A child alone, afraid, far from home. With a mother, maybe. Maybe without a father. In a time like this, research shows, a book can offer “a moment of peace, a way to forget,” said Maria Deskur, CEO of Poland’s Fundacja Powszechnego Czytania (Universal Reading Foundation). The Foundation—a collective of more than 20 Polish publishers and distributors—is leading an effort to supply books to Ukrainian refugee children in Poland and funds to Ukrainian publishers.
In the days since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it’s estimated that more than half a million refugees have poured into Poland. About 100,000 are believed to be children. In addition to families, Ukrainian orphanages have been evacuated, and children have been newly orphaned by the war. Deskur—also managing director of children’s publisher Wydawnictwo Słowne—says that virtually everyone in Poland has sprung into action to help—taking refugees into their homes, volunteering at the border or in shelters, supplying material and financial support. Within the publishing industry, the response was almost immediate.
Initial efforts centered on collecting donations of picture books and coloring books from Polish publishers—“books you don’t have to read,” Deskur said. The Foundation is uniquely positioned to help. Formed in 2018 to promote early childhood literacy in Poland, its members are at the heart of the Polish publishing industry, and include Dwie Siostry, publisher of the international bestseller Maps by Aleksandra and Daniel Mizielinski. With its established distributor connections and warehouse and transportation resources, member organizations were able to quickly deliver books to relief groups.
Within days, though, the effort had expanded. Foundation members collected contact information for close to 40 Ukrainian publishers of children’s and adult books. Ukrainian publishers began to email book files to Polish printers who volunteered to print them for free. Eight books—with print runs of 1,000 each—are expected to be delivered on March 8. The books are “warm stories,” Deskur said, a mix of picture books and story books for the youngest children. Foundation member Nowa Era—Poland’s largest educational publisher—offered its network of representatives (connected to virtually every Polish preschool) as well as its distribution channels to get books to schools where Ukrainian refugee students are expected to enroll. To reach kids who won’t yet be in schools, Deskur has relied on her contacts with Poland’s union of municipalities, whose member organizations are in charge of local shelters. The Foundation is also responding to direct requests for books from individuals. Deskur said she heard from a man who had taken in 12 refugee children and wanted a book for each. ”We will try to answer all requests,” she added.
Deskur expects the Foundation’s efforts to be ongoing, emphasizing that in addition to supplying books to kids, financial support for Ukrainian publishers is critical. During World War II, the destruction of Polish books and libraries was widespread and the country’s publishing industry was decimated, she said. After the war, publishing had to begin again from scratch. That rebuilding had effects on the country’s literacy rates that are still felt today. According to the Foundation’s research, Poland lags behind its European neighbors in childhood literacy. Financial support for Ukrainian publishers now can help reduce harm to the sector so that kind of intergenerational impact can be avoided. But there’s an even bigger picture issue at play, Deskur said, since books are essential to democracy.
Depending on the success of fundraising efforts, the Foundation hopes to be able to pay Ukrainian publishers between one and three euros per book for each printed. All printing, distribution, and coordination efforts by Polish companies have been donated, meaning there’s no overhead and 100% of donated funds can go to Ukrainian publishers, Deskur said. While the Foundation aims to prioritize children’s books, its efforts include all publishers.
For the people of Poland, Deskur said, the war is “very near.” While urgent needs for food, shelter, and medical attention are being addressed by aid organizations, Deskur said the Foundation can offer children emotional support through books. As Foundation member publishers have reached out to their international partners, support is beginning to come in from outside Poland. Caldecott Medalist Sophie Blackall has donated an illustration to help the effort. “I heard about the Fundacja Powszechnego Czytania from Christopher Franceschelli, a pillar of the children’s book community,” Blackall said. “I think there were many of us who wanted to help but didn’t know how. Fundacja Powszechnego Czytania are doing all the hard work on the ground, and those of us who make books and work with children, who know how comforting a book can be, are eager to help them reach their goals.”
Publishing has always been about making connections and reaching out beyond the bounds of language and nationality. “Action is the antidote to despair,” Joan Baez once famously said, and it’s a philosophy that Deskur and her colleagues endorse. In these distressing times, “We have to take care of each other,” Deskur said.