One year since war began, Ukraine's publishing industry is finding its voice

Ukrainian publishers and authors shared their experiences at the Bologna Children's Book Fair

Ukrainian authors and publishers returned at the fair. Photo: Bologna Children's Book Fair
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The Ukraine stand was empty at last year’s Bologna Children's Book Fair.

The international fair, held a month after Russia invaded, featured no Ukrainian publishers, who abandoned plans to display their homeland’s children's literature.

The empty space, with Ukraine’s name still emblazoned on the walls, went on to become a rallying point for a shocked publishing industry.

One year on, the stand was a hive of activity with tearful authors, publishers and illustrators returning to share their experiences of tragedy and hope.

As part of the exhibition Mom, I See War, hand drawn pictures by Ukrainian children illustrate some of the trauma they have experienced over the past 12 months.

These include a sparkling rainbow obscured by a combat helicopter, a foreboding red mist hovering over a village and sad birds circling over a deserted city.

"There are real drawings of things that children shouldn't have ever imagined," says Olena Odynoka from Ukrainian Book Institute at a panel session.

"Yet, despite this our kids keep on dreaming. They keep drawing and reading. Books have become a source of comfort and shelter and a place to hide when they are in bomb shelters.”

Seeking refuge in books

That escapism was also literal.

Mariana Savka recalled how the offices of her Old Lion Publishing House in the western city of Lviv became a sanctuary for families who fled their homes during the rocket fire and street battles.

"The publishing house is also a book shop and we closed that down pretty soon after the first weeks of the Russian invasion," she says.

"But as soon as we closed our doors, we opened them again because of people, particularly those from the east who experienced intense bombing and their homes destroyed, came to Lviv on their way to escape the country.”

While the Ukrainian publishing sector continues to operate, through a mix of projects financed through grants from the European Union and trade fair participation, Odynoka says the industry is a shadow of its former self.

According to the institute’s research, the number of publishing houses in the country halved from 2021 to 2022, with 549 deemed operational.

“From that we can say that about 14 per cent are partially running,” she says.

“It is also encouraging that a lot of them can still go on despite the big losses.”

The rocket attacks resulting in rolling blackouts across Ukraine also affected the industry, Savka says, with many of the most technologically advanced printing factories located in the north-eastern city of Kharkiv able to operate only sporadically.

"It is a huge problem, particularly in the winter," she says

"But in terms of work in many publishing houses, many are still doing the best they can.

“We now use a generator in our office. It is an experience that made me realise that light actually has a sound ... and it is very loud."

A new visual language

For two leading Ukrainian children's illustrators, Romana Romanyshyn and Andriy Lesiv from the Lviv art studio Agrafka, work has taken on a new rhythm.

“We have to work out how to earn money, support our army, family and friends. The only way to do this is through intense multitasking," Romanyshyn says.

At the same time, those efforts resulted in a breakthrough for Ukrainian visual arts.

"I see how hard our colleagues are working and what is appearing is some kind of new visual language," she adds.

"It is very strong, vivid and bold."

Some of these can be found at Illustrated Ukraine, a separate exhibition at the Bologna Book Fair, depicting the psychological devastation after one year of conflict.

Agrafka contributed with a poignant image of a child walking a barren road with a backpack shaped as a house.

Illustrator Oksana Drachkovska depicted an almost apocalyptic landscape in which buildings are in flames.

The fact the exhibition was located away from the Ukrainian children’s book stand is also a striking metaphor for what the illustrators feel at present.

“To be honest, it is very hard for us to work on a children's book right now," Lesiv says.

"It can be impossible because all the characters we were drawing were very angry. So sometimes it is good to take some distance and focus on other projects and see the bigger picture.”

Ukraine’s visual artists' work has now taken on new meaning, Romanyshyn says.

"What has really changed for all us illustrators is that we have now become cultural diplomats.

"It is no longer enough to only draw, but we have to also transmit meanings through our art.”

Updated: March 10, 2023, 6:02 PM