Playing a Part

Wilke, Daria. 2015. Playing a Part (translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz). New York: Scholastic.

Book cover, showing a teen boy in profile sitting in a theater.

Grisha has grown up behind the scenes of a puppet theater where his parents are actors. He loves the puppets and their stories, especially the Jester, and wants to be in this magical world as much as he can. Part of the reason is that he is fascinated by the process of puppet-construction, and he enjoys learning from Lyolik, the puppet master. The other reason is that he is bullied at school. The other boys taunt him for not fitting their masculine standards, and Grisha doesn’t know how to respond. Even worse, his own grandfather calls him a queer because he isn’t “macho” enough.

In the puppet theater, though, he has friends. Sashok is his best friend and he considers her like a sister. She is independent and sassy and encourages him to come out of his shell and get in trouble once in a while. And Sam, a young actor who plays the Jester, is kind and mentors Grisha. The scenes in the theater are wonderfully depicted, with loving descriptions of the puppets and their movements and personalities interspersed with the dialog and actions of the living characters.

As Grisha is dealing with bullying and figuring out his own identity, his friends have issues of their own. Lyolik is forced to retire, Sashok needs heart surgery, and Sam has announced that he is moving to Holland to escape the severe homophobia in Russia. Grisha has to find a way to resolve his own problems while grieving for his friends and trying to help them.

A few negative reviews on Goodreads referenced the style and tone of the prose as being meandering, confusing, and slow. American readers not exposed to Russian literature—or those who don’t like it—will find it so. But those who enjoy the characteristic Russian literary style will love the vivid descriptions, the lyrical sentences, the unhurried character development, and the sly bits of humor. The language is nuanced and rich, but still accessible for young adult and older juvenile readers.

Playing a Part was first published in Russian as Shutovskoi Kolpak by Samokat Publishing House in 2013, during a time when “homosexual propaganda” was outlawed in Russia. This is the first Russian young adult novel to be translated into English.

Highly recommended for juvenile or young adult fiction collections, as well as for middle school courses introducing cultural differences or exploring conflict resolution.

About Charlie McNabb

Archivist, Folklorist, and Legend Tripper
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