Let Me Tell You What I’ve Learned During the War: Children’s Books in Bomb Shelters and Beyond

Oksana Lushchevska

Oksana Lushchevska

by Oksana Lushchevska

Let me begin by taking you back to February 23rd, 2022. It was the day before Russia started a full-scale war in Ukraine. As a creative writer and instructor, I was teaching a “How to Write Children’s Books” course to my Ukrainian colleagues, future and current writers of these types of books. When my students appeared in zoom class, I asked them how they felt. “I’ve put my red lipstick on,” said Olesia, a Ph.D. candidate in literature. “I am scared of tomorrow and I want to know more on how to finish my children’s book manuscript today, as if I am ready for everything.”

War was in the aura of our class that day, but it was still only an abstraction; something that President Joe Biden warned us about, something that President Volodymyr Zelenzkyy briefly mentioned. When I finished my creative writing course, I felt that I had a choice to believe in better. I didn’t want to give an impression of being naïve. Please: a full-scale war in Europe in 2022? In my beautiful, rapidly developing country? In the country where cities fully resemble American cities? In the country where the city of Lviv is designated a UNESCO City of Literature? Have you ever been to Ukraine? If you have, you know what I am talking about. If not, please consider visiting — to say without pathos — the bravest country in the world, where people dared to face Putin, who is now called Putler (from combining Putin & Hitler). When you come to Ukraine, you will understand. You will feel it, no doubt.

Russia started the war at the dawn of February 24. Consider the seven hour difference between time zones. “Oksana, tell your parents to run to a bomb shelter!” my friend called me on the phone. “To a bomb shelter now!”

What I was thinking during the longest minute of my life, I don’t remember. This war put all my emotions upside down. Time became elusive since that day. Every day is the same: Checking parents: “how are you?” “Alive.” Checking friends: “Do you need money?” “Yes/no.” Checking news: “Bombing… shooting… destroying….” So, where to look for hope and how to construct future?

My mind turned me back to children’s books. In three days, since the beginning of this horrific war, it turned out that people who spent time hiding in bomb shelters needed books. Children’s books, in particular. Exhausted and shocked, mothers were searching for something to soothe their children. My friends and colleagues who fled the country started to emphasize that among all the things that they left at home, they felt sorry only for children’s books.

As a Doctor of Philosophy in Education, I always believed that children’s books are a powerful tool for any turbulent time, but for war… children’s books in war time? What I learned now: children’s books are not just in need — they are in highest demand. Thus, cooperating with Ukrainian publishers, we have distributed free digital copies of contemporary Ukrainian children’s books, some of which are books about peace and war. In this way, children can choose what they want to read and talk about. Some of them ask to read about peace to strengthen their hope. Others ask to read about war to have the possibility for catharsis. As a children’s book writer, I got invited to talk to the kids about my historical fantasy novel Iron Wolf. Sure. Because who are we Ukrainians now, if not the iron people?

All the above lead to the discourse to be articulated. How would kids and parents heal the consequences of this violent trauma? PTSD? Panic attacks? Depression? Mood-disbalance? Would books be important part of the healing process? Moreover, what books will be important for that?

A capacity of storytelling is beneficial and results in positive outcomes. As a storyteller, I understand that I should go on with teaching good storytelling when the war is over. But for now I need to start a fundraising support for the publishing houses that were bombed. I need to start to think how they will be stepping into a metamorphosis era. I am willing and capable to do this. Richard F. Mollica, a Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, who directly worked in programs in refugee trauma, once mentioned that such huge, horrific, mass-violence trauma as war, is a responsibility of all human beings. War refers not to national, class, or race identifications — it makes all human beings equal.

While Ukraine is going through this terrible experience, we here in the United States have a responsibility to help young readers grow into empathetic adults who will create better, life-altering history for humanity, to avoid tragedies such as this one. In addition, I want to invite all US literary agents and publishers to seek out contemporary Ukrainian books, especially books that might portray a unique perspective on the subjects of war, tyranny, and shared human values. I suspect there will be a lot of books soon, as many writers, myself included, are writing down their experiences to create a solid piece of history for the future generations. Such books can keep us accountable to the past, inspire endless possibilities of anti-war art such as Banksy posters showcased now in Charlotte, and guide us to do our best to prevent wars and create a bright hopeful future.

To conclude, I want to emphasize the belief I sincerely share with Jella Lepman (1891-1970), a German journalist, author, and translator who founded the International Youth Library in Munich right after WWII, that children’s books are couriers of peace. Let’s support the creation of such couriers. Because we can.

For more information about Ukrainian children’s books, please write to: olushchevska@gmail.com

Donating to Help: @USupportChildLit (Venmo) — This fund is designed to support small children’s literature publishers in Ukraine that were impacted by the war.

Oksana Lushchevska, Ph.D., is an independent children’s literature scholar and a Ukrainian children’s book author and translator. She is a publishing industry and government consultant in Ukraine and founder of Story+I Writing Group. She was a recipient of the 2015 CLA Research Award.  Website: http://www.lushchevska.com