Zoran Drvenkar: Tell Me What You See – Sag mir, was du siehst (2002) German YA Fantasy Thriller

Zoran Drvenkar was born in Croatia in 1967 and moved to Berlin with his parents at the age of three. He is the author of far over 30 books for children, young adults and adults. His gritty thriller for adults Sorry and the fantasy thriller Tell Me What You See – Sag mir, was du siehst are the only books available in English so far. I’ve read a collection of short stories a couple of years ago and really liked it. I thought he is the perfect choice for genre week.

Tell Me What You See was very different from the other book I read by him and very different from anything I ever read. Some call him the Neil Gaiman of German literature (a title that Christoph Marzi holds as well).  After having read this novel I have to say, it’s not a good comparison. He is very different.

If you look at the German cover below you get the perfect feel of this book. It has very strong imagery and a mysterious story. The book starts during Christmas night. Sixteen year old Alissa and her best friend Evelin wander around the snow-covered graveyard, in the middle of the night. It’s icy cold and they are looking for Alissa’s father’s grave like every Christmas. He died in an accident a few years ago and Alissa cannot get over it. While looking for the grave, Alissa falls into an open crypt, discovers the coffin of a small child and a mysterious plant growing out of that coffin. Something urges her to rip out the plant and eat it.

From that moment on things get strange and scary. Alissa sees figures nobody else sees, she notices ravens all over the town, her former boyfriend Simon starts stalking her. What she doesn’t know is that ingesting a magical plant like this is deadly for the wrong host.

If you want to know whether she will survive or join her father, what those figures are and discover the secret of the plant, you have to read the book. The answers and the ending is a bit sad and quite unexpected.

I loved reading this book, I liked the imagery so much and found the story suspenseful. I didn’t care so much for the language though. It’s very rude in places, especially in the parts written in Simon’s POV.

Tell Me What You See is very evocative and atmospherical, a perfect read for this time of the year. If you like snow, graveyards, ravens, old dilapidated villas and ghosts, this is a must read for you.

I have to add that I was a bit taken aback by the explicit references to sex, especially since this is a book for the age group 12+. Clearly there are other rules for German YA novels. I have no children but I asked someone if they would think it is OK for their twelve-year-old child to read about blowjobs and other explicit things. The answer, as I had expected, was no. I just thought I’d let you know if you consider buying this as a Christmas gift for a younger person.

Vishy and I decided to read this book together. You can find his review here. It’s worth having a look as he included many beautiful quotes from the book.

37 thoughts on “Zoran Drvenkar: Tell Me What You See – Sag mir, was du siehst (2002) German YA Fantasy Thriller

    • It’s an unsavoury topic but still – when 50 Shades of “oh my” hit the German book shelves it was noted by critics – who hated it big time – that it didn’t work for the German market as is and that the translators had to spice it up considerably, including more explicit words…
      That the very same happens in a young adult novel… I’m interested to find out what Vishy says as he read the the English translation.
      I liked the Emo feel and suppose it works well for YA only the language wasn’t so rude in places… Listening to kids I suppose it’s very authentic, still…

  1. This sounds very good, but for adults! I like that fact that you used the cover to help describe the book. I love lower cover that you posted. The colors really work. It really expresses a feeling of winter dread.

    As for eating the plant and things getting strange – I cannot help think of Alice in Wonderland!

    • I was totally drwan to that cover I love ravens and I didn enjoy the book a lot.
      I didn’t think of Alice in Wonderland, that’s true but the plants are very different, this is quite creepy.

  2. I’m not a parent, but I wouldn’t buy this book for my child. Sounds like something I would enjoy though. I’m surprised by some of the language.

    • I was surprised as well and rechecked twice whether this is really meant for 12 year olds. The kids in the book are 16 and the language is quite simple, maybe for sixteen year olds. I just don’t understand why it had to be so crude. Oral sex would have been explicit enough… But I liked it for the strong images oops – that sounds dubious — I’m mean the snow and the ravens. 🙂

  3. The comparison to Neil Gaiman–anything to sell a book! I was thinking this sounded really good, but I’m surprised that a YA novel (it sounds like it’s even marketed towards slightly younger kids) would have such graphic/explicit references.

    • I think Drvenkar loves Gaiman and from there it was the logic thing to say he wrote like Gaiman. 🙂 I was extremely surprised. Overall it’s not too explicit, there are a few instances, still. I did personally not like them and thought it was not appropriate for 12 year old kids.

  4. Caroline,
    I’m so glad to learn about this writer. I want to read the book you’ve discussed. As a professor of Children’s and YA Literature, I’m not surprised by all the sexuality in this title or the marketing toward 12-year-olds, who are an important subset of this market. The same is true for recent YA fiction published in the US and Canada. My students, who average 19-25 years, are aghast and disapproving of the trend, though many titles with overt sexual material were published before they were young teens.

    Yet my students are equally aghast at the violent, graphic details of YA historical fiction set in World War II, Bosnia, the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe,etc. And many of these American, British, and European YA novels (in translation) were published in the early 1990s–an opening of the floodgates, if you will.

    I find it all very interesting, the way norms change.

    Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

    • I had no iddea hat you were teaching children’s and YA literature.
      So that’s not only a German trend then? I find that generally German TV programs and books are way more explicit that what I’ve seen so far in US programs or publications and even when it is explicit the language is not so rude.
      Drvenkar is immensely successful, 30 books published is a lot. Maybe you should try Sorry – his adult thriller – I’m looking forward to reading it although I hear it’s very graphic.
      It’s interesting that your students who are slightly older would find too explicit and graphic content shocking.
      Things really do chnage rapidly but it could reverse any time again.

      • Yes, Children’s and YA Literature is the core course I teach, sometimes two classes per semester. I fill in with college writing courses, which I also like. But I must confess I feel the strongest tie to Children’s Lit. The course is principally for future teachers, but unfortunately a number of students take it because they think it will be an easy literature course. Wrong!


        • Children’s literature can easily be underestimated. I like it more than YA literature, especially the classics like The Secret Garden. Peter Pan and books like that. Tom’s Midnight Garden is my favourite.

  5. What interesting cultural differences. How do you think a book like this would be received in France? Has Emma commented yet? I’d love her opinion. I know that some UK YA stuff has quite explicit material about violence and drug taking and sometimes sexual experiences, but it is usually marked for readers of 16 and upwards (and doubtless read also by their younger siblings!). But as you say, it’s only one strand of the story, and the rest sounds very interesting.

    • She has this little button “stay away from fantasy” which is pressed whenever she sees I’m writing on fanatsy and/or YA literature. It’s not sure she will read it:)
      I was thinking the same. I don’t think it’s appropriate in France but I could be wrong. I didn’t even look whether he has been translated.
      I thought he wrote an interesting story and it’s still haunting me. Maybe it says something about me as well. I’m a prude! No, I think I’m really not but I don’t like rude language.

  6. I couldn’t imagine what fantasy thriller was until I read your review, Caroline. Not something I’d ordinarily read, but you’ve made it sound interesting. Definitely not for twelve year-olds. I thought the YA label was off-kilter when it came to The Book Thief too.

    • I haven’t read The Book Thief but every time I do read reviews I think it doesn’t sound like a book for kids.
      Maybe I would be a too old-fashioned mother, wanting to shelter my kids until the age of… Not sure how long. But a 12 year old reading this. And it’s also quite dark in places. Mood wise.
      But I really enjoyed it.

  7. I really like the second cover…the head of a raven looks better than the whole bird.

    It does sound interesting, I rarely read YA for reasons I am not quite sure what…it just never appeal me. The only YA I read in the past couple of years is the unpublished ones written by my friend.

  8. Wonderful review, Caroline! I just finished reading the book and loved it. I loved the beautiful sentences that Drvenkar has sprinkled throughout the story and I also loved the atmospheric feel of the story that you have so beautifully described. I found the ending bittersweet and sad, but I was glad that it was not tragic. I didn’t find the explicit scenes too bad but if the book is marketed for 12-year olds then there is a problem. In the end I was wondering whether the book will have a sequel, but looking at the ending, I feel that chances of it are slim. I loved the cover of the German edition that you have posted. I hope to read other Drvenkar books in the future. Thanks for introducing this wonderful new author to me.

    • I’m so glad you liked it. I have a feeling they must have toned it down a bit in the English version. Of course, the explicit scenes are not very frequent, I just thought for 12 year olds it’s far too much. He does atmosphere really well and I found it was very different from other YA adult novels I’ve read.
      I’m not sure Drvenkar has written any linked books. I think most of them are standalones. This one has been out for quite a while in Germany, I don’t think he will write a sequel.

      • I just checked Drvenkar’s page in Wikipedia and found that it has just a few lines and no bibliography. I really hope that more of his books get translated into English. It is nice to know that he doesn’t write sequels – that means each story is an original 🙂

        • Yes, it looks as if. I suppose it’s very difficult for a German YA writer to enter the English speaking market as there are so many really original and strong authors. Not many have the success Cornelia Funke has.

  9. Ha! contrary to the comment above, I’ve read the post!! (smug grin on my face right now)

    OK, by the time I reached the comment section, I’d already captured the “If you like snow, graveyards, ravens, old dilapidated villas and ghosts, this is a must read for you” to say it’s exactly why it is a MUST NOT read for me.

    The end of your post leaves me thinking. Now, should I read YA books to filter the ones that are suitable for my daughter? I wouldn’t want her to read about explicit sex at her age, French or not. This is why I have a subscription to a blog specialized in children lit. Hérisson (the blogger) always writes the age of the reader. As she’s a librarian in a collège, I trust her.

    I’ve checked: it’s not been translated into French. Perhaps it comes from the tone of the book: too rife with sex for Gallimard Jeunesse and too adolescent for the adult market.

  10. Great review, Caroline. I just went over to Vishy’s blog to read his review – it’s interesting to see the same book reviewed by two people, what details they choose to leave out and what they focus on.
    I got excited when I read the comparison with Gaiman. Then my hopes were crushed. Then revived again by the words magic, graveyard, mysterious plant. And I saw this book just this weekend at the bookstore and I remembered because I tried to imagine myself pronouncing the name of the author and I’m sure he would have looked at me strangely if he heard me.
    I love the raven cover, it reminds me of Poe. And Stephen King.

    • Thansk, Delia. It’s always akward to compare someone with someone as famous and admired as Gaiman. And it really is very different but he has written a lot, maybe the one or the other is more similar.
      I found the atmosphere quite haunting, the way the cold was described. I’d be very curious to hear whether you like it.
      The raven cover is wonderful. I could watch ravens for hours.

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