After the death last year of children’s author Shirley Hughes, her son took hundreds of her books, including the award-winning Dogger, to libraries in Ukraine, where reading is helping to heal the children traumatised by war
By Ed Vulliamy
9 April 2023
The National Library of Ukraine for Children in Kyiv, a city at war for more than a year, is defiantly open, busy and creative. Director Alla Gordiienko describes it as “a place for emotional shelter” where “everything we do starts with a book”. “A book is the best doctor for the soul,” says the librarian’s child psychologist Lada Tsybulska, one of the many roles that make this place special, especially during a war that traumatises Ukraine’s children.
My late mother – Shirley Hughes, beloved author and illustrator of several hundred children’s books and winner of the all-time Kate Greenaway prize for children’s literature – would have found a corner of heaven in this place, were she not a citizen of the real thing. (She died in February 2022, the day after Russia launched its attempted full-scale invasion of Ukraine.) This place is what she dreamed of, and this is why much of Mum’s collection of her own books arrived here last month, why Dogger – who, along with Alfie and Annie Rose, was her most famous character – had to come to Ukraine. And not just to Kyiv: scores of books will move on from here, around the country’s library network, including children’s libraries on the frontline at battered Kherson, to bombarded Mykolaiv, and to Bila Tserkva, 50km south of the capita, to which the library at fallen Mariupol has been evacuated.
Backtrack a few months: my brother, Tom, sister, Clara, and I were engaged in the heavy-hearted task of clearing out our family home of 67 years, with all its paintings and dust, books and more dust – plus the treasure trove of our mother’s artwork, dating back to her student days in 1947. And her collection of some 1,000 of her own books. What to do with a basement roomful? Some we kept, a few hundred Clara arranged for distribution to schools in Britain; teachers (outrageously) deprived of books crossed London with empty luggage to fill with their share. And for 555 of the books, a bold plan was being hatched.
A friend, Raechel Isolda, was its prime mover; we had met through friends and colleagues at the Prix Bayeux awards for war reporting, given annually in Normandy, and for which I sit on the jury. And it turned out that Raechel’s bedtime reading as a child had been books by one Shirley Hughes.
Raechel was working for Bibliothèques Sans Frontières, delivering books to refugee centres, mostly across Poland. The initial idea was to donate my mother’s books to these centres, and Raechel’s aunt Lesley and cousin Ewan duly arrived at the sad basement in Notting Hill to load
up their vehicle. We added a score of books by my sister Clara, including her collaboration with Mum, Dixie O’Day.
The plan encountered bureaucratic hurdles; the books crossed France and Germany last December only to languish in Poland, and Raechel – by then working as an independent humanitarian worker – had another idea: why not get them to Ukraine? Which she did, with deft juggling of trucks, drivers and paperwork. After spending Christmas in the Polish border entrepôt of Przemysl, Dogger and Alfie set off as part of a job lot, along “HIMAR Highway” through Lviv to Kyiv, into the war.
On 17 March this year, the books that had left that basement under a cloud of bereavement now found themselves beautifully wrapped in blue and yellow ribbons, piled up on tables at the library in Kyiv, waiting for 120 children to arrive for a formal presentation, and a reading aloud of Dogger, by yours truly.
It was an unforgettably wonderful, and moving occasion: there were videos of Mum (holding the real Dogger – a toy of mine – drawing and painting) on a screen, speeches by Raechel, director Gordiienko and me, and a terrific Q&A with the children. Most of them wore traditional Vyshyvanka embroidered blouses and shirts specially for the occasion – as did I! A long Friday morning of reading, talking, laughter – and my mother’s spirit, here in Kyiv at war.
The previous week, as we set up the library, Gordiienko spoke with passion, but also a bright smile, about her work. She has worked here for four decades – “it’s the only job I ever had,” she says. At 17 she was a dancer, but suffered an injury to her leg and was taken in by the library’s founder, Anastasiya Kobzarenko, the only librarian ever to be decorated as a Hero of Ukraine, such was her commitment to this institution, and the official regard in which it was held.
Gordiienko comes from Borodianka, near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant north of Kyiv, site of the world’s worst-ever civil nuclear disaster, in 1986: “I was 20 when that catastrophe occurred, so February 2022 was the second time I had had to flee my home.” Gordiienko shows awful images of columns of Russian tanks grinding down her street, a rocket that landed in the garden and the hole it made in her fence. “It was so scary, and strange. Like limbo, until eventually we got out – I, my daughter and grandchildren.” She shows a picture of the little ones, wrapped up in a bomb shelter, smiling nonetheless.
The library commemorated its 55th anniversary last year, though, she says, “the enemy changed our plans for a celebration”. She shows a tapestry from 1978, the year the collection moved into this building, depicting a midsummer rite. The commitment to children’s literacy derives from Soviet times, says Gordiienko, “though the ethos has changed entirely. Now, it’s more: ‘What would you like to do?’ The children find books or activities they prefer; if they don’t want to read for themselves, they’ll be read to. And if it means something to them, they’ll come back – and they do.”
Since the invasion, she says, “some children come in closed up like hedgehogs, and it’s a matter of letting them open. Sometimes it’s a good idea to let them run around and scream a bit.” She
shows the disco, with flashing lights, “where they can let go and enjoy themselves” – though the vinyl LPs by the turntable in the music room are Chopin and folk songs.
In Ukraine, publishers of children’s books are “obliged to give the national library a copy of every children’s book published,” says Gordiienko, and the collection is vast. Any library here is inevitably on another frontline: that of re-establishing Ukrainian culture and language in a country where many still speak Russian. Gordiienko explains that “there is no attempt to hide Russian classics and fairytales; coercion is never a good idea. It’s a long game: we conduct everything in Ukrainian, and there will be no new Russian books.”
One could be forgiven for forgetting that we are in the middle of the biggest war of our lifetimes, until it’s time to visit the bomb shelter. Children have stayed here for three hours on occasion, grateful for the bookshelves, wifi and Zoom connections.
Lada Tsybulska, the library psychologist, works in what she calls “a soul-space”, for children and parents. The position existed before the war to support parents and children, but in the present crisis Tsybulska’s work here is more urgent. An expert in trauma as well as books, she arrived in September 2022 from a similar post in a school. Some children come in closed up like hedgehogs, and it’s a matter of letting them open, run around and scream a bit
An important ingredient here is what they call Mama Time, “to help mothers unprepared for all this, and the anxiety passed on to children,” she says. “Here, they can be together, whether to share concerns or just chatter. A happy mother is a happy family.” Another set of sessions is for mothers and “pre-schoolers deprived of speaking skills and association because of kindergartens being shut”.
When working with older children, many suffering from trauma, “it makes all the difference that I’m a psychologist working in a library, not a clinic. It’s no big deal for a troubled youth to be here, no one’s taking you to hospital, and everything starts with a book.”
Beyond that, the library runs a bold scheme in conjunction with the criminal justice system, for incarcerated juveniles. There are Zoom sessions and book loans, “to keep them entertained, but also to teach them Ukrainian history, so there’s an educational element”, says Tsybulska. “The idea is to get them to esteem themselves, to be better citizens when they get out.” Which is not always soon: “Many of them are serious criminals, jailed for murder, rape or assault.” In Gordiienko’s office are gifts from imprisoned juveniles: a wooden schooner, and a carved icon of the Madonna and Child.
In a little room, another librarian, Svitlana Kopiova helps children to fold tiny editions by Ukrainian poets, tying each with a ribbon, for soldiers to carry in their pockets. Her own son is back from the battle of Bakhmut, with a badly injured leg. She also teaches children to make rag dolls and angels “which the fighters attach to their uniforms, as talismans, and even their weapons”.
Kyiv is not the only place to which my mother’s books are travelling. From the capital I journey south to a frontline on the River Dnipro, to meet the recipients of the books heading to Kherson. During the few minutes it takes to park the car, walk a couple of blocks and climb the steps of
the children’s library here, six explosions land from across the river – Russian rockets from the far bank, at the end of a deserted road cutting through a ghost city. Of a population of 330,000, 60,000 remain, all but invisible, cowering from the guns cheek-by-jowl. Kherson was liberated in November, but still endures daily and nightly bombardment.
The children’s library, called the Dnipro Seagull Library after the emblem of the town, is for obvious reasons temporarily closed, but when it opens, Mum’s books will be here. Its director, Natalya Popova, shows me around. A lovely glass panel of the seagull of Kherson decorates the staircase. In 2001 there was an injection of funds from the US Peace Corps for a foreign books department with books in 37 languages.
Upstairs, in a reading and lending room, are translated children’s editions of Shakespeare. There are newspapers and magazines: six titles are devoted to pets, and in the Ukrainian book section the overwhelming favourite is a book called 36.6 Cats by Halyna Vdovychenko, illustrated wonderfully by Natalka Haida. In a large, pink-painted hall, “children can act out what they’ve read, sometimes in front of their parents”. In another large upper room there’s a wall map of the Kherson district, with historical and natural landmarks. Our discourse is punctuated by the thud and boom of rockets from across the river.
The art department, decorated with a mural of Venice’s Grand Canal, is “where children can learn about ancient Greece and Leonardo da Vinci, but also draw the Cheshire cat from Alice in Wonderland”, says Popova. In the audio centre “they can get acquainted with Haydn and Beethoven, and students from the conservatoire come to play”. Then the media centre, where children can learn “digital responsibility at our Code Club. There used to be computers here, but they were looted” (along with much else in Kherson, including the entire contents of the art museum, and a children’s train from a park playground).
During the occupation, says Popova, “everything was so strange. All so familiar, still our city, yet not – it felt completely different. Our staff remained at home, but the Russians came to the library, broke the locks and installed a collaborator from the local school.” The library functioned, but Popova opens boxes of books taken from the shelves and marked Literature of Doubtful Content. They include books on Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity in 2014 and Joseph Stalin’s great famine of the 1930s, plus board games featuring a map of the US. “We’ll open again when we can,” she says, “when it’s safe, and we can make it cosy and comfortable.”
Some 50km north of Kherson, the city of Mykolaiv was under relentless bombardment until the Ukrainian offensive last November, after which the children’s library fully reopened. “We’re not yet up to pre-war numbers,” says its director, Tatiana Zhaivoronok, “but they’re coming back, about 60%. During the worst bombardment, we kept up a service: the front door was closed but parents would knock on the windows to ask for books, or call ahead. It gave us such pleasure to help while the city was besieged, and even more so to reopen. A lot of parents and children come from Kherson too, since their library is closed. Books help to distract people from – and deal with – the terrible reality. We need reminding of the time of peace, and books do that.” She shows pictures of the night of 3 April 2022, when a rocket made a direct hit on the library roof.
“When we celebrated our centennial a couple of years ago, we never imagined we’d bear witness to things like this.”
Many of Mum’s books will come here too: a library founded in 1921 that counts 3,000 registered members, “plus as many visitors and occasional readers”. In the infants’ room, Oksana Golosna explains how “parents come with almost newborns, to listen to fairytales and read-aloud sessions”. In a theatre space, “children can perform what they read”, says Zhaivoronok. In the domestic literature section, most popular are fantasy and fairytale, “though the boys are keen on encyclopedias”. And above all, Vdovychenko and Haida’s 36.6 Cats, and its sequels: Cats to the Rescue, Cat Companions and Cat Detectives. The music room boasts 5,000 scores, “the classics – Bach, Mozart – basic musical education, and folk music”. The Hobbies and You club is especially popular, teaching crafts and collecting. Upstairs, around a wonderful 10-sided table painted purple and green, children discuss their reading, and in the adjacent theatre, act it out.
Things have changed here since Soviet times, says Zhaivoronok, “though common to both [the old system and independent Ukraine] is love of children and love of books – the need to bring knowledge and literacy to children”. Some 70% of the books on display are now in Ukrainian, she says, “though Mykolaiv is considered a Russian-speaking city. Our mission is to get children reading Ukrainian now; staff are teaching and reading aloud in Ukrainian. If anyone ever [had] any doubts about learning the Ukrainian language here, the Russians have put paid to them!”
Through all this inspiration, a chill wind blows. My mother spent most of her life filling the shelves of children’s libraries, but much of it promoting and protecting them – often in vain. And now her ghost needs to stalk Ukraine. “It’s all about financing now, and they raise the question of library closures, so far at regional level,” says Zhaivoronok. “They want to change them into youth centres, without the same emphasis on books and reading.” Back in Kyiv, Lyudmila Batsai says they are “sometimes told ‘There’s no model in the west for this kind of place, so why should we have it?’ For now we here are safe, but outside Kyiv the trend is towards closing rather than investing.” Her director, Alla Gordiienko, insists: “What we do here can only be done in a children’s place, a space where it is all about them.” When I went to see the Minister for Culture, Oleksandr Tkachenko, to plead (among other things) what I regard as my mother’s case and cause, he said: “We are proud of our children’s libraries,” but added: “libraries need to be modernised.”
Recent reports in Britain demonstrate that almost one in five children have no access to books at home, and that 27% of 11-year-olds struggle to read. Some 800 libraries have closed since 2010 and four in 10 teachers have to buy books with their own money. The direct connection between the crisis in the UK and the closure of children’s libraries is brazenly obvious. I am a grateful visitor to Ukraine, and far be it for me to tell this brave country what to do. But I will not silence my mother, and at the donation event in Kyiv, I was quick to emphasise: “What you have here is priceless beyond measure, don’t jeopardise it.” Not least in a country affirming itself and its future in the Ukrainian language, with Ukrainian culture. Where better to begin than right here?
It was a heartwarmingly marvellous event at the Kyiv National Library. I spoke about Mum’s adolescence during the blitz of Liverpool, and how she would have understood what Ukraine
was going through. About her switch from costume design to illustration as a student and her visit to Florence to behold the great masters and sketch postwar Italy in 1947, aged 20. About how it took my being at home from school, ill, to realise that Mum listened to jazz while she worked. Then I read Dogger, projected on to a screen and translated page by page into Ukrainian.
Alla Gordiienko talked about the other libraries to which books were going and said they would “share in our victory”; that “a part of the European Union and the UK have arrived to be here with us, for our children to read and share with one another”. She presented me with a medal and a doll made by gracious Svitlana Kopiova. During the Q&A the children were effervescent. One boy said he had lived in Cirencester, and could not figure out what the English national dish was – “I got a bit tired of fish and chips”. Well, we don’t have borscht or rolled millet, I granted him, but we do have vindaloo. An older girl asked for recommendations of children’s reading in English. Apart from the obvious, I offered: Edward Ardizzone’s Tim books, Alan Garner’s The Owl Service and everything by Philip Pullman.
The national TV news ran a long item and another news report read: “Feelings of boundless joy and happiness are possible even during a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Ukrainian children’s readers and children’s librarians felt these emotions today, because the National Children’s Library of Ukraine was presented with a unique collection of books by the famous illustrator and writer Shirley Hughes.” Gordiienko has one regret, however, she told the children: “I wanted Ed not to finish the book, so you would all come back to find out whether Dave finds Dogger!” But they will anyway, and there’s the beauty of it.