The Bookseller – Commentary – Ukrainian children desperately need books – UK publishers, please help

Stories begin and end in communities, and it is the power of communities that can heal and mend the horrors of war. During the Russo-Ukrainian War, communities of publishers, authors, and childhood professionals came together to create and share stories of healing for Ukrainian children. The resilience and sense of hope I felt in these communities are the cornerstones of transformative children’s books.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February this year, 6.4 million Ukrainians have fled their homes. Ukrainian families fleeing the war carry only a few personal effects. They are exhausted and traumatized. Sixty percent of Ukrainian refugees are children and more than 2.5 million Ukrainian children have been internally displaced. Ukrainian refugee children are out of school and are at high risk of abuse, developmental delay and psychosocial problems.

Reading books and storytelling cannot resolve these issues, but they can act as a mechanism to begin the healing process. Books are a source of information and democracy, and therefore it is in the interest of the global publishing industry to support Ukrainian publishers.

Charities and international reading organizations are well aware of the important role books play in children’s lives and have galvanized efforts to source and deliver children’s books from Ukraine to Ukrainian refugee and migrant children. The Ukrainian Book Institute and the Federation of European Publishers have launched a crowdfunding campaign to print thousands of Ukrainian children’s books in Europe. For newly settled refugees, individual national libraries, ministries and Ukrainian networks have purchased and printed Ukrainian children’s books en masse. The demand is strong and continuous.

UK publishers could make selected titles available to refugee children free of charge. Books without words and those with simple narratives can be easily adopted by speakers of different languages.

These efforts are of great importance. We know from decades of research that reading books to children provides a sense of belonging and an opportunity to be immersed in a safe fantasy world. High quality children’s books contain words and phrases that are more advanced than everyday language and as such support children’s vocabulary and language learning. For refugee children, who are not in school and who have no or very few educational resources, these are very important resources.

However, printed books can reach some children, but not all. With the constant bombardment of the main Ukrainian publishing house in Kharkiv, the increase in post-pandemic printing demand and the scarcity of paper in the global book industry, printed books have a very long journey before to reach readers. Digital books can make up for the lack of physical books and reach displaced children where they are.

That’s why global reading platforms, including StoryWeaver and the World Digital Library, have organized translation sprints to make children’s storybooks freely available to Ukrainian children. Several Ukrainian publishers have made their titles freely available online. Hundreds of e-books were produced within days, translated and digitally distributed to Ukrainian families around the world.

Together with local Ukrainian speakers and my academic colleagues, we have carefully selected relevant titles and compiled them for the Ukrainian Children’s Digital Library. These e-books can be downloaded to phones, which most refugee families have. Individual book titles can be distributed widely, in millions of copies, and read anytime, anywhere. Digital books can be read together even when families aren’t co-located, and audiobooks with narrated text can provide children with stories when the adult isn’t around. Digital books can be translated flexibly, read online and offline and adapted to each child. Our library is growing rapidly and needs more content and contributors.

The UK has a history of high quality children’s literature. UK publishers could make selected titles available to refugee children free of charge. Books without words and those with simple narratives can be easily adopted by speakers of different languages. There are several free toolkits and guides available for digitizing books and several global online platforms for distributing them.

Authors can narrate the text and Ukrainian subtitles can be added. These audiobooks are popular with families who appreciate the added benefit of original voiceovers and many speak or wish to learn English. In addition to translating existing books, new Ukrainian stories can be written and created with images and ideas freely available in story banks. These are available from online libraries, but they can also be easily added by professional illustrators. Ukrainian speakers living in the UK can partner with children’s authors and childhood professionals to create trauma-friendly stories for children.

Several free story-making apps and guides provide step-by-step guidance on how to create, self-publish, and share digital children’s books. Refugee children are the most vulnerable readers and they need the highest quality book content now.