Russia and Ukraine: windows of understanding

Like the rest of the world, my heart is devastated by the outbreak of yet another horrific war with its violent deaths and injuries,
terror unleashed against peaceful citizens,
conscription of human beings to destroy other human beings,
panicked flight from homes and separation of families,
and massive losses for the many due to the lust for power of the few.
The images coming out of Ukraine,
the flood of refugees pouring across her borders —
all gut-wrenching to witness.

Though I am taking somewhat of a blogging break,
I did want to pull together some of the titles I’ve included over the years
which give us at least a small window into the lives of Russian and Ukrainian people.
I do not have a cracking good list to offer but it is a starting point at least.

Once again I caution against delivering too much heaviness to young children.
There are books on today’s list which simply take a sunny peek
into the lives of Russian children or Ukrainian traditions which you can enjoy with even very young children as a way of helping them be a part of this big and interconnected world.
There are also picture books about the experience of being a refugee
which can be shared with children as you think together how best to help materially or spiritually in these crises.

I’ve also included a number of books that could be of interest to middle graders through adults
which shed light on the Cold War, the experience of growing up in the Soviet Union, the Chernobyl disaster, and some other related topics.
Again, these titles will probably serve as starting points only to understanding this region, and the Ukrainian perspective is mostly quite lacking here. My apologies for that.

You can click on any of the titles to find my full review which will help in deciding which to pursue.
I’ve also included a link to my full Refugee/Immigrant index page with lots more resources.

Picture books about life in Russia and Ukraine:

I See the Sun in Russia, written by Dedie King, illustrated by Judith Inglese
published in 2012 by Satya House Publications

Tag along with a young, school-age child on a typical day in St. Petersburg. Ages 4 and up.

R is for Russia, written by Valdimir Kabakov, photographed by Prodeepta Das
published in 2011 by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books

A photographic, alphabetical tour of the vast country of Russia. Ages 3 and up.

This is How We Do It: One Day in the Lives of Seven Kids from around the World
 written and illustrated by Matt Lamothe
published in 2017 by Chronicle Books

Seven real children from seven different countries tell about their daily lives, one of whom is from Russia. Ages 5 and up.

Catherine’s Pascha: A Celebration of Easter in the Orthodox Church
 written by Charlotte Riggle, illustrated by R.J. Hughes
published in 2015 by Phoenix Flair Press

Walk through the age-old Easter traditions of the Orthodox Church which has millions of followers in  Russia and Ukraine. The season of Lent in the Orthodox Church begins today, marking the holiest season of the church year. It is an incredible overlap of sorrowing. Ages 4 and up.

P. Zonka Lays an Egg, written and illustrated by Julie Paschkis
published in 2015 by Peachtree

A charming tale of one dreamer of a hen and the magnificent eggs she lays, inspired by the Ukrainian tradition of pysanka eggs for Easter. Decorating your own pysanka eggs this year might be a great way to celebrate the vitality of the Ukrainian people. Ages 3 and up.

Rechenka’s Eggs, written and illustrated by Patricia Polacco
reprint edition 1996 by Puffin Books

A Russian babushka famous for her decorated eggs gets a mighty surprise when her pet goose both ruins and rescues her annual basketful for the festival. Ages 4 and up.

A selection of picture books about the refugee experience:

Liberty’s Voice: The Story of Emma Lazarus, by Erica Silverman, illustrated by Stacey Schuett
published in 2011 by Dutton Children’s Books

Emma Lazarus was the poet who penned the famous words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free…” but did you know she was inspired by a flood of Jewish refugees fleeing violence in Russia? An oblique look at the refugee experience with a poignant tie-in to the current unfolding crisis, for ages 5 and up.

What is a Refugee?, written and illustrated by Elise Gravel
published in 2019 by Schwartz & Wade

A plain-spoken, highly-accessible account to help young children understand the reasons people become refugees and their difficult journey to safety. Gravel’s careful text, honest answers, and unsentimental empathy make this an outstanding choice for ages 4 and up.

Where Will I Live?, written and photographed by Rosemary McCarney
published in 2017 by Second Story Press

A striking photo-essay, accompanied by child-centric text tracing the journeys of varied refugee children. An empathic foray into this unhappy reality for ages 4 and up.

Escape: One Day We Had to Run
written by Ming Chen and Wah Chen, illustrated by Carmen Vela
published in 2021 by Lantana

This compendium of brief accounts chronicles the stories of people forced from their homes for a variety of reasons. A dozen short entries, each entitled with a verb correlated to the escape — cling, dart, disguise, raft, sprint, tunnel — relate the dramatic flights that have taken place around the world and across the centuries. Ages 6 and up.

Why Am I Here?, by Constance Ørbeck-Nilssen and Akin Düzakin
published in 2016 by Eerdmans

A child ponders what it would have been like to have been born as someone else. Why am I here, and not in a land beset by war? In a country far away? These quiet wonderings can lead into conversations marked by empathy. Ages 6 and up.

The Day War Came, written by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Rebecca Cobb
published in 2018 by Candlewick Press

On a sunny, seemingly innocuous day, one little girl’s world collapses in sudden, devastating, destruction. War falls upon her city, her home, her family, literally like a bombshell. She is left alone to make the arduous, treacherous journey to safety. At long last, the empathetic welcome of a child touches this young girl and begins to heal her heart. A powerful book, raw with emotion, for ages 7-8 and older.

Flight for Freedom: The Wetzel Family’s Daring Escape from East Germany
written by Kristen Fulton, illustrated by Torben Kuhlmann
published in 2020 by Chronicle Books

A relevant story due to the renewed conversation about the Iron Curtain and the Cold War, this is the stunning, true account of a family’s escape from East Germany via hot air balloon. Ages 5 and up.

Hamzat’s Journey: A Refugee Diary, by Anthony Robinson, illustrated by June Allan
published in 2010 by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books

The true story of one Chechen boy who was gravely injured by a land mine during the conflict between Chechnya and Russia, and his long road to recovery and a new home. Ages 8 and up.

Fiction for middle grade and up somewhat related to current events in Ukraine.
Please read my full reviews to learn more about the content of these novels.

The Blackbird Girls, by Anne Blankman
published in 2020 by Viking
340 pages

A riveting story weaving together the experience of two 12-year-old girls living through the horrific Chernobyl nuclear accident, and a Ukrainian-Jewish girl’s harrowing escape during WWII. Powerful, immersive, and emotional. I’d recommend this for ages 13 through adult.

Breaking Stalin’s Nose, written and illustrated by Eugene Yelchin
published in 2013 by Square Fish
176 pages

A gripping, sobering novel about the murderous reign of Joseph Stalin. The story follows the experience of a young boy whose world caves in when he finally understands the truth after being immersed in lies for his own protection. This is a brilliant read for ages 12 through adult, opening a window onto both the fear and confusion instilled in the Russian people courtesy of totalitarian governments.

The Story that Cannot Be Told, written by J. Kasper Kremer
published in 2019 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers
378 pages

This compelling read is set in 1989 Romania in the waning days of Ceausescu’s oppressive regime, and is relevant due to a commonality of the extreme difficulty of dissent in a totalitarian state. Top-notch historical fiction with smooth, gripping prose, characters we care about deeply, cultural and historical details masterfully woven in, and a witty rendition of Romanian folklore threaded throughout the account. Ages 11 and up.

Nonfiction for middle grade through adult about the Cold War, Russian History, life in the Soviet Union & Russia:

The Genius Under the Table: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain, written and illustrated by Eugene Yelchin
published in 2021 by Candlewick Press
201 pages

A brilliant memoir by Yelchin, who was born in 1956 in what was then called Leningrad, now St. Petersburg. His reminiscences of childhood in the Soviet Union read with extraordinary immediacy. His narrative sparkles with colorful detail, radiates childlike naiveté and wry humor, yet looks unflinchingly at the profoundly grievous impact of the oppressive regime and its anti-Semitism on his Russian-Jewish family. Ages 12-adult.

The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain
written and illustrated by Peter Sís
published in 2007 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
56 pages

I’ve not read this highly-awarded book but it’s coming to my hold shelf on the library right now. Here is the publisher’s blurb: “I was born at the beginning of it all, on the Red side―the Communist side―of the Iron Curtain.” Through annotated illustrations, journals, maps, and dreamscapes, Peter Sís shows what life was like for a child who loved to draw, proudly wore the red scarf of a Young Pioneer, stood guard at the giant statue of Stalin, and believed whatever he was told to believe. But adolescence brought questions. Cracks began to appear in the Iron Curtain, and news from the West slowly filtered into the country. Sís learned about beat poetry, rock ‘n’ roll, blue jeans, and Coca-Cola. He let his hair grow long, secretly read banned books, and joined a rock band. Then came the Prague Spring of 1968, and for a teenager who wanted to see the world and meet the Beatles, this was a magical time. It was short-lived, however, brought to a sudden and brutal end by the Soviet-led invasion. But this brief flowering had provided a glimpse of new possibilities―creativity could be discouraged but not easily killed. Perhaps ages 9 and up.

Fallout: Spies, Superbombs, and the Ultimate Cold War Showdown, by Steve Sheinkin
published in 2021 by Roaring Brook Press
303 pages + back matter

A gripping account of the Cuban Missile Crisis, this is a superb, deeply-researched look at a pivotal, intensely-dangerous moment in Cold War history. Highly recommended for ages 14 through adult.

Bomb: The Race to Build — and Steal — the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, by Steve Sheinkin
published in 2012 by Roaring Brook Press
304 pages.

Winner of many awards, this is the story of the development of the atomic bomb and the race by various governments to be the first to control these horrifying weapons. It offers a superb backstory to the dangers we reckon with in today’s world. Ages 13 to adult.

The Apartment: A Century of Russian History, written by Alexandra Litvina, illustrated by Anna Desnitskaya
first published in Russia in 2016; English edition 2019 by Abrams
64 pages

Follow the generations of the Muromtsev family and their dwelling places from 1902 to 2002 in a volume jam-packed with information, creatively presented. Each two-page spread moves forward in time and includes one portion of the ongoing story of this family narrating cultural traditions, holiday celebrations, dark times, political events, and daily life as it changes over the decades. Rich, detailed illustrations provide cutaway views of their apartment home which is divided up in various ways as needs shift, as well as personal and historical artifacts galore. Ages 11 to adult.

A Year Without Mom, by Dasha Tolstikova
published in 2015 by Groundwood Books
168 pages

A poignant, spare, illustrated novel set in 1990s Moscow. Dasha is a 12-year-old girl whose mother is moving to the U.S. for a master’s program. Dasha is left with her grandparents, navigating a school year without her mom. It’s a fascinating, thought-provoking window into Russian culture as well as the universal bond between daughters and mothers. Ages 11 to adult.

The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia, by Candace Fleming
published in 2014 by Schwartz & Wade
304 pages

Some would argue that Putin has imperialistic aspirations. If you want to learn more about the final downfall of Tsarist Russia, this highly-awarded book is a good place to begin. Fleming’s account captivates with her portrait of the family members and the conditions that spelled their doom. Ages 14 to adult.

War Diaries, 1939-1945, written by Astrid Lindgren, illustrated with family photos
first published in Sweden, 2015; first U.S. edition published in 2016 by Yale University Press
240 pages

I’m plunking this in here because I found Lindgren’s personal diaries, written during WWII, to be fascinating. As European refugees again stream out of Ukraine and Russia, Lindgren’s heartbreak over the millions uprooted during WWII sounds an echo from the past, and her perspectives on the struggles of the Scandinavian countries — neutral Sweden, occupied and resisting Norway, Finland squeezed between the powers of Russia and Germany — are a fascinating glimpse of European politics a generation back. Perhaps some of you would find this interesting, too.  It’s adult nonfiction.

Finally, here’s a link to my Refugee index page listing dozens more books for young and old on the refugee experience.
And here’s a link to a New York Times article listing 4 experienced, accredited groups working to relieve distress in Ukraine, should you want to make a gift.