Holodomor related fiction for children and adults
The last few years have brought out a number of new books, especially for younger readers, that have taken the difficult topic of the Holodomor genocide and incorporated it into stories that personalize this event in ways that respect both the topic and the intended audiences. These well-written narratives are carefully researched for historical accuracy, are informative without being preachy, and importantly, keep their readers engaged with relatable characters and engrossing storylines.
If you can’t find these books at your local public or school libraries, be sure to order a copy and recommend them to the librarians! In addition to sharing your own favorable comments, you will find positive reviews for most of these items on online sites such as Goodreads, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon. In 2022, the Education arm of the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium (HREC – Canada) initiated a webinar series featuring the authors of the most recommended recent books in conversation with HREC Director of Education Valentina Kuryliw and hosted by Professor Mateusz Świetlicki, expert on books for younger readers. Go to Holodomor Stories: recent reads for schools, for a list of upcoming webinars and links to previously recorded events. For books below that have been discussed in the series, a link to the specific webinar is provided at the end of the description.
For younger readers:
~ Enough by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch. Full page color illustrations by Michael Martchenko. Fitzhenry & Whiteside. 2000.
With wonderful full page color illustrations by Michael Martchenko, Skrypuch gently introduces younger readers to the Holodomor. This warm-hearted story of a plucky young girl during the famine promotes caring and resourcefulness while providing a non-threatening lesson on the consequences of power and greed.
~ “The Rings“,by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch. Published in Kobzar’s Children: A Century of Stories by Ukrainians, pp. 70 -80. Suitable for middle years and young teens. Markham, ON: Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 2006.
According to the author, this story of a young boy’s experiences is based on a number of first-hand accounts of those who survived the Holodomor.
For teens and adults:
~ The Lost Year, by Katherine Marsh. Roaring Brook Press, 2023.
2023 National Book Award finalist for Young People’s Literature, and called “a resistance novel for our times” by The New York Times.
Publisher’s description: “Thirteen-year-old Matthew is miserable. His journalist dad is stuck overseas indefinitely, and his mom has moved in his one-hundred-year-old great-grandmother to ride out the pandemic, adding to his stress and isolation.
But when Matthew finds a tattered black-and-white photo in his great-grandmother’s belongings, he discovers a clue to a hidden chapter of her past, one that will lead to a life-shattering family secret. Set in alternating timelines that connect the present-day to the 1930s and the US to the USSR, [The 30’s timeline includes a US story as well, of new immigrants from Ukraine, with references to work and school life and response to the New York Times articles by Walter Duranty and Gareth Jones.] Katherine Marsh’s latest novel sheds fresh light on the Holodomor – the horrific famine that killed millions of Ukrainians, and which the Soviet government covered up for decades.
An incredibly timely, page-turning story of family, survival, and sacrifice, inspired by Marsh’s own family history.”
Watch recorded webinar
~ Winterkill : A Novel, by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch. [First edition] , Scholastic Press, 2022.
Publisher’s description: “Nyl is just trying to stay alive. Ever since the Soviet dictator, Stalin, started to take control of farms like the one Nyl’s family lives on, there is less and less food to go around. On top of bad harvests and a harsh winter, conditions worsen until it’s clear the lack of food is not just chance… but a murderous plan leading all the way to Stalin.
Alice has recently arrived from Canada with her father, who is here to work for the Soviets… until Alice realizes that the people suffering the most are all ethnically Ukrainian, like Nyl. Something is very wrong, and Alice is determined to help.
Desperate, Nyl and Alice come up with an audacious plan that could save both of them — and their community. But can they survive long enough to succeed?
Known as the Holodomor, or death by starvation, Ukraine’s Famine-Genocide in the 1930s was deliberately caused by the Soviets to erase the Ukrainian people and culture. Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch brings this deeply resonant, and remarkably timely, historical world to life in a story about unity, perseverance, and a people’s determination to overcome.”
Watch recorded webinar
~ Five Stalks of Grain, by Adrian Lysenko and Ivanka Theodosia Galadza. Brave & Brilliant Series, No. 29. Calgary, Alberta, Canada: University of Calgary Press, 2022.
Beautifully illustrated graphic novel; shortlisted for the 2023 Alberta Book Publishing Awards for graphic novels category.
Publisher’s description: “In 1932, as famine rages across Ukraine, the Soviet government calls for the harshest punishment for those who keep for themselves even five stalks of grain. When their mother is accused of hoarding and summarily killed, Nadia and Taras must leave their home on a desperate quest for survival.
Attempting to navigate a closed country, to stay together, and to stay alive, Nadia and Taras must face secret police, soldiers, and fellow citizens forced to abandon charity and sometimes even humanity in the face of impossible hunger. Unsure who to trust and unable to find refuge, they search for somewhere, anywhere, where they can be safe.
Historical fiction at its finest, Five Stalks of Grain is powerfully written and beautifully illustrated, drawing on Ukrainian artistic traditions to tell a story of loss, grief, and hardship with delicate strength. It is a record of a time of profound suffering and a reckoning with the human cost of a tragedy shaped by politics and policy.”
Watch recorded webinar
~ The Photograph, by Kat Karpenko. BookBaby, 2020.
Publisher’s description: “Ukraine 1928. Stalin has risen to power and started to implement plans that will change the country forever. Inspired by a family photo, ‘The Photograph’ centers on a farewell party and a family divided. There are those who will stay, and those who will leave [making a long journey across Europe to Western Canada]. What happens to those who stay is written in the pages of history as the Holodomor, the Terror-Famine orchestrated by Stalin, responsible for the loss of millions of lives.
The Holodomor was one of the worst genocides in global history. In this historically accurate novel, the reader will see a family facing events on the ground level. [We share in every member’s experiences – from the older adults making hopeful decisions, to the younger adults facing often heartbreaking choices, and younger children, observing and often powerless.] Some members saw the impending doom, others were unprepared, undecided, or unmovable for too long. Experiencing the lives of victims and survivors during these dramatic times goes beyond the history books.”
HREC webinar coming Oct 19, 2023.
~ Stones Under the Scythe by Olha Mak. Translated by Vera Kaczmarskyj. Bloomington: iUniverse, 2011. Ages 13+
A riveting coming of age story set in Kharkiv, during the height of the famine genocide in the winter of 1933. Through the eyes of 15 year old Andriy, who has escaped the murder and starvation that struck his family in the village, we see both the devastation of a once comfortable life in the countryside as well as the desperate fight for survival in the city. After a miraculous rescue by a genteel, mysterious, impoverished widow, he now faces daily heart-wrenching decisions of whom to help and how, when he barely has enough for anyone. He also befriends another teen and is drawn into his struggles to survive. Andriy’s life becomes even more complicated when the kind widow disappears, setting the stage for the dramatic and unexpected climax. Andriy’s simple, yet almost Socratic discussions with his wise benefactress and his own youthful soul searching present some of the most thoughtful, down to earth writing on what it means to be a caring human being under the most inhuman circumstances.
~ Animal Farm by George Orwell. New York: New American Library, 1956. (and other editions)
According to Orwell, Animal Farm is a satirical tale against Stalin. Concerned by “how easily totalitarian propaganda can control the opinion of enlightened people in democratic countries” Orwell “thought of exposing the Soviet myth in a story that could be easily understood by almost anyone.” Although there are many interpretations of what events the different episodes in the book represent, many would agree that much of the work carries the Soviet experience “from the idealism of the Russian revolution to Stalin’s forced collectivization, famine, and mass arrests.” See also: Chalupa, Andrea. “How ‘Animal Farm’ Gave Hope to Stalin’s Refugees,” The Atlantic, Mar 1, 2012. And: Orwell, George. “Preface to the Ukrainian Edition of Animal Farm”, March 1947.
~ A Hunger Most Cruel: Selected Prose Fiction by Anatoliy A. Dimarov, Yevhen Hutsalo, Olena Zvychayna. Edited by Sonia V. Morris and translated by Roma Z. Franko. Winnipeg: Language Lanterns Publications, 2002.
Two longer stories by Dimarov and Hutsalo, and 4 short stories by Zvychayna. No superheroes here; only the courage and the dignity of a few in these harsh portrayals of life during the famine. Both Dimarov and Hutsalo present interwoven vignettes of ordinary people trapped in a slow, inexorable descent to extinction. Dimarov captures particularly well how the mechanics of terror, intimidation, deceit and betrayal were worked into village society, while Hutsalo portrays the nightmarish surrealism that went for life in the famine stricken villages. Zvychayna’s stories present the stark contrasts and ironies of life in the city, particularly between the well-to-do Party elite and starving villagers.
~ “The Bourgeois Woman” by Mykola Ponedilok. Translated by Maria Kiciuk. Ages 13+
First appeared in Ukrainian as “Burzhuyka” in the collection Hovory lyshe pole (Only the Field Speaks) 1962, Homin Ukrainy, Toronto. Heartbreaking story of a mother’s attempts to reclaim her daughter from a children’s center, where she had left the child in the hope she might survive the famine.
~ The Memory Keeper of Kyiv, by Erin Litteken. Boldwood Books, 2022. [Grades 10+]
Publisher’s description: “In 1929, Katya is 16 years old, surrounded by family and in love with the boy next door. When Stalin’s activists arrive in her village, it’s just a few, a little pressure to join the collective. But soon neighbors disappear, those who speak out are never seen again and every new day is uncertain.Resistance has a price, and as desperate hunger grips the countryside, survival seems more a dream than a possibility. But, even in the darkest times, love beckons. Seventy years later, a young widow discovers her grandmother’s journal, one that will reveal the long-buried secrets of her family’s haunted past.”
~ Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman. New York Review of Books Classics. 2010. Translation by Robert Chandler.
Critically acclaimed work reflecting on the tragedies of Soviet life from the perspective of a gulag survivor. Originally published in Russian in 1964. At the heart of the book is a particularly harrowing chapter where a former communist activist describes her role in perpetrating the Ukraine famine. Chandler writes: (p. viii) “This chapter about the least-known act of genocide of the last century is subtle, complex, and unbearably lucid. Only Dante…has written of death from hunger with equal power.”
A previous translation is also available with the following title: Forever Flowing, by Vasily Grossman. New York: Harper & Row, 1972. Translated by Thomas P. Whitney.
~ Sweet Snow by Alexander J. Motyl. Somerville, MA: Cervena Barva Press, 2013.
Not for the faint hearted! From the book cover: “SWEET SNOW is set in the winter of 1933 in Ukraine. A terrible famine is raging in the countryside, while the Soviet secret police is arresting suspected spies in the cities. A German nobleman from Berlin, a Jewish communist from New York, a Polish diplomat from Lwów, and a Ukrainian nationalist from Vienna … are being transported to another prison, their van overturns, their guards are killed, and they are freed—to wander amidst the devastated villages, desolate landscapes, snowbound villages, and frozen corpses. As they struggle to survive, they come to grips with the horror of the famine as well as with their own delusions, weaknesses, and mortality.”
The early pages of the book are filled with taunting, flip verbal volleys among the four prisoners. But ultimately, the subjects of those conversations become a painfully ironic counterpoint to the reality of the circumstances. If you can force yourself to read beyond the horrific experience that greets the characters upon the first night of their “escape,” you will find yourself steeled somewhat against the continued, slightly less extreme assaults against one’s sense of humanity that follow. In the tiny oeuvre of historical fiction available in English on the Holodomor, no other work comes to mind that presents such a darkly bleak portrait of the devastation wreaked on the soul of Ukraine. It is haunting and unforgettable.
~ Maria: The Chronicle of a Life by Ulas Samchuk. Edited by Paul Cipywnyk and translated by Roma Z. Franko. Toronto: Language Lanterns Publications, 2011.
“A gripping story about a village woman’s loves, losses, and daily toil, from the emancipation of serfs in 1861 to one of the most tragic periods in human history– the 1932-33 Holodomor, or Famine-Genocide,” from editor’s introduction on the publisher’s website.
“the Book of Bread,” Book 3 of this sweeping drama, provides a truly poignant, without being maudlin depiction of what it might have been to experience the Holodomor. There is definitely a movie waiting to be made from this novel.