When Katherine Marsh set out to write her sixth novel for young readers in late 2019, she planned to finally tackle her Ukrainian family history. Growing up from age five in a three-generation household in Yonkers, N.Y., with her maternal grandmother, who emigrated from that country in 1928, she heard a lot about the Holodomor (“death by hunger”) imposed by Stalin in the 1930s. Aware that few people knew about this genocide, she felt in possession of a secret history, which she had always wanted to write about. Talking over coffee and bagels at Zabar’s in New York City with her editor Jen Besser, Marsh decided it was time. She began drafting a multi-perspective story of three Ukrainian cousins in the 1930s: two in Ukraine and one in Depression-era Brooklyn.
A few months later, adjusting to life during Covid in Washington, D.C., with her husband and two children, her thoughts about the story she was telling began to expand. “Early on in the pandemic,” she said, “there was an apocalyptic feeling, living in isolation and fear and watching news on television about the New York area, where I had grown up. A lot of the country hadn’t gotten to that point yet, and I was struck by the amount of disinformation that was quickly emerging. Disinformation had also been paramount during the period I was writing about—the Holodomor in Ukraine.” Living through her middle-grade son’s pandemic experiences, Marsh found a new character emerging: 13-year-old Matthew of Leonia, N.J. an N.Y. C. suburb, in early 2020. Her story enlarged, taking on a fourth narrator, a third geographical locale and a second time period.
“I wanted to include Matthew,” Marsh explained, “because I was getting worried that the book would seem remote to readers, both historically and geographically. I wanted to make a stronger connection to contemporary readers. Matthew grounded the story and made that connection.”
The resulting novel, The Lost Year (Roaring Brook), is, according to Besser, now president and publisher of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group, “a literary historical novel that’s multi-generational and high-stakes.” Roaring Brook senior editor Kate Meltzer, who worked closely with Marsh on the manuscript, described it as “both timeless and timely in its portrayal of the ways trauma affects us all—but how hope can and will persist.”
It opens with Matthew struggling with the restrictions of the early pandemic and missing his reporter father, who is trapped in Paris. His 100-year-old Ukrainian great-grandmother, GG, is now living with him and his magazine-editor mother, who orders Matthew to help GG organize her personal belongings. When he finds an old photo of her and another girl, GG slowly, reluctantly, begins to talk about her childhood in Ukraine in the early 1930s, and the circumstances that brought her to America. GG’s story is intertwined with those of her two cousins, and the narrative eventually takes on the voices of the three girls, moving deftly between 1930s Ukraine, 1930s Brooklyn, and 2020 New Jersey.
Marsh’s concern that the book might seem remote to contemporary readers was sadly erased when Russia invaded Ukraine this past February. “My novel before this one, Nowhere Boy, takes place in Belgium,” she said. “When I visited American schools, a lot of readers didn’t know where that country was. So I had been worried that readers wouldn’t know where Ukraine was. The war removed that worry—but kids still don’t know very much about Ukraine’s history, which is something I’m hoping to change.” When the war broke out, her manuscript was in the copyediting stages. In spite of the historical parallels that were developing, Marsh decided not to make any content changes, focusing only on factual and spelling corrections.
Creating a Cover Under Wartime Conditions
The team’s greater concern was about the book’s cover illustration. It had been assigned to a young Ukrainian artist, Maria Skliarova, who had begun working on it two weeks before the war started. “We all had our hearts set on working with a Ukrainian artist who could bring her lived experience and innate familiarity with Ukrainian culture to the cover artwork and spot illustrations,” Meltzer said. Roaring Brook’s editorial director, Connie Hsu, pointed them towards Skliarova’s Instagram account and “we instantly fell in love with her beautiful artwork,” Meltzer recalls.
Associate art director Samira Iravani pointed to the “sense of quiet longing I noticed right away in Maria’s work. Her urban landscapes really showed how you could feel set apart, alone, even when you’re surrounded by other people or find yourself in a familiar space. That seemed to speak so beautifully to the themes in the story of isolation and the desire for connection. Combined with her organic linework, textural finishing touches, and strong evocative sense of light, it made her the perfect fit.”
Marsh, too, found Skliarova’s art powerful. “It’s very emotionally present for me. She has her heart on her sleeve—in a good way—when she does her art.” Marsh and Skliarova began an email relationship, discussing the spot illustrations, but it was Skliarova who came up with the imagery for the cover illustration, which wraps around the book. Initially working in her hometown of Kharkiv, which she called “the front line” of the war, Skliarova started sketching “on my knees, in the corridor, for the half hour each day when it was quiet.” All the while, she said, “Russian troops stood in the neighboring villages just outside the city and shelled residential areas with artillery.”
She described the first sketches as “somehow light, naïve, very gentle even, despite the heavy theme of the book. I tried to portray all of the characters smiling. But these [images] didn’t convey the difficult events this story contains.”
In mid-March Skliarova was evacuated to a hotel in Poltava where, she said, “I could paint longer—light and heating were constant, and I could work in a more focused way.” Inspired by Iravani’s suggestion that she work in a different palette, she soon had a new vision for the cover. Throughout the constant air raid alerts, Skliarova worked with the image of a long dark corridor, two cousins separated by an ocean, living in different cultures. “Most importantly, one has freedom and a future, and the other does not,” she said. “Mila is holding a candle, hoping to light her way, her opportunities, her future. And her cousin Helen is holding a cross which, on the one hand, is what helped Nadiya to get out of Ukraine but is also, I think, a symbol of hope and a desire to help.”
Working under wartime conditions, including regular blackouts due to Russian shelling of critical infrastructure, she feared that she would be unable to complete the assignment on time. “I’m happy that everyone was very understanding of my circumstances as I did my best to meet the deadline. I think other publishers might have replaced me with another illustrator to ensure the cover would be done on time.”
Meltzer said, “We were astounded not just by Maria’s incredible work, but also by the dedication she had to continuing it despite all that was happening around her—completing the cover and interior art in the midst of a war.”
Marsh characterizes the cover as aptly depicting “the longing family members feel when they are divided from those they love by governments, war, politics or borders.” Her own understanding of this longing comes not only from listening to her grandmother’s experiences—“our household felt like an immigrant one, even though I was third-generation”—but also from spending time with her grandmother’s family, first when she attended a Soviet youth camp and again when she spent a semester at a math and science high school in the waning days of the Soviet Union. (She visited with them a third time in Kyiv in 2016.) She went on to become a journalist, eventually serving as managing editor of the New Republic. The Lost Year also reflects her professional background, with its strong underlying theme of journalistic integrity, as two of the young characters learn “to seek and share the truth,” as Meltzer put it. “This layer of the story shone through from the very first draft, though it grew and expanded.”
Marsh explained that she initially wrote Matthew’s father as a lawyer, but that Besser and Meltzer suggested he be a reporter to help deepen the connection between father and son as Matthew explores his questions about GG’s past in a journal. When he turns to his father for advice in pursuing the answers, Marsh used the opportunity to include her own journalistic guidelines for interviewing, writing, and revising.
To more deeply explore the importance of responsible journalism, she focused on the character of Helen, the cousin in 1930s Brooklyn (based on her mother’s childhood), who realizes that journalists—even an acclaimed Pulitzer-Prize winning one—are not telling the truth about Ukraine, and takes it upon herself to do so. “I knew about the New York Times reporter Walter Duranty and the false stories he was reporting about the Holodomor, and wanted to include that from the beginning,” Marsh said. (Duranty won a Pulitzer in 1932 for articles he wrote about life in the Soviet Union; however, he never set foot in Ukraine during the Holodomor, relying entirely on Soviet propaganda, which denied that people were dying from starvation.)
To ensure historical truth in her book, she had it vetted by three historians, who helped her shape it to be as accurate as possible. She also interviewed her relatives in Ukraine, as well as American women who had lived in Brooklyn during the 1930s and provided many details for the chapters set there. These elements of her research helped create the cultural specificity of each era depicted in the book.
Set against these backgrounds are the four young characters who live through dramatic events. Meltzer noted, “Katherine has crafted characters who are real and rich. Their very human flaws and the way they face them illustrate the power of one of the greatest feats we can achieve: change. I hope readers young and old will be reminded of the potential we all have to change—whether it’s our own minds or the world around us.”
That was one of Marsh’s goals in writing The Lost Year: “The story is about all the ways people can change, and that it’s never too late to change. It’s never too late to confront the past and to do so with grace. I was thinking about how polarized we are as a country, so I wanted to write about how you change your point of view, how it feels to learn that the people you love are wrong. I also wanted to explore how people deal with trauma, whether someone is experiencing the trauma or experiencing survivor’s guilt, which became more and more important during the pandemic, just as it became important for Ukrainians in the U.S. during the 1930s, worrying about their starving families in Ukraine.”
As her book’s publication day draws near, the parallels Marsh explores in her book have tragically expanded; Ukrainians are again suffering, dying, feeling survivor’s guilt. The global crises of the past three years have shaped the writing and production of The Lost Year in ways its author could never have imagined when she envisioned a story rooted in her family’s past. Throughout its development, Marsh’s book enlarged to encompass a much larger history, to bring “a wider perspective to an experience we all share,” Meltzer reflected. “It urges us to remember that we are all witnesses to history.”
The Lost Year: A Survival Story of the Ukrainian Famine by Katherine Marsh. Roaring Brook, $17.99 Jan. 17 ISBN 978-1-250-31360-7