The Tzar's Curious Runaways
By Author / Illustrator
Everything with Words
Paperback / softback
A magical, captivating tale of adventure set in imperial Russia. St Petersburg, Russia 1725. Katinka Dashkova is running for her life because everything she knows is changing. Katinka, a dazzling ballerina with a hunched back, and her friends Alexei the Giant and Nikolai the dwarf are different. That's why they are part of Peter the Great's Circus of Curiosities. But the Tzar is dead and they must flee the Winter Palace. Guided by a special map, they set out across Russia, running for their lives. An enthralling and delicious blend of history and fiction.
It is Russia in 1725 and Tzar Peter is dead. Three children from his Circus of Curiosities are forced to flee the palace and run for their lives. The three children, Katinka the ballet dancer, Alexei the giant and Nikolai the dwarf have to leave everything they know behind them and race across Russia to escape a vengeful Tzarina.
Based on true facts - Peter really did have a 'circus' of people with disabilities - The Tzar's Curious Runaways is historical fiction at its best. From the very first page I was gripped and drawn into the adventure. The tension is kept up throughout the story and whilst it is a period of history I know little about, the historical detail, as well as the geographical detail, pervades the book.
This is absolutely classic adventure told in a different way, because it focusses on children who are all disabled in some way, yet their disabilities are do not define them. They remain the heroes and the focus is on their qualities as humans even though the world just sees them as something less. I can't remember reading another book where disability was so central to the story and yet not the defining point of the book.
The reader is meant to find the norms of the time horrifying and fascinating. Tzar Peter really did have a 'Circus' of people with deformities and the horror of that is meant to shock the reader. It holds a mirror up to our own society and how we currently view disability. It brought to mind the flood of complaints when a children's presenter openly displayed that she had only one arm. Parents didn't want their children to see such things in a shocking display of prejudice. This sort of prejudice happens all the time. Now, we want to shut disability away; at the time of the story it was put on display.
Having seen this attitude, it makes the book all the more important to read. The children in the story are heroic and have suffered as a result of their disabilities. My daughter has a friend with achondroplasia (dwarfism) and it made me wonder how she would view this book (currently too young to read it). As well as delving into how disability was viewed, this book is a fast-paced adventure, edge of the seat drama and I could not predict the ending. I could not put it down (nearly missed my stop on the train because I was reading); it is a real journey through history and the landscapes of Russia.
304 Pages / Reviewed by Jacqueline Harris, teacher
Suggested Reading Age 9+