Ukraine: Lessons in Liberty and Compassion, Pt. 2

Last week, we began our Ukrainian series with a personal reflection from our executive assistant, Hayley.  Having recently visited orphans in Ukraine,  Hayley gave us insight into their situation, which is only made more tenuous by the current political upheaval.  And most importantly, she gave us a detailed look at how we (and our kids!) can pray for them during this difficult time.

This week, Hayley continues her look at ways we can help our kids develop compassion and understanding in our kids towards Ukrainians.  This week, she focuses on Ukrainian culture and folktales, with a few novels and spy stories for the older kids thrown in.  I’d recommend pairing these with some basic facts about Ukraine’s history for your kids.  You can get that at Wikipedia’s Ukraine page, or you could try this video (which I haven’t watched) recently recommended by Tim Challies.

In our next installment, we’ll focus more on the “liberty” aspect of our series–i.e. the political and historical side of things.  Til then, let us know in the comments how you liked these books or if you’ve found any Ukraine or Cold War books you think we should include!

Picture Books

The Birds’ Gift: A Ukrainian Easter Story by Eric A. Kimmel

Excellent and overtly Christian, this beautifully illustrated book tells the legend behind pysanky, the beautifully decorated Easter eggs of Ukraine.

The Castle of the Cats by Eric A. Kimmel 

This lesser known fairytale originally comes from Latvia but has been retold in a Ukrainian setting with beautiful Ukrainian themed illustrations.  A youngest son sets off to seek his fortune and encounters a castle full of very interesting felines.

When Jessie Came Across the Sea by Amy Hest

Gorgeously illustrated story of one Jewish immigrant girl’s journey from Eastern Europe to America; this will help readers understand the emmigration of many eastern Europeans to America in the 19th century.

Babushka Baba Yaga by Patricia Polacco

In Ukraine and Russia, stories are told of a horrible witch who lives in the forest and is known as “Babushka Baba Yaga.”  In this picture book, Patricia Polacco retells the legend in a gentler way.  With Polacco’s Ukrainian and Russian heritage, many of her picture books have Eastern European themes.  I love her old ladies; I saw many similar babushkas in Ukraine!

More Babushkas

Early Readers

Favorite Fairytales Told in Russia by Virginia Haviland

This collection of Russian fairytales is sure to be appreciated by a budding reader and serves as an excellent introduction to Russian folklore.

Bony-Legs by Joanna Cole

If at all possible, this is a great book to get!  Written as an easy reader, it is the story of one little girl’s escape from Bony-Legs –another name for Babushka Baba Yaga!

Middle Grade

The Good Master and The Singing Tree by Kate Seredy

(Photo credit, a Hungarian website!)

Hungarian author Kate Seredy weaves a beautiful tale of life in Hungary before and during WWI.  With gorgeous illustrations, these two Newbery Honor books are a wonderful way  introduce middle grade readers to Eastern European culture.  (Seredy also won the Newbery Medal for The White Stag, a retelling of the rise of Atilla the Hun.  This book, while recommended by many, contains darker elements of pagan religion that parents may wish to preview.)

The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig

Esther Hautzig, a Polish Jew transported with her family to the steppes of Siberia, writes a fascinating coming-of-age memoir.  While intended for young adults, this would be a great book to read and discuss with a middle-grade reader.  Hautzig displays and, from my recollection, recognizes the Stockholm Syndrome that came as she adjusted to life in Siberia –to the point she almost did not want to leave and return to Poland.

This resignation and acceptance of oppression is what the older generation of Ukrainians experienced under Soviet Rule.  Today, many remember it not for the oppression it entailed, but for the apparent prosperity and efficiency of the Soviets: at least under communism the roads were better and everyone had a job!


Tomorrow Will Be Better by Zdena Kapral

This memoir from Czechoslovakia is one of the best autobiographies I have ever read, and engaging to the point of being a page-turner.  Especially interesting is the fact that it tells what life was like in Eastern Europe before World War II, enjoying relative independence, during WWII under German occupation, and then during the communist/Russian take-over.  This book is a fascinating portrayal of one family’s struggle to survive.  While there is no overt mention of faith, this story is filled with hope and not bitterness despite the gravity of the times.

The Blind Spy by Alex Dryden

World Magazine’s Marvin Olasky recommends this book: “third in a finely written series centered on Anna Resnikov, a KGB colonel who defects to America. Dryden combines insights into contemporary Ukrainian political intrigues with deft portrayals of those who tire of lies.”

I have read and really enjoyed the first book in Dyrden’s series, and I would recommend the series to both adults and teenagers who are mature enough to handle a secular adult thriller.

The Grace Effect by Larry Taunton

I haven’t read this one, so please use your judgement.  But it was recommended to us by Melinda, one of our readers last week (and someone Emily has great respect for in “real” life).  She says this nonfiction presents a “historical and present-day view of Ukraine” and gives “a detailed account of the Taunton’s family adoption of Sasha, who was an Ukrainian orphan.”  Thanks, Melinda!




There are many more books that could be listed here, especially in regard to Russia, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War.  Because of this, we will be doing another booklist focused specifically on Ukrainian and Russian history!


Reading about Ukraine, Russia, and Easter Europe will introduce you to cultures that are quite different from our own, cultures with traditions and folklore that reach back to pre-Christianity.  As you read, here are some discussion ideas for your family:

Read Ukrainian and Russian folktales: how are they different from our traditional fairytales?  How are they similar?-Learn about Ukrainian traditions, such as pysanky —decorated Easter eggs: what can we learn from these traditions about the values that are important in Ukrainian culture?-Think about the history of Eastern Europe: in what ways is it different from our country’s history?  (HINT, many Eastern European countries have over the centuries undergone many years of oppressive rule by foreign powers, yet have still retained their own distinct culture and heritage.  During these times, national identity was often strongly linked to the church.  As a result, the separation of church and state can be a very foreign idea in some Eastern European countries since national identity and church identity are intertwined.)-Find someone who is from Eastern Europe, or who is familiar with Eastern Europe due to missions, ministry, or family heritage.  Ask them about their life stories or experiences!  Just this evening, I had the most wonderful conversation with a Ukrainian lady and learned so much in the process.  While my knowledge of Ukraine’s history is mostly limited to books; she and her family have lived through it.Join The Conversation!Do you have any favorite books about Ukraine, Russia, or Eastern Europe in general that you would recommend?  Please leave a comment and tell us about them!

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Hayley Morell

Born in a library and raised by books, or rather, raised by a book-loving family, Hayley loves talking and writing about books. She lives in the middle of Wisconsin and works with children as well as with words.

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  1. Betsy Farquhar on March 17, 2014 at 6:26 am

    Great-looking list, Hayley! I can’t wait to check some of these out. The Endless Steppe book description reminded me of Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys–it came out in the last couple of years and is about a young girl and her family forced out of Lithuania by the Russians; she ended up in Siberia, too. It’s also a YA book. We’ve got some of the picture books on hold at the library!

  2. Carol S. on March 18, 2014 at 6:58 am

    My family is in the process of adopting a 15 year old boy from Ukraine. We met him through a hosting program the summer of 2013, and we are rehosting him again this summer. We hope to be traveling to Ukraine in September for the adoption proceedings. We speak to him every day on the phone and miss him very much. Thank you for bringing to light the plight of these precious orphans from Ukraine. Most of all, we ask for your prayers for our son “D”, our upcoming adoption, and all the people of Ukraine. Our lives have been forever changed by this wonderful boy who wants nothing more than to stay in America forever with his newfound family. Our hearts are full, our prayers run deep, as the very future of Ukraine and it’s people hangs in the balance.

    • emily on March 20, 2014 at 5:42 am

      Carol, Thanks so much for sharing your story with us. Lord, I pray even now that you would bless Carol and her family, including her new son. Protect them, comfort them, and bring them together soon. Amen.

  3. Sharon Henning on March 18, 2014 at 12:26 pm

    I look forward to reading some of the folk tales on your list. I love European folk lore and especially illustrated books.

    I have read “The Grace Effect” and can highly recommend it as an insightful and eye opening account of life inside an atheistic country. Basic human rights and compassion for the helpless that we in the United States take for granted are non existent in Ukraine. Mr. Taunten sharply contrasts a culture based on atheistic values as opposed to countries such as ours, that have its roots in Christian values.

    He describes how incredibly hard it was to adopt due to the corruption in the judicial system. Orphans were used as pawns to exert political power and line government workers’ pockets. He writes of a meeting in a University where he was challenged by the Ukrainian professors. They were confounded that anyone would care about orphans. “Why would you do that?” They asked him. He couldn’t give them a satisfactory answer because “not neglecting the orphans” was an alien concept to them.

    • emily on March 20, 2014 at 5:41 am

      Sharon, Thanks for the book review of The Grace Effect! It sounds like a really great book for a lot of our readers.

  4. Melinda Speece on March 20, 2014 at 6:49 am

    Thanks for including The Grace Effect, Hayley (and thanks for the “real life” encouragement, Emily)!

    I am looking forward to reading these, especially The Endless Steppe and The Blind Spy.

  5. Hayley on March 21, 2014 at 10:11 am

    Thank you for the recommendation, Melinda! (And thank you, Sharon, for sharing your
    experience reading The Grace Effect!)

    Carol S., thank you so much for your comment! My family will be re-hosting a 17 year-old Ukrainian orphan this summer. Unfortunately he is too old to be adopted (we would in a heartbeat!), but he remains a long-distance member of the family. That is so wonderful that you can talk to “D” every day; I know communication can sometimes be difficult! I will definitely be praying for your family and for “D.”

  6. Sharon Henning on March 22, 2014 at 9:34 pm

    I didn’t think to include this in my response, but here’s my book review of “The Grace Effect” on my blog.

    • emily on March 23, 2014 at 5:18 pm

      Thanks, Sharon! It’s nice to be able to point our readers to a real review of the book. : )

  7. Carol S. on March 25, 2014 at 10:38 am

    Thank you all for your prayers and support. It is certainly our greatest need and most effective weapon against all the obstacles that tend to come along with international adoptions. I do believe because so many people are praying for “D” that it resonates deeply in his own heart as well. From forgotten to redeemed. A beautiful message for us all.

  8. Kim on April 7, 2014 at 5:19 pm

    Just an FYI, the author of Tomorrow Will Be Better is Zdena Kapral, not Karsal. 🙂

  9. Hayley on April 11, 2014 at 12:19 pm

    Thank you, Kim! I just corrected it 🙂

  10. Sandra K. Fairchild on February 26, 2022 at 6:37 am

    Have you read The Blackbird Girls by Anne Blankman? I am listening to it right now. I would be interested to hear your review.

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