It was harder to find good picture books about Russia than it has been with some of the other countries we’ve studied. I found some good folk tales, but our library had absolutely no picture books presenting modern Russia from the perspective of a child living there. Maybe it’s the leftover tension of the Cold War that causes this discrepancy — the same reason that it seems normal for bad guys to have Russian accents in American movies.
This was disappointing to me. I’ve always loved Russian history and culture — the bittersweet nostalgia, the crystalline snow-filled scenes of imperial royalty, the tumultuous tragedies in the 20th century, the nesting-doll-like layers of emotion and history. I hope I was able to share at least some of this love with my son through our study of the following books.
Koshka’s Tales: Stories from Russia – by James Mayhew
I can’t get enough of the illustrations in this collection of Russian folktales. They’re delicate and complex, and they effuse a magical color and lighting. The stories are wonderful too. I’ve been reminded of Arabian Nights while reading this to my son – there’s a frame story about a Tsar and his wife and a cat who tells stories, but interposed within the frame story are the tales that the cat tells – famous Russian folktales such as The Snow Maiden and The Firebird.
For a picture book, the text is rather long. We’ve ended up treating it more as a week-long read-aloud, taking on one chapter per day. And just a heads up – the tales aren’t watered down or sweetened up. I’m reading them to my 5-year-old, so they’re not too gruesome, but they have the feel of old-fashioned fairy tales, replete with the child-eating witch and maidens being turned into rivers.
Babushka Baba Yaga – by Patricia Polacco
This charming story features a very different Baba Yaga than most of the old-fashioned folk tales. She’s still the ancient spirit of the wood, and the villagers are still afraid of her, but we come to know her as a sweet old woman who longs to care for a human child and become a true “babushka.” It’s beautifully illustrated, and a lovely read.
The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship: A Russian Tale – by Uri Shulevitz
This intriguing folk tale won the 1969 Caldecott medal. It follows the story of a simple young man (presented in the story as “the fool”) who sets out to win the Tsar’s daughter’s hand in marriage by finding a flying ship. He meets a cast of unusual characters along the way, and the fact that he offers them hospitality serves him well in the end. There were quite a number of characters, and my son had a bit of a hard time following who-was-who, but he loved the illustrations and the concept of the flying ship.
Rechenka’s Eggs – by Patricia Polacco
This is a fun goose-that-laid-the-golden-egg type story, except with pysanky eggs. Studying the illustrations with my son led to some interesting discussions about Russian culture — egg-dyeing, the Russian Orthodox Church, a babushka with a headscarf visiting Moscow, etc. It’s a sweet story, combined with lovely illustrations.