1857 A ‘deeply heartwarming’ YA novel

Cardboard City
By Katarina Jovanovic
Afterword by Hedina Tahirović-Sijerčić 

Vancouver, BC: Tradewind Books, 2023
$14.95 / 9781990598104

Reviewed by Caileigh Broatch


In 2009, Katarina Jovanovic published a novel titled Kartonac. In English, this title translates to “cardboard box.” Now, as of June 15, 2023, Jovanovic has translated her novel into Cardboard City. This middle grade novel offers a view into the lives and dreams of two Romani teens who live in Cardboard City. This fictional account is based on the real-life city housing close to 1,000 people—most of them Romani—located in Belgrade, Serbia.

In the book’s afterword, Hedina Tahirović-Sijerčić states: “Romani people are often trapped in extreme poverty owing to the structures created by dominant culture, which—as shown in Jovanovic’s Cardboard City—erects near insurmountable barriers to their integration into society. Romani settlements are routinely subjected to frequent demolition, causing the routine uprooting of communities.”

Jovanovic, who now lives and teaches in Vancouver, is a Serbia-born journalist. Her novel shows obvious care and insight into a Serbian squatter community. Notably, there are very few recent novels about Romani people for middle-grade readers. Offering valuable insights, Cardboard City is a great introduction while into circumstances of Romani people in Central and Eastern European countries.

It is a straightforward story, with historical, cultural, and traditional elements. It would make it an informative inclusion in class material. Cardboard City is geared towards school-aged children in grade six, though the larger themes would be of interest to older children as well.

Cardboard City follows the lives of two young Rom teens, Saida and Nikola, as they experience and repressive poverty at their home cruel and discrimination at school. They are raised by their grandmother in the settlement formed by their Romani community, where every day is a challenge. Jovanovic writes:

“Winter was a particularly brutal time for the inhabitants of Cardboard City. The weather was bone-chilling cold, day and night, November to March. In sub-zero weather, they had to search for water as it froze up in the street fountains. To fight the cold, fires burned all day—the police threatened to stop them from lighting fires if one more fire truck came to Cardboard City. If you sat too close to the flames, smoke stung your eyes and nose. The air inside the makeshift huts was mouldy, filled with the smell of damp clothes that never could get dry.”

Despite the extreme gravity of the situation, the story of Nikola seizing the opportunity to learn and practise his gift—his musical intuition and trumpet abilities—is deeply heartwarming. He is taken in by two young adults, Almira and Rika, who help him cultivate this talent. At the centre of the novel, beneath the hunger and the dirt, is the story of dreams and gifts. Ones they are born with and ones they grow into. For Nikola, it is the dream to be a famous trumpeter. For his grandmother, it is the gift of fortune telling. For his sister, it is the dream of a better, fuller life:

“She realized that while they didn’t have enough food, money and the comforts of home, they tried to replace what was missing as best they could, with music, dance, stories, laughter and magic. Almira came to understand that their lives—with their own laws, customs and values—though laced with sorrow, were rich with dreams.”

Writer Katarina Jovanovic

Though the novel is closely invested in Nikola and Saida’s journey, it does expand on the experiences of the Romani city with short chapters that veer off from the siblings’ journeys. The chapters are descriptively titled, letting readers know what the mini-stories will entail; they also break from the chronological order set by the main storyline. For example, in “Grandfather Alexander’s Funeral,” Nikola returns to a previous year, and the readers gain insight into the funeral arrangements of the camp—

“The rituals of mourning were well known. They were forbidden to wash or comb their hair for two weeks. The mirrors had to be covered…. The mourners were not supposed to eat anything but bread, water, brandy and coffee before a funeral. [S]he threw coins into Grandfather’s coffin and whispered: ‘Akane mukav tut le Devlesa, Alexander—I now leave you to God.’ All the people from Cardboard City lined up to throw coins in Grandfather’s coffin, each whispering the same words. After they all had taken a turn at the graveside, Baba cut a piece of red string from the coffin and tied it around Nikola’s wrist.”

There is a single blemish on the story, a simple one that isn’t surprising in novels for this age group. Its mar is convenience. In a story built around the inconvenience of the protagonist’s everyday conditions—and the sheer improbably of a fulfilled dream—the escape and the relief comes a little too quickly. Nikolah and Saida are given an opportunity to leave Cardboard City and their grandmother, and to instead go and reside with Almira and Rika in their newly inherited apartment. Ultimately, the timing of the inherited apartment and the offer of legal guardianship is small element that can be overlooked in the favour of a happy (or, near happy) ending. 

The novel departs from the traditional structure, and instead wraps up the story in a series of letters. After departing their home in Cardboard City, Nicola and Saida keep in touch with their grandmother via snail mail. It’s during these correspondences that they discover their grandmother has passed. The novel ends with the small comfort that the siblings have learned to read and write, and that their grandmother has been released from the settlement’s harsh conditions. To round out the ending is the inclusion of four recipes—presumably passed down from their grandmother. These traditional Serbian dishes offer some insights to the sort of meals that Nikola, Saida, and the others at the settlement, would have eaten. For kids, food (and recipes) builds knowledge of unique flavours, different ethnicities, and geography. It’s a nice touch to help bring the fictional story into the reader’s reality.


Caileigh Broatch

Caileigh Broatch is a writer from Vancouver Island with a BA in creative writing and journalism from Vancouver Island University. Her work has taken her to investigate Canadian literature, gold panning, ghosts, and killer whales, among more academic topics.
Editors note: Caileigh Broatch has has recently reviewed books by Meredith Hambrock, Vince R. Ditrich, A.J. Devlin, Nicholas ReadNancy Hundal & Angela PanDenyse Waissbluth, and Barbara Smith.


The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

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