Lessons from the Ukraine

Hey, is this a picture book?

As  children’s book illustrators  descend on Los Angeles this weekend for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Summer Conference it’s good to know that inspiration can also come  from other parts of the world.

The video has been circulating around the art blogs in recent days.  We learned of it thanks to the sharing of Austin, Texas game artist and illustrator Amanda Williams.

Twenty four year old sand animator Kseniya Simonova won the  Ukraine’s Got Talent season competition last month with her story about a time when her country lost about one fourth of its population — World War Two.

On the blog  Milk and Cookies someone asks in the comments, “What’s with all the crying?” (talking about the shots in the video of audience members and a Paula Abdul-like talent judge tearing up as they watch Kseniya draw.)  Someone else replies with a brief history of the Ukraine from its independence movement in the 20s, through brutal repression by Stalin, followed by the Nazi invasion and eventual hard-fought Russian victory and concludes, “You would cry too if it happened to you.”

Well, I did cry and it’s not just because I know the history. Kseniya unfolds an unforgettable sequence of illustrations that is of course helped by her artful soundtrack and the TV camera’s shots of her affected viewers. But at the end it’s still about those lines she quickly carves and erases in the sand.

How did she build emotion with her fleeting images? What insights into picture story  craft can we glean from this performance? I have a few thoughts but would love to hear your ideas.

Click on  “Leave a comment” at the top of the post to open the op-ed page.

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About The Author

Mark Mitchell

Award-winning children's book author-illustrator Mark G. Mitchell teaches classes in watercolor and children's book illustration at The Contemporary Art School in Austin, Texas.


  1. Heather Hanlin

    As I watched the video I was thinking cinemagraphic thoughts. She needs to be able to see the story moving in her head to be able to figure out the right transitions to get so flawlessly from one scene to the next. (Which also brings to mind Brian Selznick’s THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET.) Two important elements are motion and emotion. (hence all the crying–it really provokes emotion.) I think in this case she tapped into a cultural story about the Ukranian people, but also into a deeper undercurrent about human experience. It was both specific, and broad.

  2. Mark Mitchell

    I agree with you, Heather. Motion and emotion.
    and tapping deep into the universal human experience.

    Also, it seems like each of her ‘segues’ into a new scene surprises us.
    Yet once we ‘get’ it, the new scene feels inevitable.

    And there’s the “simplicity” and economy of her imagery.

    And those faces!

    And she puts her characters (and so us) into a very dark place of fear, confusion, upset, loss and grief before she pulls us out.

    But that relentless motion does seem integral to the whole effect.

    I wonder what else is happening here that is below our level of awareness?

  3. Mark Mitchell

    It blows my mind the way she draws with both hands.

  4. Deanna Roy

    That was VERY amazing. Thank you for sharing.


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