Eleni Dikaiou: an Overview By Ada Katsiki-Givalou, Professor Emerita, Hellenic Philology, Capodistrian University of Athens
Extracts from an article published in “Bookpress” magazine:
Eleni Dikaiou belongs to a younger generation of Greek children/ YA authors, whose work combines literary style and versatility of subject with narrative techniques which privilege the child’s point of view. Personal experience and daily life are often the starting points in her work, which includes a large variety of forms - novel, short story, flash fiction, illustrated fairy tale, non-fiction – and is often motivated by intentions of imparting and sharing knowledge. Her critically acclaimed work has been translated into other languages and has received numerous prizes and distinctions in Greece and abroad.
Dikaiou’s subjects revolve around the axes of mythology, history, and current social issues in the family and in the wider social environment, such as divorce, death, and acceptance of difference. She deals with themes as versatile and far-reaching as adolescence and teenage angst, disability, ecology, and science fiction. She uses the short form to address an audience of small children, offering stories which enrich the early readers’ emotional world, activate social empathy, cultivate the imagination, and instruct them in reality as well as in aesthetic pleasure. Richly and sensitively depicted characters teach the young readers about values such as love, friendship, freedom, solidarity, and justice, but the teaching is conducted with subtlety and without any hint of didacticism.
Dikaiou is one of the leading authors in Greece whose work is inspired by Greek mythology. Using simple and appealing language, without censoring or glossing over the thornier parts of ancient myths, Dikaiou does not simply retell these fascinating stories of gods and heroes, but reshapes them according to the children’s modern sensibilities, thus allowing young readers to integrate them into their own experience. This accomplished fictional representation of mythology bears the author’s personal imprint in the choice of material, which focuses on mythical events and heroes, and in the sophisticated adaptation of this material into modern storytelling, in such works as her stories about the Greek gods (The Creation and the Twelve Gods of Olympus), the heroic deeds of Hercules and Theseus, and the mythical cycles of the Argonauts (Jason and the Expedition of the Golden Fleece), the Iliad (Under the Walls of Troy), and the Odyssey (Odysseus: The Long Journey), which won the National Prize for Children’s Book of Knowledge in 2004. Dikaiou’s series ‘From Myth to History’ also offers versions of these stories albeit for younger children. Her fictional world-building is respectful of academic insights, and her language, style, and subject-matter attest to her skills as an experienced and confident narrator of stories that engage a large variety of readers of different ages.
History is another source of inspiration for Dikaiou, in three novels thematically covering a period from Antiquity to the aftermath of World War II. In her use of facts, Dikaiou pays utmost attention to historical accuracy, as well as assessing the impact of history on the human experience. In The Gods Do Not Die in Pella, Alexander the Great is presented not only as the great general and conqueror but also as a man with feelings, thoughts, and dreams. The human aspect is equally prominent in The Girls in the Sailor Suits, set in the disastrous Greco-Turkish war in Asia Minor in 1922. This novel, the author’s first published work (1991), based on real events from the author’s family experience, is an account of history from the perspective of those who witness it; through narrative and representative fictional characters, it offers a moving and emotionally charged personal version of those tragic historical events. This witnessing of history through the viewpoint of fictional characters and their relationships is also at the heart of her third historical novel, Looking for the Lost Heroes (1996). The theme of the Greek Civil war – a particularly tough subject for young readers - is broached even-handedly, through the relationships of the novels’ young fictional characters. This novel was awarded a distinction in the Premio Europeo Pier Paolo Vergerio of the University of Padova.
If Mythology and History reveal Dikaiou’s narrative skills and instruct the reader through fictionalisation, her novels Could You Please Teach Me How to Smile? and I’ll See You Again, My Little Friend, dealing respectively with teenage problems and disability, are master classes in psychology: these multi-layered novels reveal the inner world and processes of their young heroines and in tackling modern issues that implicate society, psychology, and education, offer much food for thought to the readers, eliciting their participation in the discussion of themes and issues raised in the stories and in the readers’ lives.
Dikaiou, continually expanding the scope of her interests, includes science fiction and fantasy in her work. After The Valley of The Butterflies, an ecological sci-fi novel on the conflict of science and nature, included in the IBBY honours list and recipient of the Greek Children’s Book Circle Prize, Dikaiou offers two more fantasy novels, whose entertaining narratives propose an alternative view of fantasy creatures. The well-meaning eponymous heroes of The Ghosts of the Glass Courtyard have a therapeutic effect on the real world: the distance between the real and the imaginary is annihilated as the kind-hearted ghosts connect fantasy to reality via the human values of daily life. In Adventures with a Princess, the same ghosts subvert events and offer solutions in order to help a little girl deal with her parents’ divorce.
Eleni Dikaiou, with her wealth of subject-matter, the skilful use of the strengths of the literary form she employs, the masterful twists and turns of her plots, her strong narrative techniques, her multi-layered, complex characters, her creative imagination, her knowledge of psychology, and her anticipation of readers’ perceptive abilities, is an extraordinary writer whose work has been contributing greatly to the reading pleasures of a multitude of children and YA readers.