There was Astrid Lindgren for Sweden and Tove Jansson for Finland, Germany had Michael Ende, and Russia had Eduard Uspensky, who passed away on 14 August.
The fact that he is no more is impossible to believe. Last year he celebrated his 80th birthday. Having published his last book, The Ghost from Prostokvashino, in 2011, he always promised to come up with more stories, and we were all eager to believe this.
Readers’ best friends
There is no need to explain to youngsters, who grew up or are growing up in Russia, who Uspensky was. He had a fantastic talent of creating adorable characters whom readers would inevitably identify as their best friends, just like Karlsson-on-the-Roof, Moomintroll or Pippi Longstocking.
Uspensky was the one who invented the strange animal Cheburashka and good Gena the Crocodile, the boy nicknamed Uncle Fyodor, too smart and independent for his age, as well as the mysterious repairmen who fix broken electronics when nobody sees them, and the girl Vera and Anfisa the Monkey, and also the Kolobki investigators.
He wrote a scenario for Octopuses animated film where anthropomorphic octopuses learn the hardships of parenting while their progeny wreak havoc all around them. Uspensky also worked with Finnish writer Hannu Mäkelä on a screenplay based on his Mr Hoo novel to make a series of animated films titled Uncle Au (remember that famous catchphrase “Water the tree with fish soup”?)
In fact, our everyday language abounds with quotes from Uspensky’s novels and the cartoons he wrote: “I’m pretty good at machine sewing,” or “Excuse me, I was nasty, because I had no bicycle,” or “It took us so long to build it, and here we are,” or “You’re not eating your sandwich properly, Uncle Fyodor.” Russians as well as many other people have all at some point in time probably pronounced one of these phrases, without necessarily thinking who wrote them.
Talking to children in their language
Uspensky was not just a beloved author. He knew how to speak the same language as children and teenagers on topics that are relevant for their age. In the 1990s he published the novel Red Hand, Black Blanket, Green Fingers, inspired by scary stories told by children in camps while lying in bed after lights out.
The novel’s main character is a law school student Viktor Rakhmanin who is plunged into the world of mystics and horror as a fresh intern at a police precinct. In the process of collecting evidence for his case, he goes on the radio asking children to send him horror stories. A little later, in 1993, Uspensky imitated his character when he asked children to send him their horror stories. He got 1,500 letters, which led to the publication of his Creepy Children’s Lore book that was spooky for readers of all ages.
From aircraft engines to Cheburashka
Eduard Uspensky went to the Moscow Aviation Institute, and had no plans to become a writer. He grew up in the 1950s, during the Khrushchev Thaw with its relative freedom and the constant rivalry between “physicists” and the “lyrics.” Having graduated with a degree in engineering, he wanted to create something that would be less precise and more entertaining compared to aircraft engines. In the 1960s he started to write scenarios for animated films and then went on to write poetry for children, and came up with the characters of Gena and Cheburashka. In fact, all he did was put on paper a story that could have happened to any toy he used to play with, be it a plastic crocodile or a strange animal with large ears. These characters became famous around the world, especially in Japan, where several cartoons and an animated series were created based on Uspensky’s books on Cheburashka.
It used to be said that his novels were intended for primary and middle-school children, but the truth is that they are interesting not only for youngsters, but also for their mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers. There is no need to explain Uspensky’s novels or adapt them to today’s world, since they won’t ever be forgotten.