in ‘Antonik-pony’. I wrote about my daughter in ‘Marina’s Fairy Tale’, and about my granddaughter in ‘Our Masha’. Tolik appears in ‘Sun Overhead’. Sometimes, I’m criticised for writing about my relatives but many writers do so. Yakub Kolas devoted books to each of his three sons; it’s normal. After all, you can write about what you see in front of you, simply watching, listening, considering, understanding and switching on your imagination.
‘Dear Tolik! I was lucky to see the sunrise and, the same day, enjoyed a full rainbow in the sky. Probably, there are no more beautiful miracles in the world than sunrise and rainbows in the sky. We should all work as hard as the sun; it’s a tireless workaholic. No matter what happens on Earth — war or fire, tsunamis or earthquakes, volcanic eruptions or an avalanche sliding from the mountains — the sun remains in its place. It rises, sends its rays to the ground and sets, giving people a chance to rest. We don’t always see it but it’s a constant guardian in the sky, always working. Sometimes, I think that the sun is our God. It’s the same towards everyone. It wants to be kind to everyone, but not everyone likes it — just as is the case for God’s care.’
(From ‘Sun Overhead’)
Do you still play with your youngest grandson, Tolik?
Oh, he just called me and is waiting. Tolik is in first grade and has already been in ‘Rainbow’. We play with cars in the evening: his ambulance, fire truck and others. It’s interesting for us. In summer, we fish, or do something about the house, or ride his bicycle. We go to a cottage near Minsk, near Lysaya Gora (owned by the Union of Writers). We often walk through the forest, studying the trees and grass. There are birds there and butterflies. He asks me to show him where I was born and where my father’s grave is located, which pleases me. In my book, I write a lot about him and for him; he’ll read it when he grows up. We’ve already given autographs together, at my book launch. He loved that.
What drew you to writing and why do you write mostly for children?
I started to write about Shovkovichi residents early on, while I was in the 4th and 5th class, for the local newspaper. I thought them beautiful, though they were grimy, and I wanted to thank my countrymen for their kindness and hard work. I still have these small articles from the district newspaper, which are my most precious publications. I decided that I’d be a journalist, especially after I’d written about an absentee foreman, who was fired as a result. No one would complain that he wouldn’t lend a horse to plough a field or bring anything, as they were afraid. Suddenly, a boy did this! I felt the power of the truth and of the creative word. I then came to Minsk to study. My father made a suitcase for me, into which I placed books and a piece of salo [pig fat]. Only in the capital did I realise how strange I looked, wearing my father’s trousers, my neighbour’s shirt and the canvas coat and cap of a railway man. I was scared! What should I do? Someone from our school had studied at the college I applied to, having recommended it to me. I chose to study with the Sugar Department, thinking I’d learn how to make sweets; however, they taught us how to refine sugar and I went to Gorodeya as a mechanic.
I wrote for the Nesvizh District newspaper and studied journalism remotely, visiting various editors’ offices and working as a freelance journalist for youth and children’s newspapers. Then I married and my son Igor was born. I started looking after him and wrote a lot. Pavel Pronuzo was the first real writer I’d met in Nesvizh; I showed him my diary and he pronounced it to be literature. So, it was for Igor that I wrote ‘Grishka’s Adventures’.
Did you receive advice from any other writers?
Before I published the book, I showed extracts to Vasily Vitka, ‘Rainbow’s’ chief editor: the magazine for small children, written in Belarusian. I was working for Komsomol at the time, and the editorial office was in the same building, at 40, Karl Marx Street: I just went one floor down. I remember that Vasily Vitka, Ales Polchevsky and Sergey Grakhovsky were sitting there: three literary giants in one room. Mr. Vitka smiled and said, “Vladimir, read us what you’ve brought.” As I read, I found weaknesses and began to perspire. I said that I’d return another time, so he smiled and agreed. As a wise man, he didn’t criticise me. It’s a tactic I apply to authors myself. I rewrote my works a couple of times and they were published on the first two pages of ‘Rainbow’ in the late 1960s. That was my debut into the literary world, and it inspired me! I became friends with Mr. Vitka, whose creativity seemed at an unreachable height. My first book was thin. Recently, I found it in a library. It was well read and a bit shabby, so I changed it for a new one: a large folio of my stories and fairy tales for children. I was published more in ‘Rainbow’ and so it went on.
So Rainbow made you a children’s writer...?
(Laughing) It can happen this way: we do business, and the business shapes us. Ivan Shamyakin then invited me to the Writer’s Union from Komsomol, to be an executive secretary. For two and a half years, I was the main doorkeeper, arriving first and leaving last, conducting meetings and events. The building near Gorky Park had just opened, so our work flow was being adjusted. I reported to Maxim Tank and Ivan Shamyakin about the daily situation. These were unforgettable meetings. I have books autographed by Konstantin Simonov and other famous writers; I even met Rasul Gamzatov. I also joined delegations travelling outside Belarus.
When Anatoly Grechanikov moved on from his editor’s position at ‘Rainbow’, I applied and Mr. Shamyakin recommended me, although I was not yet a member of the Writers’ Union. Here are the portraits [on the wall] of my predecessors at the magazine: Vasily Vitka, then Yevdokia Los — for two and a half years, Mr. Grechanikov for the same time, and me as the fourth editor. These past 35 years have flown like a single day, which I’m delighted about! As editor and writer, I’ve written mainly for children and teenagers. As head of the Belarusian Children’s Fund, I also deal with children, wiping away the tears of young people with disabilities and orphans, alongside my friends. We work mainly with such groups. My whole life has been devoted to children and I can’t imagine it otherwise. For me, children are God’s messengers on Earth. I don’t think children are born purely on the whim of parents; I think the decision comes from above. Who can answer why babies are born at a particular time to particular families. There is no answer.
Wise men say that children choose their parents and not vice versa...
I believe in this! Children are younger versions of adults and have the ability to educate us and change the way we live. We shouldn’t forget that. Treat them as equals while helping them to grow with pure hearts. The Bible urges us to ‘be like children’. Children should respect people, their culture and history, growing with love for their motherland and mother tongue. This is the aim of ‘Rainbow’ (the main magazine in Belarus, in my opinion). Our mission is to strengthen the bonds of young citizens with their land and people. We have a considerable circulation: 13,000. Every month, I address our young readers and their older brothers and sisters, as well as their parents and grandparents. We plan our stories, poems, games and articles carefully, deciding what to share with the younger generation.
What are you currently working on?
We have many plans! For example, I began to feel that children lacked knowledge of our history, so I started writing about this in simple language. The series I Live Here is the result, featuring unusual maps, puzzles and riddles. The maps were drawn by artists at my direction, including pictures of castles, churches, monuments, rivers, animals, birds and fish. We also included portraits of the famous people born there and the coats of arms. My Rainbow over the Neman is about the Grodno Region, with a circulation of 12,000 copies; it’s like a patriotic tutorial. My Gomel: My Motherland and Yours is soon to be released. I may not have time to tackle every region so am encouraging my writer friends to help in the project. We may also be able to create a special fund to co-ordinate and finance a series called Rainbow Library, publishing the best stories and poems from our 700 issues, dating from 1957 onwards.
By Ivan Zhdanovich