Freedom and Glory: An Interview with The Story of Ukraine creators Olena Kharchenko, Michael Sampson and Polina Doroshenko
In March of this year I visited the Bologna Book Fair, an international rights fair of children’s literature. Not long before my arrival, Russia had invaded the Ukraine and I was floored by the number of supportive signs, booths, and remembrances the Fair had made in support of the Ukraine. In the intervening half a year since, Ukraine still finds itself at war. In such times, we often turn to children’s books, in the hopes that they teach our children, but honestly we want to be taught too. Taught to know more about the world outside our borders.
Ukrainian National Olena Kharchenko and New York Times bestselling author Michael Sampson have joined up with illustrator and Ukrainian refugee, Polina Doroshenko on a book slated to hit shelves December 13, 2022. THE STORY OF UKRAINE: An Anthem of Freedom and Glory is unlike any other book for kids here in the States that we’ve seen on the topic. One publisher described it to me this way:
“Michael Sampson was a Fulbright scholar to Ukraine teaching elementary English, and reporting on his work from Poland, once evacuated, as seen in The Chicago Tribune, The New York Post, The New York Daily News, The Tampa Bay Times, School Library Journal ,The Horn Book Magazine, and NPR. Sampson was invited to President Biden’s speech in Warsaw Poland, in which the President honored heroes helping displaced refugee families. As Sampson was attending a peace rally, he had overheard a group of people singing the Ukrainian national anthem and was filled with hope for a better future. He was reminded of a book he’d done with Bill Martin Jr titled “I Pledge Allegiance” about America’s national anthem and wondered if he might be able to do something similar for Ukraine. .
The Story of Ukraine is a much-needed book for the moment we’re facing. As children make sense of what is going on in the world, books are the greatest resource! This English-Ukrainian picture book is bi-lingual, teaches the Ukrainian national anthem, and provides a window into the country’s history for both English and Ukrainian children (rights are currently being sold around the world so that children everywhere can know Ukraine’s story).”
Given the chance to interview the creators, I did so with gusto:
Betsy Bird: Thank you so much for joining me today and answering some of my questions! Michael, the story of how this book came to be intrigues me. You yourself have a whole history with the country of Ukraine. Could you give us a sense of your history with this particular nation?
Michael Sampson: I first visited Ukraine in 2003 while I was living and working in Germany and Italy. I had an invitation to visit schools in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, and I said yes! I had always been fascinated with the history, geography and people, and could not wait to visit. The reality was even better than my expectations as I met wonderful teachers and children in the schools and had some of the best meals in my life. I have been going back to Ukraine about every year since then, culminating with my Fulbright to Ukraine in 2021–22.
BB: A related (and possibly answered already) question: How did this book come to be? Besides the impetus of the invasion, what does it mean to you to have it out in the world?
MS: When we first arrived in Ukraine on my Fulbright and I heard the Ukrainian national anthem, I shared with Olena that it would make a great picture and information book, much like my prior book I Pledge Allegiance had in the US. Olena told me the anthem would be difficult to explain for children, as it came out of an era in the 19th century when Ukraine was under attack. It was not a pleasant topic, so we passed on the idea. When the Russians attacked Ukraine in February 2022 with their horrible war, killing civilians and destroying cities, the anthem made sense as the people rose up to defend their homes, just as the anthem describes. Suddenly it was relevant and became a passionate story.
BB: Olena, thank you for answering my questions. How did you first come to hear about this project?
Olena Kharchenko: Michael was working in Poland with Ukrainian children and adult refugees after the Russian aggression started. He attended many protests there and shared an idea about writing a book about the Ukrainian national anthem that he heard there many times, as he loved the passion people sang it with. Of course, I was excited and supported his idea. I thought it was very good timing for that project and a way to get the truth out about Ukraine’s history.
BB: Olena and Michael, trying to reduce a country’s influence to a limited number of pages has to be difficult. What was your guiding principle on what to include?
Olena & Michael: We placed the Ukrainian national anthem in the center of the book. We led up to the anthem in the first few pages sharing the rich, colorful and brave history of the Ukrainian people. After the telling of the anthem, we share more about the geography, national symbols, food and notable Ukrainians through history. The guiding principle was to combat Russian propaganda with the truth of this centuries old nation and their love of freedom. It was indeed impossible to tell this story in 32 pages, so the publisher generously agreed to expand the book and gave us 36 pages!
BB: Polina, you have a distinct style that separates this book from so many others by your art alone. I love the mix of styles. How do you tend to create your art? What style fit this book best and why?
Polina Doroshenko: Thank you for your questions and feedback. The way the final illustrations look are influenced by many factors. I know that I can best show my abilities using a collage approach and layering of techniques. This is inherent in my artistic/visual language. But of course, before each of the projects, I have to analyze for whom this book is addressed in order to use it appropriately.
Our culture is deep and multifaceted, so for me it is about multiplying and layering. For the book The Story of Ukraine, I wanted to create illustrations that would be understandable to a child and would provide more metaphorical “keys” for older viewers. Therefore, next to bright, simplified forms, we can see realistic contour drawings, and next to those historical fragments … fictional characters.
BB: Olena and Michael, was there anything that you wanted to include and found that you just couldn’t work it in?
Olena and Michael: Yes, it was very hard to do justice to the people and their land given the immenseness of Ukraine — even on 36 pages. Every topic we mentioned we were able to discuss using one expression or a sentence or two. The power of the books is that every one of those topics could be discussed by adults and extended. True, there were several topics we could not include because of the limited space. One of them was the traditional art from central Ukraine called Petrykivka. We are now in the process of writing a different book about it.
BB: Olena, what do you hope that kids take away from this book after reading it?
OK: I hope kids will find similarities between their nation’s values and views and the values that Ukrainians are standing for in this war. Maybe it will help kids to look at different topics from different perspectives and learn something new about the history and culture of Ukraine.
BB: Michael, finally, what are you working on next?
MS: As a writer, I’m always working on multiple projects. We are finalizing the art on my fun and sweet book Bing! Bang! Chugga! Beep! with Bill Martin Jr and illustrated by Nathalie Beauvois. It’s going to be a great book — one of our best in years. Likewise, we have finished a fun book about idioms and second-language learning, The Pig, the Elephant, and the Wise Cracking Bird, which is in the spirit of Amelia Bedelia, but is culturally sensitive. The amazing art is my first collaboration with Hollywood-based artist Joshua Sampson — my son! Finally, Olena and I are almost finished writing another Ukrainian book about the magical, fairy-tale-like city of Petrykivka, Ukraine.
A great deal of thanks to Olena, Michael, and Polina for answering my questions today. Thanks too to Amy Goppert and the folks at Brown Books Publishing for suggesting this interview in the first place. THE STORY OF UKRAINE is out December 13th, so be sure to look for it then.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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