This 2011 graphic novel, which is kid-friendly, is Marzena Sowa’s memoir of childhood in Poland in the 1980’s, the time of Lech Walesa, Solidarity, Pope John Paul II, Chernobyl, and the ordinary every day life of a 10 year old. It’s beautifully told with humor, sadness, and ultimately optimism. I think tweens would identify with Marzi’s hopes, joys and frustrations, while also getting an education about life behind the Iron Curtain just before it started to fall.
In many ways, Marzi is a fairly typical kid. She loves animals (but not spiders) and chewing gum, wishes for a Barbie doll, and hangs out with neighborhood kids. They go to school and church together, play games and pull pranks like kids around the world. Marzi is an only child, and both of her parents work. Her dad, whom she adores, is a factory worker and her mother works in an office. Marzi and her mom have a sometimes tense relationship exacerbated by Marzi’s picky diet. Marzi has the typical “friend” problems that any kid would recognize, especially the power relationships that can develop between girls where you can be a BFF one day and odd-man-out the next.
There are, however, some aspects of Marzi’s life that would probably strike many kids today as unusual. Living in Poland under communism meant that food and consumer items were hard to come by and prohibitively expensive. Marzi and her parents, and everyone else, spent a lot of time waiting in line to buy food staples such as meat and bread and could only get as much as their ration cards allowed. Often, the shelves were empty. If you heard that the store had oranges, an exotic delight, you told the neighbors and rushed to get in line, hoping they wouldn’t be gone by the time it was your turn. Marzi’s family had no phone, an old car, and a black and white TV. Even compared to some of her neighbors, Marzi sees that she and her family are poor. Luckily, they have family in the countryside and often visit there. This gives them a chance to get fresh food and even bring some back to the city to sell to neighbors. One fascinating passage shows us the impact of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster on Poles and their food sources.
This memoir gives us a chance to get into Marzi’s head and see her dreams and frustrations. For example, Marzi dreams of going abroad, particularly to Paris, and of having all the things she lacks — dolls, gum, a phone and color TV. She is frustrated that she has no sibling to confide in and rely on, that the grown ups don’t pay attention to her, that they don’t include her in their conversations. While this may be pretty typical for 10 year olds, the worsening political situation in Poland adds to Marzi’s fears for her future and her family’s. She can’t understand all the things she hears from adults, but she knows what a strike is, that her father supports the Solidarity movement, and that her mother is very afraid. Through Marzi’s eyes, we see the effects of martial law on the factory town and the important work of Lech Walesa and Solidarity in changing Poland. We also see how important the Catholic Church and a Polish Pope were to Poles and Solidarity.
Sylvain Savoia’s art work, using a palette of grays, browns and black with splashes of reddish orange, beautifully reflects the drabness of life and yet the optimism of our narrator. The characters, which are appealingly drawn, look just a bit like Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes characters. Marzi has big eyes and a big smile, but the artist also captures her fear, anger and sadness. In the end, we see how much Marzi has grown up. She understands more of her world and is starting to focus outside herself. Her creativity and imagination are beginning to bloom, and we know (from reading Sowa’s introduction and knowing what happened in Poland after 1989) that she will achieve some of her dreams.
This would be a good choice for tweens and older. They’ll be able to identify with Marzi and yet also learn a bit about history and the struggles of those who lived behind the Iron Curtain.