© 2024 All Rights reserved WUSF
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Tampa-based authors bring the story of Ukraine's national anthem to young readers

A picture of the book cover, titled Story of Ukraine, in English and Ukrainian with blue background and colorful drawings
Kerry Sheridan
WUSF Public Media
The Story of Ukraine, by Olena Kharchenko and Michael Sampson, illustrated by Polina Doroshenko

The dual-language story covers the history of Ukraine and includes lyrics to the national anthem, which is increasingly sung by Ukrainians around the world since Russia's invasion.

A husband and wife from the United States and Ukraine have written a children's book all about the Ukrainian national anthem, called "The Story of Ukraine."

The 36-page book aims to teach children about the origins of the country, now entering its second year of war with Russia.

The authors, Michael Sampson and Olena Kharchenko, told WUSF's Kerry Sheridan that the book is deeply personal for them.

Tell me how the idea for this book arose?

Michael Sampson: "I was a Fulbright scholar to Ukraine last year. And we were living in Dnipro, which is in the south central part of Ukraine. I was teaching at Dnipro National University in the English as a New Language department, and I was working in schools helping second and third graders learn English. And everything was going well. But around November, we started getting warnings about a troop build-up on the borders. And we pretty much dismissed it. Most Ukrainians did. But sure enough, we had the full-out war. And just before that, the State Department evacuated us from the country.

"And Olena and our daughter came back to the US and I went to Warsaw. And the way the book came about, I'd been in Warsaw when we had a demonstration to support peace in front of the Russian Embassy in Warsaw. And they were singing this beautiful song. And I asked someone [what it was], and they said it was the Ukrainian national anthem. I didn't understand Ukrainian enough to understand what it meant. But I knew that people were passionate, they were crying. And it was very emotional. It was a beautiful song.

"So we talked and Olena said, 'Yes, it's kind of a dark, bleak song. But it's happening again.' Because it was written in 1862, when Russia was invading Ukraine, and so the anthem fit perfectly. It was also sung in 1920-1921, when Russia invaded Kiev and actually took Kiev and forced Ukraine into the Soviet Union, because they were an independent nation until then. And so to answer your question, that was the spark that led us to think we might put this into a children's book.

"I had written a similar book about the US Pledge of Allegiance in 2004. That was published by Candlewick. It's called 'I Pledge Allegiance.' And my writing partner, Bill Martin, and I had noticed that kids can say the Pledge of Allegiance, but they didn't know what it meant. They didn't know what the words 'indivisible' meant, and even 'republic' and so forth. So we went into this book with the same idea that we wanted to tell younger readers what the national anthem meant.

"But as we got into it, it expanded. And partly because of the speech (Russian President Vladimir) Putin made about this time last year, a few days before he invaded Ukraine with the full assault. He said that Ukraine wasn't a country, it was made by the Soviet Union and that's totally false.

"And so we wanted to show that Ukraine was there even before Russia was there because Kiev existed before Moscow. We wanted to show the culture of the people and the geography of the land."

What does this project mean to you, Olena?

Olena Kharchenko: "We have a daughter, she's 13. She was 12 last year. And she made an interesting remark, because she has parents from two different countries, two different cultures. She saw people in everyday life when it was a peaceful time in Ukraine. And when war started, how, like, everything changed.

"So she said, 'You know what I noticed, Mom? In the United States, they teach children their pledge of allegiance, and they read it every day. And they feel like they love the country, and adults want them to be patriotic. And it's okay. But in Ukraine, they do not do that every day. And it's very interesting, because they love their country also, very hard, but they do not show it like that. It's a different mentality and different culture.' I thought it was interesting that a child noticed that. I never thought about it like that from her perspective.

"When the war started, people went out and protested, and this song was heard everywhere. And it now I think it sounds even stronger, because it's such a different situation.

"The children who are in high school now, and middle school, in 15 years, they will be the ones making decisions about politics, about the world structure.

"And I remember myself, at my daughter age's and older when Ukraine decided we don't want nuclear weapons, we want to be peaceful, we want to go for different direction.

"And now people are thinking, why would we do that? And now I'm thinking, those kids are gonna make decisions like that. Do they want to have a Cold War again? Do they want to be stronger than other bullies? Do they want to find other ways to regulate world peace?"

Olena sits near a bookcase with her husband, Michael, and holds up a shell she has painted with the Kalyna tree, a national symbol Ukraine
Olena has been painting shells to hand out to children she meets on the book tour. One side has a sunflower, and the other side the Kalyna tree, both national symbols of Ukraine.

The book goes over some of the history of Ukraine, and how many nations have invaded over the centuries. The language of the anthem really stood out me, like the line: 'Our enemies will die like dew in the sun.'

Sampson: "Well, that's the national anthem. Those are the words for the national anthem. And so we couldn't change that, of course. And the illustrator, Polina Doroschenko, she actually drew the soldiers without weapons, defending the country.

"The Russian casualties are close to 200,000. They don't have a value on human life. So they just keep sending prisoners and untrained soldiers in. We're losing good Ukrainian boys at a one to five ratio. It's not a good trade."

Olena, what do you hope this book will do for children?

Kharchenko: "I think this book will start conversations. For example, if a teacher talks to students in the classroom, I think it can bring in more topics. They can talk about democracy, or they can talk about international relationships and rules between countries and how it was established after the Second World War and how now it gets disrespected, and what they will do to change it.

"And I think it can bring about more discussion between parents and children. So I hope it will help children speak about it and discuss and give their thoughts, what they have in mind.

"We already did a reading in Miami, in different schools. And I had no idea how many children were displaced from Ukraine. We counted — it was more than 100 children from Ukraine in four schools only. So what happened is, I talked to them in their native language. If they spoke Russian, I spoke Russian back to them. If they spoke in Ukrainian, I'd answer in Ukrainian, trying to support them, trying to ask their stories and just to make them feel better.

"It was amazing. I think it was sixth graders, they said, 'Thank you so much for coming here. You make us feel important because we feel so insignificant now and we would love to go home but we can't. Your visit and your speech just made us feel so much better.'

"So my hope is that I can make those kids feel good talking about their country."

And for you, Michael? What's your hope?

Sampson: "There are many, many people who trace their heritage to Ukraine. And so we wanted them to know about their homeland. And we wanted them to know that a lot of the propaganda out of Russia was totally false. And so that's why we want to put the truth in there. It's a soft way of confronting this invasion, just by telling the truth. And so that's my hope.

"And now we're about to start a 20 city book tour, starting in a couple of weeks, we're going to be in Boston, New York City, Washington, DC and around the country. And it gives us a chance to go to schools and talk to audiences that include a lot of Ukrainian refugees, so I want to give them empowerment, and I want to give them hope. And then, for the rest of the people, I just want to educate about it."

I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.
WUSF 89.7 depends on donors for the funding it takes to provide you the most trusted source of news and information here in town, across our state, and around the world. Support WUSF now by giving monthly, or make a one-time donation online.