Reviews /

Varenka

Authored by Bernadette Watts
Illustrated by Bernadette Watts
Published by North South

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Bernadette Watts has been illustrating children’s books for over fifty years. She is perhaps better known abroad than here in the UK. Her longstanding Swiss publisher, North South (NördSud Verlag) has recently reissued this 1971 title, billed as a ‘story of war and hope’ that feels more relevant now than perhaps in its previous incarnations.

Watts often illustrates fairy tales or folk tales and Varenka has the timeless feel of an orally told story passed down the generations. It’s a simple, unadorned text. Varenka is a widow who lives alone, quite self-sufficiently, in a house among the great forests of Russia. But it’s a time of war and like the other innocent, defenceless citizens, Varenka is fearful – but instead of fleeing as the others do, she remains in her house. After all, as winter comes, who else will care for the animals and the children and the travellers who pass through? But she prays to God to ask him to build a wall around her house so the soldiers won’t see her.

As time passes, the war intensifies; a number of interlopers come and seek sanctuary with Varenka – but still no wall appears. But when the soldiers finally arrive, they can’t see Varenka’s house because it’s totally enclosed by snow. Her prayer has been answered after all. And the frightened occupants of the house can at last feel safe.

Watts’ naïve illustration style captures the tone and spirit of the book. She uses darkness to great effect but the splashes of bright colour are arresting and appealing. This is a moving, beautiful book that will be sure to offer readers opportunities to discuss difficult but pertinent themes.