ivan2by Anne Fine

Do not be mistaken. Ivan the Terrible, which won the 2007 Nestle Children’s Book Silver Award, is not about the 16th century tyrannical Russian ruler. It is instead about Ivan, the new boy at St Edmund’s, a Russian who does not speak English. Boris, who understands Russian, is requested by the Principal, Mrs Blaizely, to be his interpreter. He unwittingly agrees and thus starts the fiasco.

The humour in the story stems from Boris’ desire to be a model “civilized” student, an attitude ingrained in him by Mrs Blaizely’s constant emphasis on good manners and positive attitude. For Boris, this means understanding Ivan’s insecurities during his first day in school and looking after his welfare.

But Ivan proves to be more than what Boris can handle. His first shock comes when Ivan is introduced by Mrs Blaizely to all the students during assembly. After Ivan addresses the students very rudely in Russian, Boris is caught between translating the truth and preventing Ivan from becoming an unpopular new student. In the spirit of having “good manners and a positive attitude”, Boris decides to protect his new friend and this decision sets the stage for a very unsettling day.

As they move together from one lesson to another, Boris begins to regret his role as interpreter. He realizes that the little white lies he created during his translations have given all the staff and students a very good impression of Ivan . Nobody will believe Boris now if he were to speak the truth. Despite this, he continues to cling on to having “a positive attitude” and hopes that some of his own “civilized” behaviour rubs off on Ivan to make him a more pleasant person.

Soon, however, Boris’s disdain for the new boy becomes so overwhelming that he decides chucks his positive attitude aside and starts giving Ivan a taste of his own medicine. He dreads the thought of being stuck with Ivan for more than a day and starts to think of a way to relieve himself as interpreter. This, of course, will involve more lies.

Anne Fine has formed a successful plot of mistaken impressions with Ivan the Terrible. You can’t help feeling sympathy for Boris, for the unanticipated web of deceit he spun came out of the honest intention of looking after Ivan’s well-being. You will also empathize with Ivan when a possible explanation for his conduct emerges towards the end of the book.

While the language is geared towards the six to eight-year old reader, there are a number of British expressions that may be baffling, such as “a brilliant spoof” and “feeling a bit of a wally”. Also, a few sentences were so long (one containing as many as sixty words) that they needed re-reading several times. Despite these glitches, the book is still an enjoyable read.