“As I write to you, rockets are flying outside my windows, and at a distance of 20km from my house, Russian aggressors are destroying the suburbs of Kyiv,” author Larysa Denysenko says in an email. “Mariupol, home to more than 400,000 people, is left without water, heat and food due to violations of international humanitarian law. One child died of dehydration today. ”
Denysenko, a Ukrainian writer, lawyer and public activist, is emailing about her children’s book Maya and Her Friends, illustrated by Ukrainian artist Masha Foya, which will be released by Bonnier Books UK in April. All of the company’s profits from the book will be donated to Unicef and their efforts to support the children of Ukraine in the ongoing invasion.
Maya and Her Friends was written in the wake of the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, and the occupation by Russia of part of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Its story of children and their different home lives has taken on new resonance during the conflict, as families flee and split apart.
For the forthcoming edition of the book – which is also being published in Finland, Poland and Germany on 12 April – Denysenko has added a new introduction, written from the corridor she was hiding in with her mother and dog during a missile scare.
Denysenko, a member of the human-rights organization PEN Ukraine, wanted to add to the book to talk about “how the fate of children has changed due to the war that cripples people’s lives in Ukraine”.
“I think the story itself is genius,” said Denysenko’s UK publisher Helen Wicks. “Larysa is a very talented communicator and I think the story’s got such resonance.”
Originally published in 2017 in Ukraine, under the name Maya and Her Moms, the book is the story of a class of pupils, each with a different type of family. It became a bestseller in the country but drew criticism for its portrayal of a young girl with two mothers; Denysenko, Foya and the publishers were the subject of threats and harassment.
Unicef estimates that hundreds of thousands of children are among the refugees that have fled Ukraine, and of these “many are unaccompanied or have been separated from their parents or family members”. The book’s central message, then, is more relevant than ever, with Denysenko saying she wrote it to “help every child in Ukraine feel protected, whether they have both father and mother, or just one mother, or two mothers, or two fathers, or a stepfather or stepmother ”.
Denysenko remains in Kyiv – and from there she’s determined to get her book out. “I believe that cultural diplomacy, the language of books, can help people to empathize, to fight for other people’s lives,” she says.
“With this book, I want to appeal to the people of the democratic world: we are here, not far from you, we are people of freedom and peace. We have never attacked another country. Our children are talented, brave, beautiful and strong. We deserve the whole world to join us in fighting the war and against the killing of children.
“I can not fight with a weapon in hand, but the word also matters in these circumstances.”