In a shabby, tree-shaded playground on the outskirts of Simferopol, Crimea, two three-year-old boys are playing on a see-saw.
“Ukraine!” shouts Sayid, as his side of the see-saw goes up.
“Russia!” shouts Sergey, as Sayid comes down and Sergey’s side goes up.
It’s a cute scene, and the mums in the playground are laughing. The two boys live in the same block of flats, and have known each other since they were born. For them, these names of countries are just another game, like the different-coloured flags they’ve both waved sitting on their dads’ shoulders at opposing demonstrations; like the plastic guns they point at each other.
But when Sayid shouts “Ukraine!” and “Down with Putin!” on the bus into town, his mum hushes him up hurriedly, because who knows how people will react, in this town that used to be part of Ukraine two months ago until armed men appeared everywhere and it apparently became part of Russia. She doesn’t want to expose her son to hostile attention. And whatever she thinks about current events, she doesn’t want to teach her child to hate.
But all over Ukraine and Crimea, children are listening to their parents talk about politics and conflict and this side versus that side. They are learning to shout slogans and wave flags. If this society is not very, very careful, they will learn how to hate.
What has this got to do with children’s books? Everything. This last few months in Ukraine and Russia have shown the incredible power of words to persuade people to hate each other. The words come from the media and enter conversation in every home where children pick them up and imitate them, because that’s what children do.
But there has to be another side. Children’s authors have a incredible opportunity to use words and images to challenge stereotypes and encourage empathy and understanding in children like Sergey and Sayid. In children everywhere, because if the Russia-Ukraine conflict seems far away, Sunday’s Euro-parliament elections show that xenophobic and homophobic attitudes are gaining popularity a lot closer to home.
It’s a scary responsibility for authors, but a very positive one too.
Here’s another cute scene: my Ukrainian friend’s daughter Sonya, five, watched a well-known Russian cartoon called Morozko recently. She loves writing, and decided to write the main characters a letter.
She puts the letter in a envelope and asks “Where do they live?”
A long pause, while Sonya thinks. “Where the bad people live?”
My friend tries to explain that no, of course not; not all people in Russia are bad… But Sonya’s letter does not get sent.
That little story is a children’s book in itself. Maybe Sonya or Sonya’s mum will write it. In the book I hope the letter would be sent; maybe first we would see how sad Morozko and his friends are not to get their letter after all…
Meanwhile, tired of the see-saw, Sergey and Sayid in Simferopol go off in search of a new game, hand-in-hand – for now.