New book offers Czech children growing up abroad picture of home

Photo: Dagmar Kneřová / Czech Center Brussels

For the past seven years, Denisa Haubertová Šedivá has been living in Brussels with her husband, Czech ambassador to NATO Jiří Šedivý, and their two children. While feeling a bit homesick, she decided to write an alphabet book that would work as a guide to Czech life and culture, covering all sorts of topics from fairy tale characters and nursery rhymes to history, art and design. The book is intended primarily for children, but with its beautiful graphic design and charming, black and white illustrations, it really engages readers of all ages.

Photo: Dagmar Kneřová / Czech Center Brussels

I met with Denisa Haubertová Šedivá during her brief visit to Prague to talk about her book and the motivations that drove her to write it.

“I already wrote one book five years ago and it was a book about yoga for pregnant women. I was pregnant at the time and I was trying to find a nice book about yoga for pregnant. So I somehow transformed my life experience from that time to the book.

“This was a similar situation, in a way. I moved to Brussels seven years ago and I jumped from an active working life into the role of a diplomat’s wife and a mother of two small children. So it was a totally different situation and I was homesick.

Denisa Haubertová Šedivá,  photo: Dagmar Kneřová / Czech Center Brussels
“So writing the book was like psychotherapy for me. I was remembering all the places, all the people, all parts of the Czech Republic, the ‘Czechhood’, let’s say.

“And I also thought about my kids. Although we are both Czech and we speak Czech to them, they are going to Francophone schools, so they are growing up in a different environment. So I wanted to somehow conserve the idea of Czech culture for the kids.”

Who did you have in mind when writing the book? Was it your children?

“Yes, originally I was thinking about my children, but I also had in mind all the Czech children growing up abroad, with Czech parents or one Czech parent.

“I was also thinking about foreigners moving to the Czech Republic who don’t know the country that well, because since the beginning we were thinking about the English translation being part of the book.”

Why have you chosen the form of an alphabet book?

“I like alphabet books. Before I started I found some nice alphabet books and I thought that it would be nice to transform Czechia into such a book. I really enjoyed doing it like this.

“I wanted to somehow conserve the idea of Czech culture for the kids.”

“Someone could say it is limiting, but for me it was a challenge. I needed a lot of imagination but it brought to me some unexpected connections and I needed to be very creative. So I didn’t feel limited, on the contrary, I felt very inspired by this idea and I loved doing it this way.”

There are nearly 260 entries in the book. According to what key did you choose them?

“It was a long process. In the beginning we thought it would take us about year, but we kept postponing the deadline and in the end it took us four years. Choosing the entries was the first step in the project.

“I organised a brainstorming for me, my family and friends, and then I sent the results to Adam, who is the illustrator, graphic artists, but also content advisor.

“We had a discussion and we decided it would be nice to involve the public, so we created a Facebook page for public brainstorming.

“And in the end we also had this advisory board, with a political scientist and a historian, to tell us if there wasn’t something important missing. We ultimately had to skip some entries, because we were limited by space.”

Photo: Dagmar Kneřová / Czech Center Brussels

Which of the terms turned out to be the most difficult ones to explain?

“For me, the most difficult ones to explain were the historical moments which I wanted to have in the book. I was thinking a lot about Communism for example, but in the end I decided that I didn’t want to have a separate entry for it. However, it is present in many other entries, such as Charter 77 or nationalisation of private property.

“I also wrote some particular examples of how it touched the lives of individual people living under the regime. Because it is hard for foreigners to imagine something like this unless you give them a specific example.”

Could you read one of the entries?

“Imagine you are a young and successful children’s author. Your books are even being made into animated films for the Večerníček programme on TV. It’s taken years of hard work to get this far, but now the films are ready. And that’s when you decide to sign a document about violations of human rights in your country. Why shouldn’t you? Everything it says is true.

“Just before the film is due to be shown, the films are confiscated and locked away. No one wants to publics your books any more. You have no work and no money. The police interrogate you. Luckily they don’t lock you away as well. Instead they let you do odd jobs, such as cleaning windows. Your crime? You signed Charter 77. This is the true story of the writer and editor Tomáš Pěkný.”

And which topics have you particularly enjoyed writing about?

Photo: Dagmar Kneřová / Czech Center Brussels
“Each letter has many different entries in alphabetical order. In the beginning of each respective letter there is one paragraph which connects them together. So I really enjoyed writing those introductory paragraphs, which are a bit surrealistic, a sort of free flow of imagination. I also enjoyed writing about the imaginary character of Jára Cimrman.”

The book is primarily intended for children. Did it make you think of your country from a different perspective and what have you discovered throughout that process?

“I think living seven years abroad and also going through the process of writing the book has enabled me to see my country from a bird’s-eye view perspective.

“When I finished the book I felt I understood the Czech nature country better than before. Going through the painful periods of our history helped me understand why we behave in a certain way.

“It is because our democracy is very young and we need generations to recover. So this is what came to my mind when I finished the book. I think it is a natural stage in the development of the society, and we simply we need more time to mature.”

So would you say you have become less critical of your own country when living abroad?

“I did become less critical and I think I perhaps understand certain things better, but it doesn’t mean that I am saying: we are the best. I am very careful about the nationalistic tone of the book. The irony and humour is something that helps me not to be so serious.

“I am just trying to say: look, this is who we are, we have our weaknesses, but our culture is so rich and we definitely have a potential to develop it further.”

“Living seven years abroad and going through the process of writing the book has enabled me to see my country from a bird’s-eye view perspective.”

You children have been growing up in a foreign country. How do you maintain their knowledge of Czech language and Czech facts (apart from writing this book for them)?

“As we are both Czech with my husband, it is not so difficult, because their first language is Czech. At home we speak in Czech, we read to them in Czech and every holiday I try to show them the beauties of the Czech countryside and of Prague. So I think I was working hard to maintain a strong connection to their homeland.

“On the other hand there are many studies about the so-called third-culture kids - kids growing up not in a culture that is different from their parent’s culture.

“There are many pluses: they take diversity as a norm, they go to inter national schools, and learn other languages naturally, so their minds are very open.

“On the other hand they might have some difficulties with identification, so this was also one of the reasons why I did this for my kids. I wanted to say: this is part of your identity abut we also appreciate this international part of yourselves.”

How did you choose your collaborators, Adam Macháček and Sébastien Bohner?

“Yes I did. Because I did the first yoga book with the same illustrators and the book was awarded as the most beautiful book of 2013. Adam Macháček became my friend. He is also living abroad, in San Francisco, and he also raises a kid there.

“So he is practically in the same situation as I am. So it was very personal for him to work on this book and he of course influenced its content. And Sébastien Bohner is his-long term collaborator and they have always worked as a team. So I couldn’t have imagined working with anyone else.

Photo: Dagmar Kneřová
Where do you see the future of the book?

“I hope so. We wanted the book to be interactive. We wanted to invite parents or grandparents to spend some time together with the kids and to exchange memories and play with the book.

“As for the future of the book, we are trying to cooperate with Czech schools abroad and also with Czech Centres to bring the book to the places where it could be useful. I have also been invited to make a tour in the US to present the book and do workshops of creative writing for the kids.

“And here in the Czech Republic I just hope also foreigners living here will be buying the book to understand Czechs maybe a little bit more.”