Understanding Ukraine’s Plight Through Children’s Literature

As the Russian invasion in Eastern Europe begins its third year, many families— including children— continue to suffer. The U.S. is deeply involved in this assault, and no matter where, as a librarian, one stands politically on this fact, it is the innocent children whose lives must be protected. And while children should be protected from harsh realities of war, “We shouldn’t avoid the truths that children around the world are living in.” (Shatokhin, 2023).

The invasion is happening nine time zones and 6,000 miles away, and U.S. children, particularly elementary age children, have little understanding of this global conflict. One way to both help newly arrived Ukrainian refugee children feel welcome and safe, and provide a context of understanding for U.S. school children, is to purchase and perhaps share stories from the Ukrainian homeland. When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, many publishers rapidly pushed publications of Ukrainian literature, particularly children’s literature written and illustrated by Ukrainian authors and illustrators. Several literary triumphs prevailed, including some translated into English and some bilingual English-Ukrainian titles.

Titles published over the last few years, fall into three themes: a.) War-themed literature; b.) Historical fiction; and c.) Celebrated Ukrainian cultural stories. Each of these themes can serve unique bibliotherapeutic value when purchased for the library and shared with students.

War-Themed Titles

The Yellow Butterfly, (Shatokhin, 2023), offers a powerful wordless picture book shown from a child’s perspective, a Ukrainian girl’s current experiences. Beginning with a close-up of a single barbed wire, the illustrator’s lens moves out to encompass scenes of a stark barb wired enclosure reminiscent of Holocaust death camps. War comes in the image of a huge spider forcing the girl to flee. Singly, the young girl wanders the devastation that is now her homeland, visiting various ghost-like sites: a haunting playground, a missile stuck in the ground where a tree should be. Finally, in an explosion of emotion, the young child decries the anguish of war pushing the missile from the ground, and from that site comes yellow butterflies of hope. The butterflies gather, take flight, and form into the shape of a giant stork (the national bird of Ukraine and a symbol of rebirth).  Until the final pages, the illustrations are black and white, with just the yellow butterfly bringing color. Until the yellow stork takes flight against a bright background of blue—the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag—turning barb wires into a stream of butterflies. Backmatter offers ideas for sharing wordless picture books and discussions with young children about war.

One of the more profoundly urgent titles from Ukraine —softened with a touch of magic— is How War Changed Rondo (Romanyshyn and Lesiv, 2021). The imaginary Ukrainian town of Rondo is resplendently rich in art and music where three friends, Danko, Fabian, and flying Zirka live in peace and vibrant splendor, enjoying concerts performed by colorful, singing flowers. Until War comes to Rondo: “black and scary…bringing destruction, turmoil and dense darkness.” The colorful flowers are replaced by ominous black flowers of War that grow like weeds. The three friends try reasoning with War; they try hurling War’s weapons back on them hoping to strike War’s heart. But of course, War has no heart. Danko continues to attend to Rondo’s flowers which have shriveled colorless and mute, but when his light is unexpectedly cast upon War, the impact is instant. So Danko rallies the town to create a giant machine of light to shine on War. The Ukrainian author-illustrators do not offer a simple victory; while Rondo residents are victorious, they bear the scars and wounds of war.  Danko, Fabian, and Zirka carry the wing-injured, heart-scarred, and crippled weight of war forever.

The Yellow Butterfly (Shatokhin, 2023) and How War Changed Rondo (2017) are choice read alouds for elementary children to readily provide access to and understanding of today’s invasion of Ukraine by Russian military. May not be appropriate for very young children.

Reminiscent of Anne Frank, a first-hand account of today’s Russian invasion of Ukraine is offered by twelve-year-old Yeva Skalietska in excerpts from her diary, published in the memoir, You Don’t Know What War Is: The Diary of a Young Girl from Ukraine (2022). Author Skalietska chronicled her story “so that ten or twenty years from now, I could read this and remember how my childhood was destroyed by war.” Told from a bunker hiding with her grandmother, the diary begins shortly after the initial. Yeva woke ten days after her twelfth birthday to the mass bombings on her city Kharkiv where she lived in an apartment with her grandmother. They were assisted in escaping to eastern Ukraine’s Uzhhorod, and from there, through a chance meeting with a UK news reporter, they were able to cross into Budapest and then safely on to Dublin. This firsthand account written by a twelve-year-old offers excruciating detail of the bombing, sheltering, and forced abandonment of the only home Yeva has known.

Historical Fiction

Based on Katherine Marsh’s personal family history, multi-award winning title, The Lost Years (2023) alternates between the story of teenage Matthew— who’s stuck inside with his mom and 100-year-old great grandmother GG during the current day pandemic— and Gigi’s 1930s USSR Holodomor history. Likely the reason this was a National Book Award finalist was the brilliant way Marsh lets readers discover the horrors of the Holodomor, interspersed with relief: chapters of Mathew’s self-discovery.  Maybe not so bad having to bond closely with family during the pandemic?

Featured recently on MSNBC’s Banned Book Club and based on the author’s personal family history, Winterkill (Skrypuch, 2022) brings the Holodomor ~ the 1930-1933 Stalin-imposed starvation genocide of the Ukrainian nation ~ to an accessible audience for middle grade audiences. Ukrainian teen Nyl’s family had led a gentle life farming in the village of Felivka, Ukraine.  When Stalin’s soldiers occupy the village, Nyl’s sister is influenced by Stalin’s five-year plan of industrialization, and she reveals her family’s hidden wheat to the  Stalinite Chort, ultimately causing their father’s death. To prevent starvation, Nyl and his 9-year-old brother must leave their farm to find work in the tractor-building industry.  Following a series of war atrocities, Nyl eventually finds himself in Russia, outside the Holodomor.  A powerfully personal account of Ukraine’s historic fight for survival. (Grades 4+)

Skyruch has published several titles that give context to the Ukrainian-Russian historic enmity. A trilogy of fast-paced historical fiction titles provide strong female characters, sisters Krystia and Maria, in a post-WWII setting, rich in historic content. The latest and last title in this series is Traitors Among Us (2021).

Based on Katherine Marsh’s personal family history, multi-award winning title, The Lost Years (2023) alternates between the story of teenage Matthew— who’s stuck inside with his mom and 100-year-old great grandmother GG during the current day pandemic— and Gigi’s 1930s USSR Holodomor history. Likely the reason this was a National Book Award finalist was the brilliant way Marsh lets readers discover the horrors of the Holodomor, interspersed with relief: chapters of Mathew’s self-discovery.  Maybe not so bad having to bond closely with family during the pandemic?

For librarians interested in offering teachers and older students a Ukrainian author study, multi-award winning Ukrainian-Canadian Marsha Skrypuch is a choice author.

Celebrating Ukrainian Culture

Nonfiction titles as well can provide clarity for children and raise awareness and appreciation of Ukraine’s unique culture.

Husband and wife team, Olena Kharchenko and Michael Sampson, began The Story of Ukraine: An Anthem of Glory and Freedom (Kharchenko and Sampson, 2022) in March of 2022; Brown Books Kids quickly released this bilingual title by August. The words of the Ukrainian national anthem are included and used as a backdrop for teaching many aspects of Ukrainian culture in this bilingual nonfiction text.

Back matter matters in Finding Freedom: A Ukraine Tale of Home (Kariuk, 2023), a brief rhyming tale—part fiction, part memoir— of a young girl’s yearning for freedom which projects her on a journey into the Ukrainian countryside, resplendent with culture.  Carrying themes of freedom, resilience, and hope, the indomitable Ukrainian spirit permeate the pages of this brief picture book. For reading aloud to younger children, this title offers a storyline of hope and resilience.  Rich detailed back matter can we used to teach children much about Ukraine.

Many publishers have new nonfiction books coming out in 2024 including Lerners’ A Look at Ukraine, Child’s Worlds’ Food from Ukraine, Tilbury’s Quiet Night, My Astronaut: The First Days (and Nights) of the War in Ukraine and a graphic novel from Capstone, Patron Sniffs out Danger: Heroic Bomb-Detecting Dog of Ukraine. Lerner and Abdo also have published recent biographies of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Ukrainian Folk Literature

Librarians who wish a softer entrée into this topic can read one of several older Ukrainian folktales. Eric Kimmel’s two holiday stories, The Bird’s Gift: A Ukrainian Easter Story (1999) and The Spider’s Gift: A Ukrainian Christmas Story (2010) provide stories of comfort that offer both illustrations depicting familiar Ukrainian culture as well as models of rewards for kind acts. Ukrainian-Canadian author, Skrypuch has published several folktales as well, some still in publication.  And, of course, the classic Ukrainian folktale, The Mitten, has been retold by many popular children’s U.S. authors.

While, understandably, most of these titles contain themes of war and conflict, and some are deeply dark and must be shared sparingly and include post-reading discussion, they do offer understanding for American students— who live in a country that has never been invaded by a foreign entity— a chance to more clearly understand the significance of what Ukrainian children endure today.

Share these titles whether or not your school has Ukrainian students. As you purchase and share them, google-search these authors and illustrators and share their stories as well, to more deeply personalize the stories and the context.

 

References

Kariuk, Maryna. (2023).  Finding Freedom: A Ukraine Tale of Home. Kohana Books.

Kharchenko, Olena and Sampson, Michael. (2022). The Story of Ukraine: An Anthem of Glory and Freedom. Brown Books Kids.

Kimmel, Eric. (1999). The Bird’s Gift: A Ukrainian Easter Story. Holiday House.

Kimmel, Eric. (2010). The Spider’s Gift: A Ukrainian Christmas Story. Holiday House.

Romanyshyn, Romana and Lesiv, Andriy.  (2021). How War Changed Rondo. Enchanted Lion Books.

Shatokhin, Oleksandr. (2023).  Yellow Butterfly. Red Comet Press.

Skalietska, Yeva. (2022). You Don’t Know What War Is: The Diary of a Young Girl from Ukraine. Union Square & Co.

Skrypuch, Marsha Forchuk. (2021). Traitors Among Us. Scholastic.

Skrypuch, Marsha Forchuk.  (2022). Winterkill. Scholastic.

Final Note: Grievously, in researching literature for this article, I was astounded at the number of articles that chronicled the deaths of numerous Ukrainian authors and illustrators, many of whom have written award-winning children’s books accessible only in their native language.

Author: Christie Kaaland



Categories: Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.