Ukraine: Unexpected Connections and Insights

by Charlene Klassen Endrizzi and Grace Klassen

A single story or book cannot completely portray the richness or ambiguities of one culture (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2009). As we study media images of atrocities occurring within Ukraine, we pause to wonder about these vibrant, resilient people and their varied stories. This exploration allows us to develop a more comprehensive understanding of universal themes relevant to many cultures which emerge from Ukrainian children’s authors.

English translation of Sound, 2020.

Ukrainian version of Sound – Loudly, Softly, in a Whisper, 2017.

This month join us, Charlene and Grace, for a look at several Ukrainian children’s books. Our blog features three texts offered by an award-winning wife and husband team from Lviv, Ukraine. Romana Romanyshyn and Andriy Lesiv unite to present these universal, accessible books. Browsing their Art Studio Agrafka webpage enables readers to see them as young artists and writers, not only targets of war. Note their array of awards received over the past sixteen years, providing evidence of their creative depth.

Sound: Shhh… bang…. pop… boom! (2020) invites us into the world of sounds with appealing pop art style graphics and these words.

“In the beginning it may have been quiet.
But then it became loud.
The universe filled with sounds” (Romanyshyn & Lesiv, 2020, p. 1-2).

Curious listeners of all ages enter a visual exploration of all manner of noise. Factoids accompany each page of infographics, offering brief, scientific introductions to the wonder of our ears or sign language and instruments. Expect to spend time pouring over each page, uncovering insights meant to stimulate listening, talking and thinking.

Examine the first few pages of Sound. Through the use of poignant text and eye-catching graphics, readers consider an array of sounds, such as the usefulness of languages, decibels, and noises heard in nature. Images and text help us differentiate between the roles of musicians, DJs, acousticians and conductors. At first glance this book appears to represent a cacophony. Instead we find ourselves intrigued and wanting to know more. The annual international Bologna Children’s Book Fair held in Italy presented their nonfiction BolognaRagazzi Award to Romanyshyn and Lesiv for Sound along with their companion book Sight in 2018. Translators such as Vitaly Chernetsky make these books available in over 25 languages. Expect to be surprised by this duo’s thoughtfulness, heard through this insight, “And sometimes, we need to spend time in silence” (Romanyshyn & Lesiv, 2020, p. 39-40).

Before we examine their next book, Sight: Glimmer, glow, spark, flash!, we invite you to spend time with Romana and Andriy touring their art studio in Lviv, Ukraine. Their 60 minute live-stream conversation presented by Enchanted Lion and the Society of Illustrators, enables us to explore their 100 year-old studio/home filled with beloved art objects such as a bronze sculpture made by Romana’s father. The illustrators/authors take us on a thought-provoking picture walk through nine of their children’s and adult books, including Sound, Sight and How War Changed Rondo. Viewers obtain an up close and personal look at their collaborative work over the past 20 years. Consider their technique decisions made as illustrators and word choices as writers. Andriy describes their work as “less is more” and their goal of refining work by cutting and losing un-necessary elements. Since this tour was filmed in December 2021, two months before the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, we remain concerned for their safety today.

Romana Romanyshyn and Andriy Lesiv.

Our Ukrainian couple offers an equally informative companion book to Sound with Sight: Glimmer, glow, spark, flash! (2021). Examine several of their illustrations seen with Ukrainian text. Marvel at what our eye sight offers us each day. The depth of their research reveals a careful study of the usefulness of glasses, microscopes to telescopes, optical illusions, dreams, camouflage and more, inviting adults and children to come together and ponder the vast opportunities available through vision. We appreciate Romana’s and Andriy’s description of our eyesight, “a delicate and complex mechanism” (Sight, 2021, p. 6).

Ukrainian version of Sight – I See That, 2018.

Before Grace and I explore How War Changed Rondo (2021), we pause to share our connection to the Black Sea region, known as the borderland between Europe and Russia. Our parents’ families immigrated from Ukraine to Canada in the 1920s, seeking refuge from starvation and war. Ukraine’s rich soil first brought our ancestors to this fertile land in the late 1700s as wheat farmers. A love of music and values focused on integrity, frugality and pacifism continue to be passed down from family to family in our lineage.

We cautiously launch our exploration of How War Changed Rondo and the current war in Ukraine, noting how conflict impacts all global citizens, including children. We struggle to make sense of the horror Ukrainian citizens currently face. Romanyshyn and Lesiv reveal their rationale for creating such a complicated story in their live-stream video. They explain, “We see this book as a starting point for hard talks between parents and children,” (Enchanted Lion and Society of Illustrators Picturing series, December 17, 2021).

English translation of How the War Changed Rondo, 2021.

Ukrainian version of How the War Changed Rondo, 2021.

Visually, many dark images in this text differ from Sound and Sight. Just the front cover, filled with blood red poppies and black war graphics, reminds Grace and me of our childhood in Canada. As schoolchildren, we memorized and recited John McCrae’s poem, In Flanders Field (McCrae, 1918) each November as a part of Remembrance Day. For us, McCrae’s opening line, “In Flanders field, where poppies blow…” sets a somber yet hopeful mood for the remainder of the text.

In Flanders Fields

Explore several pages of this third visual tour de force. Written in 2014 as a response to Russia’s assault on eastern Ukraine and their disputed annexation of Crimea, the duo examines the inhumanity of war, through the interactions of three fragile characters, Danko (a bright light bulb), Fabian (a pink balloon dog) and Zirka (a white origami bird). Together with other fictionalized creatures from the town of Rondo, they collectively face dark enemy weaponry, including humanized tanks and helicopters, with their machinery of light and peace. Destructive images present an eerie connection to horrific war scenes we see today, eight years after the book was first published in Ukraine.

Romanyshyn and Lesiv’s work continues to gain recognition and awards. This year, the United States Board on Books for Young People (USBBY) honored the team with a third award for How War Changed Rondo. We thank Oksana Lushchevska, a Ukrainian children’s book author, translator and children’s literature scholar for her recent careful review of this text. Her insights led us to this Ukrainian animated book video. Chervony Sobaka offers this wordless film to focus viewers on images and music in order to ponder the importance of resistance, resilience and hope. Find an array of additional useful resources to augment discussions with children.

We echo Romanyshyn and Lesiv’s desire to carefully launch complicated conversations within families and classrooms regarding broken aspects of our world. A recent news article highlighting Ukrainian children’s drawings depicting this war brought us back to the origami bird in Rondo.

Image of bird in How War Changed Rondo.

Image of Ukrainian child’s drawing to understand war .

We made further connections to their theme of resilience and overcoming war with poignant poems like this one, written and performed by Ukrainian adolescents.

“Let the Dove of Peace fly to the sky, And blow away the clouds,
Let humankind come by, Together with no doubts!” (Poems for Peace, UNICEF, 2020)

We close with a word of thanks to Romana and Andriy for encouraging families and teachers to help children experience the wonder in our lives (as seen in Sight and Sound) and also engage in dialogic conversations designed to examine the fragility of peace and democracy (Rondo). Children need both universal themes to inspire curiosity and hope.

Please consider exploring these additional Ukrainian children’s books available through our WOW website.

WOW book display titled: People of Ukraine.

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