Belgrade-born Katarina Jovanovic offers an endearing fictional story about a place that once existed in her hometown. Cardboard City follows Romani teenagers Nikola and his older sister Saida as they dream of escaping the informal settlement, with its homes built of milk cartons and Coca-Cola crates and no running water or electricity, where they live with their grandmother. Nikola is a gifted trumpet player and Saida is a singer who does not want to get married at a young age. After Saida goes missing, Nikola is offered an opportunity that could help him realize his dream of escape and must choose between his family and his future. The entrenched discrimination and persecution faced by Roma in many Central and Eastern European communities traps them to lives of crushing poverty; Nikola and Saida often go hungry, have to fetch for water, and they do not attend school. Nikola and Saida’s interactions with shopkeepers, transit riders, and other residents of Belgrade provide insight into the harsh realities of their circumstances.
By narrating the story in the third person, Jovanovic keeps readers observing the lives of her Romani and gadjo (non-Romani) characters at a remove; we are never quite able to experience the full range of the characters’ emotions. This distance is reflective of the way we often interact with people living on the margins of society – in fleeting moments that ignore the entirety of their lives.
The book’s epilogue rounds out the narrative and explains that Cardboard City was the name given to a real Roma settlement that was demolished by the Serbian government in 2009. Hedina Tahirović-Sijerčić’s afterword provides essential information about the racism and discrimination that Roma face in Europe and introduces the Samudaripen, the Nazi genocide of approximately 500,000 Roma during the Second World War.
Cardboard City can serve as a springboard for parents and educators to discuss more complex topics such as persecution, child marriage, homelessness, and displacement with young adults. It can also provide an opportunity to draw parallels to the many tent cities that have appeared across Canada, and invite young readers to consider the lives of those residents, and what might happen to them if their communities were also demolished.
With an ending that is beautiful, sweet, and heartbreaking, Jovanovic reminds us that there are seldom easy solutions to complex problems. Cardboard City is more than a book that allows readers to enter a world likely unknown to them, it’s also a resource to teach young readers about the consequences of objectifying marginalized people.