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A powerful middle grade debut that weaves together folklore and history to tell the story of a girl finding her voice and the strength to use it during the final months of the Communist regime in Romania in 1989.

Ileana has always collected stories. Some are about the past, before the leader of her country tore down her home to make room for his golden palace; back when families had enough food, and the hot water worked on more than just Saturday nights. Others are folktales like the one she was named for, which her father used to tell her at bedtime. But some stories can get you in trouble, like the dangerous one criticizing Romania’s Communist government that Uncle Andrei published—right before he went missing.

Fearing for her safety, Ileana’s parents send her to live with the grandparents she’s never met, far from the prying eyes and ears of the secret police and their spies, who could be any of the neighbors. But danger is never far away. Now, to save her family and the village she’s come to love, Ileana will have to tell the most important story of her life.

Some Poetry About Socialism

Some Poetry About Socialism
When my father arrived home from the university, his face sallow and sagging as if he were sick, he dropped his briefcase on the kitchen floor and braced himself at the sink.

“He’s gone. They’ve killed him,” he said.

At the table, my mother set down her copy of Femeia magazine. She glanced at me before she stood, took Tata’s hat from his head, pulled him toward their bedroom door, and shut it quietly behind them.

It was mid-July in 1989, and the electricity in Bucharest was off more often than on. Our tower-block concrete apartment building baked us like cabbage rolls in a clay pot, so we always let in the breeze through the balcony doors. I had been sprawled out on the living-room floor beside my Great Tome, the warm air tugging at the pages of my stories. Now I laid my coloring pencil aside and stared, my heart thudding faster with each sound that came through the wall.

The apartment was so small you could see it all at once: the balcony where we dried our clothes, the living room and kitchen stuffed together, the tiny bathroom, my parents’ bedroom, my bedroom. My mother liked to say—when my father wasn’t there to stop her—that if we were again forced to move, they would squeeze our whole family into a closet. She missed the apartment we’d had before, with the dining room and the pantry and the corner office that held her piano. I didn’t remember it, since we’d had to leave when I was a baby, but I knew my parents had only been able to keep what could be carried. I knew they’d only been given a day.

As I sat there, tense and listening, I couldn’t stop thinking it would happen again—that whatever had frightened my father would force us to pack up without warning and leave. I wondered how much worse things would get if we moved. When the Leader had torn down our first home to make room for the wide, gaping boulevard and the palace, he’d stuck us, like everyone else, into horrible gray concrete buildings, stacked one after another, all the same. Sometimes I would imagine my family’s life before then: our pantry stocked full of bread and jam, my father’s books lining the walls from ceiling to floor. In my memory of a place that I didn’t remember, we always had enough food, and the hot water worked on more than just Saturday nights. We could bathe whenever we wanted, even in winter when the central heating went out.

But I collected stories, both made-up and true.

And I was usually good at spotting the difference.

My family had never had enough food. We’d never had enough hot water, enough space, enough light. At ten years old, I could already see how everyone, even me, talked about before in a special kind of voice and with special kinds of words. If we believed that before, things were better, we could imagine they’d be better again. This was the way we survived.

There was a loud thump behind my parents’ bedroom door, something striking their dresser. I jumped when it happened again. Muffled sounds came in great, rolling waves: my father’s words rising, my mother suppressing the swell. I knew she didn’t quiet him because of me, not really. She did it for the neighbor whose ear might be pressed to the wall, for the passerby in the corridor who might pause, fingers feeling in pockets for a pen. It was always best to assume someone was listening.

When the door finally opened, I knew I must have looked frightened, so I pretended to be busy writing in my Great Tome. I was working on “The Baker’s Boy,” a retelling of a parable from school, but my eyes couldn’t focus on the words. I kept glancing up at my parents, who had settled into silent preparation for dinner. I tried not to think about who might have been killed, distracting myself by drawing loaves of tan-colored bread around the edge of my title page. But when the sun dipped low, its fading light turned all the Great Tome’s colors to ugly shades of gray, so I tucked the book under my arm and carried it to the couch.

With the power still out, the TV screen was just a dark reflection of me holding my stories, but I sat down and stared at it anyway. Thinking about the movies I loved made me feel a bit better, even if I knew there was no chance I’d see them. We used to get two channels that had shows all day long. My mother still talked about when they’d aired the one from America with the man in the cowboy hat, which always ended with somebody shot or in a car that exploded. But now we only had one channel, just two hours a day during the week, and it didn’t air shows like that anymore. The programming was usually boring: speeches given from inside the grand palace; televised sessions of the Communist Party, the little men on the screen all cheering together, booing together, raising their fists; broadcasts that reviewed the state guidelines on “rational eating” or politely reminded viewers of local curfews.

On Sundays, though, Gala Animation would come on, and we’d get five whole minutes of a cartoon. Everyone I knew who had a television made sure not to miss it. Last summer, over the course of several weeks, I’d caught all of 101 Dalmatians and bragged to the other children when we went back to school. This summer they were showing The Aristocats, and the last episode had left the poor kitties scared and alone out in the country. I wouldn’t get to see the next five minutes till the weekend, but if the power came back tonight, our handmade antenna might pick up something good from Bulgaria, and my whole family might sit down to watch. Then, just like always, we could leave behind whatever horrible thing had happened.

Luck seemed to be on my side, at least for the moment, because as we were setting the table, the electricity flickered to life. I asked my father, “Can I turn on the fan?”

Sometimes he said no. The taxes were very high if we went over our energy allotment. But tonight he didn’t even look at me. He just gave a little gesture with his hand, which I took for a yes, then sat down in his place. The lines around his eyes and behind his big glasses looked deeper than usual, and I began to worry he might really be sick. At the table, the wind blowing through my choppy brown hair, I turned my gaze down and picked at my food. Pie with eggplant and potato but no meat. The queue had been too long at the butcher’s. When the line manager had told me and my mother that it would take five hours, maybe six, to get our rations, I thought she’d make us take turns waiting, but instead we’d simply gone home.

Nibbling a stale piece of bread and avoiding as much eggplant as possible, I did my best not to complain. My father was still quiet. The sickly look had not left his face, and I kept glancing up, wanting someone to speak. I knew they wouldn’t tell me who was killed or why, because they’d never told me before, but the longer everyone went without talking, the more anxious I grew, thinking that this time it had been someone important.

When I could no longer take it, I did what I always did with silence. I tried to fill it with a story.

“Do you want to hear the new one?”

“Maybe another night,” my mother replied.

My stomach fluttered. My cheeks flushed. They never said no.

I returned to poking at my dinner, suddenly frightened as I tried to guess who was dead, because it had never been this bad. It had never meant this much.

My father put down his fork. “Is that what you did today? Work on your stories?”

I thought he was mad about me not doing my summer homework, so I said quickly, “It’s a school story. Mrs. Dumitru told it to us before vacation.”

“Another night,” my mother repeated, and this time I took her words for what they were—a warning.

“No, I want to hear it. I want to hear what they’re telling my daughter. I want to hear what she’s writing.”

I looked between them, shrinking into my chair. A chime from the clock let me ask, “Can I be done?”

My mother glanced at my plate with a frown but nodded. “Bring in your dishes. And turn off that fan. You’ll catch cold.”

“What about your story?” my father asked.

“I forgot it’s not ready,” I lied.

After filling the sink with soapy water, I switched on the TV and sank down into the worn couch. My parents began to clean up. When the dark screen filled with static, I peeked out onto the balcony, worried that someone had climbed up and stolen our wires, but everything seemed okay. I looked at Mama. I hesitated. She was elbow deep in dirty dishes, my father helping dry. They were both still silent—a bad sign.

Usually, after supper, I had to turn up the TV extra loud because my mother loved to sing and my father loved to join in and bellow off-key. If it wasn’t that cacophony, they would at least be chattering away about work.

Back in the old apartment, my mother had given music lessons from home. But once she’d lost her piano, she’d had to take a job as a secretary. Now she filed stacks of papers and made calls and typed up copies of documents, since copy machines were illegal. Sometimes there was so much work, she had to get special permission to take a typewriter home.

“I have the worst job in the world,” she would say.

“At least it’s safe,” my father would answer.

Tata was a professor at the University of Bucharest, where he lectured in literature and composition. He’d never been a very good writer, but he loved stories almost as much as I did, so he’d spent his whole life learning how to listen to them. He could hear what was inside a story’s heart—what made it beat or let it die—and he’d shared that gift with me. Most nights after supper, if he wasn’t singing with Mama or talking away, he’d patiently critique all my new ideas. And if we couldn’t watch television because the power was out, he’d get a candle and I’d go find his reading glasses and we’d snuggle up on the couch with our books.

Usually, after supper, our family found something to be happy about, even in the hardest of times. But tonight my father was silent and slouched like an old man—like he was carrying a sack of stones on his shoulders—and even though the kitchen was so close I could almost reach out and touch him, I felt as if he were standing a hundred kilometers away.

Whatever was eating him up started eating me, too.

I crawled over to the TV and twisted the knob frantically, searching for a Bulgarian station. We didn’t speak Bulgarian, but they got much better shows, and sometimes when Columbo came on my father would pretend he knew what everyone was saying, making up silly things till we were all a giggling mess. If that happened tonight, life would go back to normal, I was sure, and whoever had died wouldn’t matter, not really, just like they’d never mattered before.

“Mama, the TV’s all fleas,” I called, getting desperate.

My mother glanced at the clock. “Then watch the news.”

“Mama, please.”

She dried off her hands, sighing loudly, and stepped out onto the balcony to fiddle with the antenna. When she came back inside, there was still only static, so she changed the channel to the nightly state broadcast.

“I want to watch a Bulgarian show!” I said, panicking. Turning on the news was a terrible idea. Most of the time it just made my parents upset.

When I kept complaining, Mama shushed me and gave a few gentle smacks to the back of my head. A newscaster was talking in front of black-and-white pictures of the Leader, an aging man with slick gray hair and puffy little boy’s lips. His wife was beside him in a skirt suit and fat, shiny pearls. She was always photographed from the front so her nose would look small. The two stood before a huge crowd of people, giant posters of the Leader’s face plastered all over the wall at their backs. The people were applauding. Flags were waving. I slid dramatically to the floor and rolled onto my stomach, groaning till my mother shook me to silence with her foot on my butt.

A clip of the Leader must have started playing, because I heard him then, speaking to the cheering crowd about the importance of loyalty to the country, about the importance of poetry.

“Everyone enjoys a good love poem,” he said. “But of course the highest form of all art is socialist poetry.”

My mother sat down on the couch. She called to my father: “Lucian.”

He came over and I stopped fussing, lifting my face up from the thin carpet.

The Leader read some lines from a poem. I knew the poet they were from. We all learned about him in school. This particular poem praised the state and the Communist Party.

But I knew other poems from this poet, as well—ones the teachers did not read in class.

I knew them because the poet had gone to university with my uncle Andrei, my father’s brother. The poet had written many things that he shouldn’t have written, many things that did not praise our country. And before he died—before his spine was crushed late one night under the wheels of a tram—he had inspired my uncle to write poetry too.

I tensed and looked up at my father.

“What wonderful lyrics,” the newscaster said with a smile when the clip ended. “Our writers must always strive for such beauty.”

My tata’s face drained of what little color was left. When he started to sob, my whole body went numb. I thought I might start crying too, but before I could, my mother got up and ushered me into my room.

“Don’t worry. He’s just not feeling well,” she said.

But I collected stories, so I knew that was a lie.

I knew my uncle, the poet, had not been home in a week. I knew now that my father thought he was dead.

But recognizing a lie and knowing the truth are two different things.

My father wasn’t crying just because he was afraid for his brother—his brother who wrote dangerous poems.

He was also afraid for me.
A Reading Group Guide to

The Story That Cannot Be Told

By J. Kasper Kramer

About the Book

“Once upon a time, something happened. If it had not happened, it would not be told.” This is how The Story That Cannot Be Told begins, and what follows is a lushly imagined work of historical fiction. Growing up in the shadow of communist Romania, ten-year-old Ileana is a storyteller, entertaining herself by writing stories in her Great Tome. But when her uncle, Andrei, disappears after being labeled a terrorist for writing protest poetry, Ileana’s parents decide that stories are dangerous; they send her into hiding with her grandparents in a rural mountain village. By interweaving Ileana’s story with the stories of her family and a retelling of the Romanian folktale known as “Cunning Ileana,” J. Kasper Kramer has crafted an unforgettable story about family, courage, and the power of storytelling.

Discussion Questions

1. In the author’s note, J. Kasper Kramer reveals that the book is set in Romania 1989. Identify specific details in the text that could help you figure out the date and location of the story. What else would you like to learn about that time period?

2. During the time of this story’s setting, Romania was a communist country. What was life like for Romanians under the communist regime? Why would they want to rebel against the leader? What was dangerous about Uncle Andrei’s poetry? What “dangerous” ideas can you identify in the stories that Ileana writes in her Great Tome?

3. Why do you think the government put surveillance equipment in Ileana’s apartment? Do you think a government should have the right to use surveillance on citizens? Explain your answer. Why does Ileana’s father destroy her Great Tome? Discuss whether or not you think he did the right thing. Do you think her father had other options in this situation?

4. Why do Ileana’s parents decide to send her to live with her grandparents? Why don’t her grandparents recognize her when she arrives in the village?

5. Describe the differences between Ileana’s life with her parents in the city of Bucharest and her life with her grandparents in a rural mountain village. If you were Ileana, would you prefer living in Bucharest or the small village? Explain your answer.

6. Why do you think the village children are cruel to Ileana when she first arrives? Why might the people in the village have a hard time trusting one another? What advice would you have for Ileana? How might you and your classmates make a new student feel welcome?

7. What advice does Uncle Andrei give Ileana when he leaves? Why is it difficult for her to follow it? What would you have done if you were Ileana? Explain your answer.

8. Summarize the story about Old Constanta. What parts of the story do you think are true? What does the story reveal about Old Constanta? What does it reveal about Ileana’s mother?

9. In what ways do the people in the village come together to help one another? How does feeling like a part of a community begin to change Ileana? What people or places make you feel like you belong? Explain your answer.

10. What are the lessons in each of the stories that Ileana’s grandparents tell her, including “Tataie’s Three Coins” and “Mamaie and the Evil Box”? How does Ileana react to hearing them?

11. Ileana’s grandmother has many superstitions. List and explain some of her superstitious beliefs. Do you or does anyone you know believe in superstitions? Why do you think these notions exist?

12. Describe Ileana’s friendship with Gabi. What brings them together? How do they work together? What do you think might have happened if Ileana had never trusted Gabi?

13. What do the Securitate mean when they tell the villagers that they have been “chosen for systemization”? Explain how this is an example of a euphemism. How will this affect the villagers’ lives? Are they given a chance to share their opinions?

14. What is “The Story That Can Not be Told” about? Refer to “Into the House of the Witch” as well. Explain what Old Constanta means when she says the story is a code. Why do you think the author chose to title her own book this way?

15. Ileana’s uncle trusts her with his manifesto for safekeeping. What is a manifesto? With your classmates, develop a classroom manifesto that declares your collective goals and beliefs. Why do you think someone would sign their name to a manifesto? What do you think the government would do if they had Uncle Andrei’s manifesto?

16. Ileana’s father tells her not to resist the Securitate. Why do you think he wants her to turn over the manifesto? Why does she refuse? What would you have done if you were in her position?

17. Why is it essential for a culture to have storytellers? Why might a government try to control which stories are allowed to be told? Can you think of any real-world examples?

Extension Activities

1. The Story That Cannot Be Told contains several animals that have symbolic meaning in folktales, myths, and legends: a white wolf, a dragon, and an owl. What do each of these creatures symbolize in the novel? Research the symbolism of one of these animals in stories from several different cultures, including Romania.

2. Research the story’s historical time period. How did the Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, come to power? How and why was he overthrown? In the story, Ileana and Gabi receive news of protests by listening to Radio Free Europe on a forbidden radio. You can see photos of key events referenced in the book through the Radio Free Europe site (https://tinyurl.com/y8e3czkm). Work with a partner to write a script for a radio program alerting the public to one of these key events. Think about the style of the radio format, and your intended audience. What is most important for them to know? What are you asking them to do?

3. Interwoven throughout the novel is a retelling of the Romanian folktale of Ileana Cosânzeana, or “Cunning Ileana.” The author uses this story as an allegory for Ileana’s own heroic journey. Compare the “Cunning Ileana” story with details from Ileana’s real-life story, illustrating the connections between the two tales. Share your findings with your classmates.

4. What are the characteristics of a folktale? Create a graphic chart or poster that explains how the “Cunning Ileana” story reflects these characteristics. Then brainstorm an idea for your own folktale that includes these elements.

5. In the author’s note, J. Kasper Kramer explains that she based her novel on stories that friends from Romania told her, combined with her own research into Romania’s history and Romanian folktales. Research some of the Romanian folktales that incorporate one of the creatures mentioned in the book, such as strigoi, balaur, or the Mother of the Forest. How are the Romanian folktales similar to other stories you’ve heard? How are they different?

6. Both Uncle Andrei and Ileana are considered dangerous because they are writers. How can poetry, fiction, art, music, film, and theater be a form of protest or resistance? Research a writer or artist whose works became a form of protest. What were they protesting? How did their work raise awareness? Did they face any persecution or criticism as a result? As a starting point, the Poetry Foundation has curated a collection of protest poems that can be found here: https://tinyurl.com/y3zncdu6

7. At the end of the book, Ileana observes that, “The truth is, sometimes it’s not just the world, but your eyes that have changed.” What does she mean by that? Think about an event that changed the way you see the world, and write your own story about that time.

8. Extension Activity: Compare this novel to George Orwell’s allegory of Russian communism, Animal Farm. How is the regime of the Great Leader similar to the regime of Napoleon and the pigs? What lessons do both books teach about resistance and protest? How do they impact your views of the world?

Lexile ® 800L

The Lexile reading level has been certified by the Lexile developer, MetaMetrics®

Guide prepared by Amy Jurskis, English Department Chair at Oxbridge Academy.

This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes. For more Simon & Schuster guides and classroom materials, please visit simonandschuster.net or simonandschuster.net/thebookpantry.
Photograph © Jessica Kasper Kramer

J. Kasper Kramer is an author and English professor in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She has a master’s degree in creative writing and once upon a time lived in Japan, where she taught at an international school. When she’s not curled up with a book, Kramer loves researching lost fairy tales, playing video games, and fostering kittens. Visit her at JKasperKramer.com.

“By turns surprising, poetic, and stark, The Story That Cannot Be Told is one that should most certainly be read.”—Alan Gratz, New York Times bestselling author of Refugee

“Stories have immense power to change lives. J. Kasper Kramer’s beautiful novel is proof of that. A compelling story of a history that should never be forgotten.”—New York Times bestselling author Jennifer A. Nielsen

* “Mesmerizing."

– Publishers Weekly, starred review

* “Kramer's debut novel is rich with connections to today's world while easily sidestepping the pitfall of heavy-handedness. Ileana is a charming, complex character who stumbles and makes mistakes as she builds up confidence, bravery, and wisdom against a wonderfully imagined backdrop populated with fascinating secondary characters. . . . A thrilling, emotional tale of one girl's experience of the fall of Communism in Romania.”

– Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“Romanian fairy tales and folktales are intertwined with historical fiction to create a tale rich in imagery, emotion, and strength when it’s most needed.”

– School Library Connection

“Kramer captures the tense, frightening atmosphere in the months preceding the Romanian Revolution, as well as the different forms of bravery that went into toppling an oppressive government. . . . An affecting account of a historic event characterized by monsters, hope, and the power of words.”

– Booklist