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Reeli Reinaus (1977) is a folklorist and writer for children and youth. She graduated from the Tartu Academy of Theology, and received a master’s degree in Estonian and comparative folklore from the University of Tartu. Reinaus has worked at the University of Tartu and currently works at the Estonian Literary Museum. She has written more than 20 books for children and youth, and has won numerous awards in the My First Book children’s story competition, as well as in the Youth Novel Competition. The author has a flair for penning stories about children’s everyday lives and problems, crime novels, and fantasy works.
From competition writer to true author
Not everyone can sufficiently appreciate literary competitions and their effect on the rise of future writers. Such contests are often seen as too superficial, entertainment-centric, or skewed because of the given jury. People think participants are merely amateurs pursuing momentary fame, simply fond of experimenting, or taking the path of least resistance. Many reckon that participants won’t become true writers, in any case. Reeli Reinaus (b. 1977), who has scooped up the most awards in Estonian children’s and young-adult writing competitions, stands as proof of the contrary. She has demonstrated clearly that it doesn’t matter which path you take to arrive at literature: it all depends on the specific person and their inner strength, talent, and desire to write.
Since winning her first award in a children’s story contest in 2008, Reinaus has written over twenty works for children and young adults. They include short stories about everyday life, books that address common problems, crime novels, thrillers woven with the supernatural, and picture books for toddlers. Altogether, ten of her books came out after placing in various writing competitions. For example, her works The Mysterious Diary (2008), A Totally Normal Family (2010), The Kids of Slum Lane (2012), and Detective Stripes at the Zoo (2013) were published after being entered in the My First Book children’s story competition; The Black Crow (2010), From Sugar and Flour (2015), Weeks That Scrape Skin (2012), and Troubled (2011) made their way to bookstore shelves via a competition for young-adult manuscripts. Recently, the author also took first place in a young-adult playwriting competition with her work The World to Which I Belong. In the jury’s unanimous decision, members highlighted Reinaus’ realistic characters, well-established structure, intriguing topic, and her use of mythology. All of these aspects have been the author’s trademark since the earliest days of her writing.
Reinaus’ greatest talent is her knack for noticing life around us. Having entered the children’s literature scene during a period of great changes, with authors generally preferring pure fantasy over realism, she decided to take her writing in a different direction. The haziness and uncertainty over how to approach subjects that were shaking society appeared to not even touch her. True, most of Reinaus’ books also include elements of fantasy, whether they be characters or an overall atmosphere, but they show a social orientation regardless. Reinaus was incapable of being the type of writer who sticks their head into the sand, blindfolds themselves, or remains impartial to what is going on around them. The issues she tackles in her works are extremely visible and acute in today’s world. Superstition, xenophobia, blackmail, selling oneself, non-traditional family structures, and political games are just a few of the issues that surface in Reinaus’ books and cause great public controversy. It is the author’s conviction that real life – that, which readers and their peers encounter every day – must not be shrouded from children behind rosy curtains, but instead introduced, explained, and made understandable to the extent their age allows.
For this reason, the child characters in Reinaus’ works are not disengaged from society and do not act within any kind of cutesy idyll that is disconnected from the problem-packed world of adults. Rather, these characters stand at the very core of reality, existing alongside and together with grown-ups. For example, in her book How My Dad Got a New Wife (2016), a father asks his 10-year-old daughter Kaisa for help finding a suitable girlfriend. Since Kaisa’s mother died several years earlier and the emotional wounds have since healed, the girl full-heartedly agrees to give her father a hand in the interests of his emotional well-being. Yet the task, which seemed so simple at first, grows ever more complicated with each passing day when it turns out that each of the women who cross their path have their own shortcomings. Reinaus’ humorous approach, colorful characters, and realistic situations made the book an immediate hit among young readers. At the same time, Reinaus’ method was the target of sharp criticism from several adult readers who questioned the topics’ appropriateness in children’s literature, asking: “Wouldn’t it be better to keep kids away from such problems; to shield them from life?”
However, it is Reinaus’ rejected, isolated, and bullied characters in particular who leave the deepest impressions. There is Mari, who dearly wishes to belong to the group of popular girls but doesn’t feel a strong enough connection with them on an emotional level (Pink Angels, 2014); Pille-Riin, whose love for animals isn’t shared by her classmates or her foster family (Detective Stripes at the Zoo, 2013); and the darkskinned orphan boy Seth, who just can’t seem to fit in with the other kids at school (The Black Crow, 2010). Although Reinaus writes about complicated situations that seem hopeless at first, she always reveals a way out of the dilemmas. The author is not a card-carrying pessimist and never seals shut the door of possibility for good. Karl, who has turned to the computer world for solace, finds friends in his new city in a very unexpected way. Mari discovers that in addition to their superficial ‘babe’-lives, the “pink angels” dream just as big as she does, no matter that the objects of their dreams differ a little from her own. Secretive Liisi (Lisa in the translation), who has been a village outcast with her family for years, finds common ground with the locals only after the boy Marius moves into town (Marius, Magic and Lisa the Werewolf, 2017). The author seems to be telling us that everyone is strange, disconnected, and rejected in their own individual ways, but no one is alone forever: they must simply find their true friends and kindred spirits.
Reinaus’ young-adult novels also focus greatly on the search for oneself. Her characters often wrestle with parents leaving or being lonely, work on unravelling the complicated relationships they have with one another and strive to find their place in this tough world that offers us so many different choices. Whereas Reinaus can always find at least a grain of understanding for her young characters – be they boys or girls, brave or timid, principled or self-serving – she is significantly more critical of adults. Honesty towards oneself and one’s companions rises to become the most essential of virtues.
The large, difficult topics that Reinaus readily takes on are cloaked in a form suitable for children and young adults. Her plots mainly involve solving a puzzle or mystery. Occasionally, the books’ titles already stoke excitement: A Mystery in the Castle Ruins (2009), Old Town Detectives (2017, 2018), and The Verikambi Mill (2016). Yet, more often than not, the horizon of anticipation appears in the book’s first pages. Reinaus generally doesn’t employ a single, one-track chronological narrative. Her stories are frequently populated by multiple narrators and perspectives, an abundance of flashbacks, and “blasts from the past” that play an important role in the plot’s present day. Questions flung into the air throughout the book’s very first chapters to satiate impatient readers keep attentions fixated till the very last page, as the author is marvelous at keeping her secrets.
In addition to her realistic problems and characters who resemble actual individuals, Reinaus’ works are recognizably idiosyncratic for their use of mystical and folk motifs that are impossible to interpret uniformly. This shouldn’t surprise anyone who is fairly familiar with the author’s biography. Reinaus graduated from the Tartu Academy of Theology and defended a master’s thesis in folklore at the University of Tartu. Werewolves and nightmares, bog spirits and tooth fairies, trolls and witches: they all have a place in Reinaus’ books. Also common among her works are spells and rituals to break them; amulets; ingenuity; mystical ghosts of the past; and ancient diaries, volumes, and photo albums. All these add a broadening, magical aspect to her writing, as if she wishes to say that life is not all it seems and there are many dimensions more to existence.
Reinaus is an expert writer of children’s stories, young-adult novels and plays, and toddlers’ works alike. No matter the genre any one of the books falls into, her writing is, first and foremost, a uniter of people by nature. She laces fascinating connections between the real, the imaginary, and folklore. Merging a mundane view of the world with the supernatural. Her works likewise allow the separate spheres of children and adults to appear united, whole, and safe, fascinating parents and their kids equally. Why should a reader care that the author drew momentum from a writing competition? Critics and experts haven’t been put off by this fact, in any case. Reinaus’ works have been included on the IBBY Honor List (How My Dad Got a New Wife) and in The White Ravens Catalogue (Marius, Magic and Lisa the Werewolf), not to mention the full cupboard of Estonian awards. What’s more, a number of her books will soon be published in Russian, Polish, and Korean translations.
Written by Jaanika Palm
Translated by Adam Cullen
Published in Estonian Literary Magazine, no. 48, spring 2019
|Susie and the Lost Sleep
Night has come, and it’s time to snuggle into bed. Nevertheless, sleep just won’t come to little Susie. Her father tells her to start counting sheep. When that doesn’t help either, her mother and her brother Simon propose other ways to better fall asleep. Can the Sandman and his magical sand assist?
|Marius, Magic, and Lisa the Werewolf
Twelve-year-old Marius and his older brother Martin recently moved to the countryside with their parents. Martin, who is very sociable, has already found a lot of friends, but Marius just can’t seem to fit in. Yet when the boy meets the loner Lisa at school, adventures begin to unfold at once. Before long, the boy’s former understandings of reality and the fantasy world acquire a new, fascinating dimension.
|Old Town Detectives: The Paintings of the Brotherhood of Blackheads
12-year-old Rebeka is at her father’s work Christmas party in the historic House of the Brotherhood of Blackheads in Tallinn’s Old Town. When she sneaks upstairs to escape the boring speeches, the girl meets Gregor, who is a year older than her. The children hear suspicious footsteps and glimpse ghosts wearing black hoods.
|How My Dad Got a New Wife
Kaisa lives alone with her father, as her mother died when she was very young. One day, her dad decides to find a new wife. Kaisa is glad, and wants to help. Together, they draft a list of qualities a suitable candidate should possess, put it up on the Internet, and try out other ways to meet new women. Even when candidates meet all the conditions they came up with, the women still turn out to be sub-par when they meet in real life.
|The Verikambi Mill
Four high-schoolers get lost in the woods during a hike, and are forced to spend the night in a mysterious windmill. The youngsters find their way home quickly the next morning, but the strange occurrence leaves its mark on each of them. Joonas, who takes an old photo album that he finds in the windmill, discovers it contains a picture of a girl who bears an astonishing resemblance to his sister.
|Ducky Duke and the Grave Robbers
Life isn’t all that easy for Duke, who lives in a little seaside village. So, the boy starts plotting to run away, find a friend, and get a cool tattoo. Then, on the third day of summer vacation, Duke meets a girl named Angel, and she becomes his first true friend. The pair have a blast doing all kinds of things together. Yet when bullies and criminals come into the picture, things take a downright criminal twist.
|Sugar and Flour
Johanna is starting her first year of high school, and a new girl shows up in class: Mia, who is mysterious and self-confident. Although all the boys want to date her and all the girls want to be her best friend, Mia picks Johanna to talk to the most. The shy Johanna is flattered that Mia wants to be “besties”. Together, the girls start up something so exciting that Johanna feels liberated and very adult.
|Detective Stripes at the Zoo
Pille-Riin, who is going into first grade and is nicknamed Stripes, loves animals more than anything else. She even has quite a lot of them at home: a dog, a cat, gerbils, degus, guinea pigs, a garden snake, and a dwarf rabbit. The girl also takes frequent trips to the zoo, where her grandfather works. But when odd things start happening there, it’s up to Stripes to take the reins and clear up the confusion.
Liis, who is in her final year of secondary school, is forced to change schools because of her father’s new job. She finds herself in a class where clear cliques and roles have long since been established. Only Seth is a lone wolf: a dark-haired boy who shows no mercy to his peers or their teachers. However, when the boy saves Liis from a dangerous situation on a dark path in the park one night, the girl resolves to make friends with him.
2018 IBBY Honour List (How My Dad Got a New Wife)
2018 The White Ravens (Marius, Magic, and Lisa the Werewolf)
2018 Children and Youth Drama Competition, 1st place (The World Where I Belong)
2017 Tartu Prize for Children’s Literature (Childhood Prize) (How My Dad Got a New Wife)
2017 Good Children’s Book (Marius, Magic, and Lisa the Werewolf)
2017 Good Young Adult Book (Ace of Swords)
2016 “Järje Hoidja” Award of the Tallinn Central Library (The Verikambi Mill)
2016 Good Children’s Book (How My Dad Got a New Wife)
2015 Children’s Story Competition “My First Book”, 1st place (How My Dad Got a New Wife)
2014 Children’s Story Competition “My First Book”, honourable mention (Pink Angels)
2014 Youth Novel Competition, 2nd place (Sugar and Flour)
2013 Good Children’s Book (Detective Stripes at the Zoo)
2012 Children’s Story Competition “My First Book”, 1st and 2nd places (The Kids of Slum Lane and Detective Stripes at the Zoo)
2011 Youth Novel Competition, 2nd and 3rd places (The Weeks That Graze and Troubled)
2009 Children’s Story Competition “My First Book”, 3rd place (A Totally Ordinary Family)
2009 Youth Novel Competition, 1st place (Black Crow)
2008 Children’s Story Competition “My First Book”, 2nd place (The Mysterious Diary)
Susie and the Lost Sleep
Korean: 잠 못 드는 수지를 위하여, Seoul: Interpark Co. Ltd. (Redstone) 2018
Vanalinna detektiivid. Verega kirjutatud read (Old Town Detectives: Writing in Blood), Tänapäev 2018, illustrated by Marko Pikkat, 144 pp
Maarius, maagia ja libahunt Liisi (Marius, Magic, and Lisa the Werewolf), Päike ja Pilv 2017, illustrated by Marja-Liisa Plats, 224 pp
Mõõkade äss (Ace of Swords), Varrak 2017, illustrated by Liis Karu, 376 pp
San Agustini vereohvrid (The Blood Sacrifices of San Agustin), Tänapäev 2017, 392 pp
Suusi ja kadunud uni (Susie and the Lost Sleep), Päike ja Pilv 2017, illustrated by Marge Nelk, 32 pp
Vanalinna detektiivid. Mustpeade maalid (Old Town Detectives. The Paintings of the Brotherhood of Blackheads), Tänapäev 2017, illustrated by Marko Pikkat, 144 pp
Kuidas mu isa endale uue naise sai (How My Dad Got a New Wife), Tänapäev 2016, illustrated by Marja-Liisa Plats, 196 pp
Verikambi (The Verikambi Mill), Varrak 2016, 351 pp
Pärdik Päär ja hauaröövlid (Ducky Duke and the Grave Robbers), Tänapäev 2015, illustrated by Ott Vallik, 208 pp
Suhkrust ja jahust (Sugar and Flour), Tänapäev 2015, 247 pp
Deemoni märk (The Sign of the Demon), Varrak 2014, 324 pp
Roosad inglid (Pink Angels), Tänapäev 2014, illustrated by Eero Alev, 211 pp
Detektiiv Triibik loomaaias (Detective Stripes at the Zoo), Tänapäev 2013, 2017, illustrated by Ott Vallik, 176 pp
Kliinilised valed (Clinical Lies), Varrak, 2013, 213 pp
Poisid Mustalt Hobuselt (The Boys of the Black Horse), Tänapäev 2013, 357 pp
Aguliurka lapsed (The Kids of Slum Lane), Tänapäev 2012, illustrated by Toomas Pääsuke, 255 pp
Nahka kriipivad nädalad (The Weeks That Graze), Tänapäev 2012, 159 pp
Kivid, tulnukad ja sekt (Stones, Aliens, and a Cult), Tänapäev 2011, 237 pp
Tavalised hambahaldjad (Ordinary Tooth Fairies), Tänapäev 2011, illustrated by Anni Mäger, 160 pp
Vaevatud (Troubled), Tänapäev 2011, 308 pp
Must vares (Black Crow), Tänapäev 2010, 224 pp
Nõidkapteni needus (The Curse of the Witch Captain), Tänapäev 2010, 372 pp
Täiesti tavaline perekond (A Totally Ordinary Family), Tänapäev 2010 illustrated by Toomas Pääsuke, 192 pp
Mõistatus lossivaremetes (The Mystery in the Castle Ruins), Tänapäev 2009, 231 pp
Saladuslik päevik (The Mysterious Diary), Tänapäev 2008, illustrated by Kadi Kurema, 192 pp