Thousands of Ukrainian refugee children are about to spend their first Christmas away from home. While it’s not the outcome that anyone would have wanted, efforts continue to ensure that books in their own language will comfort them through a holiday season in exile. With its holiday campaign #SuperPowerofBooks, Warsaw-based Fundacja Powszechnego Czytania (Universal Reading Foundation) is making an end-of-year push to ensure that refugee children find access to Ukrainian books for the holidays.

Immediately after the Russian invasion began, Ukrainian refugees—mostly women and children—began to pour into Poland. In just a few days, Universal Reading Foundation sprang into action to create the Books Give Refuge Campaign, providing funds to keep Ukrainian publishers afloat and supply books to refugee children in Poland. With the help of the international publishing community, Universal Reading Foundation has already raised more than $150,000 for Ukrainian publishers and distributed 140,000 books to Ukrainian refugee children in Poland. Nearly two dozen Polish and international publishers participated in the effort, supplying both funds and books. Polish printers offered their services free of charge to print Ukrainian-language books.

The books have had an impact. One volunteer at the Radziwiłłowska Help Point in Krakow testified to the “immense joy” the books have had for displaced children, adding that finding books in their own language made them feel at home. The refugee center established a small library so that children can read a variety of books and swap them out. A volunteer in Warsaw reported that families had tears in their eyes as they received donated books.

“We have succeeded in a lot, but the enormity of the need remains immeasurable,” said the foundation’s director, Maria Deskur. “We describe our journey as an example of what we all experienced: an unheard of, magnificent mass relief spurt in which nothing was impossible and a thousand things happened simultaneously. It is good to remember that we are all capable of such wonderful actions.”

While the situation changes from week to week, there are hopeful signs that Ukrainians will regain control over their country. When that day finally arrives, it will be the beginning of a long rebuilding process that relief groups are already planning for. The Foundation has taken part in cross-industry discussions about restoring Ukraine’s infrastructure from roads to utilities and other big industries. Literacy is part of that discussion. More than 200 Ukrainian libraries have been destroyed during war. Deskur says that providing support for a “a strong, democratic, open and independent Ukrainian society” falls not only to the government but to businesses and civil society groups around the world.

Going forward, the Foundation wants to establish ongoing programs to help Ukraine, projecting a need for $5 million annually for a national early reading program, $15 million for a training program for Ukrainian teachers and other youth leaders and to refill Ukraine’s libraries with books. To help Ukrainian publishers re-establish their work, the financial goal is $400,000 to provide 40 Ukrainian publishers with grants of $10,000 each.

It’s an ambitious plan, but an essential one, Deskur said. The stakes are high. If the country is to withstand attacks on its sovereignty in the future, an educated, literate populace is key. “Strengthening literacy—boosting the percentage of kids and adults who read daily—in Ukraine starting today is the best possible way to help raise conscious, intelligent, and active citizens for tomorrow. We know that readers vote and take an active part in civil society at significantly higher rates than non-readers.” She added that President Harry Truman said it best: not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers. “If we want Ukraine to raise democratic leaders,” she continued, “we need to help it raise readers.”

Reading Ukraine

Keeping Ukraine on the minds of young readers around the world has been the goal of a range of U.S. and international publishers.

On December 13, Brown Books Kids will release The Story of Ukraine: An Anthem of Glory and Freedom by Olena Kharchenko and Michael Sampson with illustrations by Polina Doroshenko, a Ukrainian refugee. It’s a celebration of Ukrainian history and culture that also teaches the words to the national anthem. When the war broke out, Sampson, an American, was in Ukraine as a Fulbright scholar teaching elementary English. The co-author of I Pledge Allegiance, a kids’ book about the American national anthem, Sampson evacuated to Poland at the start of the war. At a peace rally there, he overheard a group of people singing the Ukrainian national anthem. He hit on the idea of centering a book around it using his previous book as a model. The Story of Ukraine is a bilingual English-Ukrainian picture book; Brown Books worked with Ukraine’s Old Lion Press to publish a co-edition. In conjunction with the publication of the book, Books & Books in Coral Gables, Fla., helped Sampson raise more than $1,000 to donate to Ukrainian refugees.

Union Square Books recently released the YA memoir You Don’t Know What War Is: The Diary of a Young Girl from Ukraine by Yeva Skalietska, a 12-year-old Ukrainian girl who fled the city of Kharkiv earlier this year with her grandmother and is currently living in Ireland. The book centers on diary entries Skalietska wrote while sheltering in a basement bunker in the early days of the war and includes excerpts from WhatsApp conversations she had with her classmates as they all found themselves in an unthinkable situation.

Released by Capstone in September, Blue Skies and Golden Fields: Celebrating Ukraine by Oksana Lushchevska introduces middle grade readers to Ukrainian history and culture. All proceeds from the book are being donated to Ukrainian refugee organizations.

Coming in January from Red Comet Books is Yellow Butterfly: A Story from Ukraine by Oleksandr Shatokhin, a wordless picture book that highlights the colors of Ukraine: yellow and blue. The story centers on the emotional journey of a girl facing war, providing a hopeful message.

And in February, Studio Press will release Maya and her Friends by author and activist Larysa Denysenko, illustrated by Masha Foya. Originally published in 2017 with the title Maya and Her Moms, the story takes place after the 2014 annexation of Crimea and occupation of part of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions. In Maya’s classroom, each of the children have been touched by the war in a different way. All of the company’s profits will be donated to organizations protecting Ukrainian children.

Bedtime Stories

The war has separated innumerable families. While mothers and children have relocated around the world, men between the ages of 18 and 60 are required to stay in Ukraine. Recognizing the power of stories to engender a love of reading and strengthen family bonds, Ukraine-born, Amsterdam-based tech entrepreneur Andriy Shmyhelskyy created Better Time Stories, an app that allows Ukrainian fathers to record stories for their kids. Aimed at parents of children ages five to seven, the app contains a QR code that, when scanned or tapped, opens an app with an audiobook version of a book. A link allows fathers to record their own audio version so the child can listen to their voice before bed. The app is funded by donations, which can be made here, and donors can give books to specific families of their choice.

Universal Reading Foundation is accepting donations here to continue to support Ukrainian publishers and Ukrainian refugee children.