Would you like to learn more about Russia by reading engaging children’s books with your kids? You can’t go wrong with any of our favorite books about Russia.
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The Keeping Quilt, Patricia Polacco
With the perfect mix of love and loss, we trace the multigenerational story of a Russian immigrant family. It’s a heartfelt, personal history of the author. She shares how one quilt became an integral part of her family’s tradition and rituals. Some things don’t change. Four generations use the family quilt to celebrate birthdays, play pretend, get married, and wrap newborns. Other things change with time. While at great-gramma’s wedding, men and women celebrated separately, at the author’s wedding over a century later, men and women danced together.
Some stories are comforting like old family quilts, and this is one of them. The black and white ink drawings, with dramatic splashes of quilt drawn with a red marker, will stay in your memory for a long time.
Grandma Lena’s Big Turnip, Denia Lewis Hester
In this old Russian folk tale, a cast of colorful characters unsuccessfully tries to pull a turnip from the ground until everyone joins their efforts and succeeds. As always, the story ends with a feast. In this particular book, the feast features southern style cooking and an additional lesson of “anything worth doing is worth doing right.”
The Turnip, Jan Brett
Jan Brett is known for her expressive illustrations and imaginative twists on classic stories. In Jan Brett’s interpretation of this classic tale, something completely unexpected happens, and it’s not a joined effort that saves the day but hibernating bears (don’t worry, it will make sense when you read the story). In this version, you don’t get a lesson, but you do get a laugh. The traditional Russian dresses are drawn with great detail, and if like us you get an itch to bake turnip pancakes after reading this book, here is the best recipe we tried so far (we used King Arthur’s gluten-free flour).
The Bun, retold by Marcia Brown
This is one of the oldest Russian folk tales, passed on orally for centuries until it was written down in the 19th century by Afanasiev, a famous Russian folklorist. You already know the basic plot of The Bun if you’re familiar with the tale of the Gingerbread Man. In both tales, someone bakes a yummy treat that comes to life and escapes the house. In The Bun, the runaway treat avoids being eaten by a hare, a bear, and a wolf, but it finds its end in the jaws of a sly fox. The timeless lesson? Boasting is unattractive and might even be lethal. Bold strokes of brown pencil make the illustrations dramatic and intriguing.
The Frog Princess, retold by J. Patrick Lewis
It’s against the law for a Russian child to get through childhood without getting acquainted with this story. I’m kidding, of course, but it’s definitely one of those tales that is known to every Russian child. At the center of the story is a hapless prince who marries a frog. The frog is actually an enchanted princess, and through his own foolishness, the prince loses her. The epic hero’s journey takes him through trials and tribulations to the kingdom beyond kingdoms to get her back. One of the most amazing things about this retelling of the story is the intricate illustrations by an award-winning Russian artist made in the best tradition of old masters. Kids younger than eight will probably find the narration too long.
The Noisy Paint Box and Through the Window, Barb Rosenstock and Mary Grandpre
Finding an engaging biography for kids can be tough, and if you want one about Russian historical personages, it might even be tougher. That’s why I’m so excited to share the following two books with you.
Both The Noisy Paint Box and Through the Window are written and illustrated by the Barb Rosenstock and Mary Grandpre team. (You might know Grandpre from her illustrations of original Harry Potter books). The Noisy Paint Box is a Caldecott Honor Book about the life of a famous Russian painter, Wassily Kandinsky. He is most famous for synesthesia (he experienced colors as sounds) and for being a pioneer of abstract art.
In Through the Window, we learn about the life and times of Marc Chagall, pioneer of modernism and a stained glass window virtuoso. The narration is fast-moving. It has to be. Chagall had a very long (he lived to be 97) and complicated life. But it’s surprisingly vivid and inspirational (he kept at his art no matter what came his way).
The Littlest Matryoshka, Corinne Demas Bliss
This is a very touching story about a girl who always wanted to own a Matryoshka doll. (In case you need an explanation, Matryoshka is a traditional Russian hollow wooden doll that hides more dolls of decreasing size inside of it). When she does get her own Matryoshka, it’s missing the smallest one. But in a providential way, the littlest Matryoshka finds its way back to the girl. The happy ending never fails to bring smiles to our faces.
The Sea King’s Daughter: a Russian Legend, retold by Aaron Shepard
This is another classic Russian story that every Russian knows. Whether Sadko, the main character of the story, was a real person is still being debated. The fact is that there was once a rich merchant by the name of Sadko in Old Russia, and some historians believe he was the basis of the legend.
In a classical Russian legend, the Sea King gives Sadko money to get started in business in return for his promise to perform at the underwater feast. Sadko forgets and pays for it. In this interpretation, the emphasis is on the love between Sadko and the Sea Daughter. I’m not sure I’m completely on board with this twist, but I still enjoyed reading it because I like a good story.
The dreamy watercolor paintings by Russian painter Gennady Spirin make you feel like you’re underwater. I can’t imagine kids under 8 sitting through this complicated love story, but I think parents and older kids would like it very much.
The Magic Nesting Doll, Jacqueline Ogburn
This is a beautifully illustrated book that reverses the traditional Sleeping Beauty fairy tale. In this story Katya, a peasant girl, uses her magic nesting doll (Matryoshka again) to wake the sleeping prince, to break the evil spell, and to bring back the sun. She’s one busy girl! Even though the book resembles a classic tale, it’s a modern author’s original story inspired by Russian folk stories and classical art. We liked this action-packed fairytale and the beautiful illustrations.
Babushka: a Christmas Tale, Dawn Casey
Your kids might be interested to know that exchanging gifts and decorating trees is something Russians do on New Year’s Eve. Christmas day (on January 7th) is the time to get together with your immediate family and eat some borscht. Christmas was banned under communism, so all the festivities were reserved for New Year’s Eve.
When I first came across Babushka: a Christmas Tale, I was shocked. How had this story escaped my knowledge for four decades? Well, it turned out I wasn’t the only one. None of the Russians I asked have ever heard of this story. Nevertheless, it’s a good explanation of Christmas in Russia from a religious standpoint. It’s also a sweet story about kindness and a great reminder that the best thing we can do on Christmas (and any day of the year) is to be kind to each other.
Little Daughter of the Snow, Arthur Ransome
The Snow Maiden, or a little girl made out of the snow (like a snowman), is a huge part of Russian cultural tradition. The Snow Maiden is still part of every winter celebration, and she is the one distributing presents on New Year’s Eve, right next to the Russian Santa Claus, called Ded Moroz (or Grandfather Frost). Also, the snow maiden has been painted virtually by every classic Russian artist (you can see some of the most famous paintings of the Snow Maiden here), and she is the subject of multiple movies, plays, and a famous opera (if you scroll down on the above link, you also will see the evolution of Snow Maiden costumes and appearances over time)
None of my kids liked this story (mostly because the main character dies), but I’m recommending it anyway because I think it’s one of those stories that you should read once for general information. This story takes root in the pagan tradition of making a sacrifice to bring spring about. An old man and an old woman make a snow maiden, and she makes their winter that much more cheerful, but once it starts getting warmer, the snow maiden melts. In each version of the story, the Snow Maiden melts for different reasons. In this one, she melts because the old couple chose greediness over kindness.
If you were a Russian child writing an essay (probably some time in middle school) on the meaning of the story, you would probably write something about the inevitable march of time, the change of seasons, and the fact that the snow maiden has to melt because winter is over. The role of the snow maiden is to brighten up the gloomy time of year. When spring arrives, her time is up.
The Princess of Borscht, Leda Shubert
Ruthie’s grandma is in the hospital, and to make her feel better, Ruthie sets out to cook borscht, a nutritious beetroot soup that cures everything (according to my grandma). The problem is that Ruthie never had made borscht before, and she needs a lot of advice. You can read the book and then cook the soup together. It’s always fun to eat something from far-away lands.
At the Wish of a Fish, J. Patrick Lewis
A lazy Russian simpleton catches a magic fish. What does he do with it? This traditional story is full of fantastic rhymes, metaphorical language, and colorful expressions. If you read just one book from this list, make it this one. I can’t think of a better introduction to the world of Russian folktales.
Annushka Voyage, Edith Tarbescu
In this heartwarming story, two Russian children travel alone across the Atlantic for a chance of a better life in America. What makes this story so touching is that it’s a true story from the author’s family. I love the pen-and-ink, acrylic, and colored pencil illustrations. The first time I read this story, I wept.
Russian Fairy Tales, Alexander Afanasyev
I saved the best one for last. This book is a direct translation of six old Russian fairy tales with the original illustrations by Bilibin, the famous Russian illustrator. What I like about these fairytales is that they aren’t someone’s interpretation of a traditional story, or an attempt to invent a new twist on an old classic. This is a traditional version, as recorded by Russian folklorist Alexander Afanasyev in the 19th century.
Afanasyev was the first person to record and study the folk beliefs of peasant Russia. He published a staggering compilation of more than 600 fairytales and did more than anyone to disseminate Russian culture and folk beliefs. Sadly his second masterpiece Popular Russian Legends was banned by the government for its religious undertones (shh, it mentioned Jesus). I’m even more sad to mention that Afanasyev lived in extreme poverty, selling his library of ancient manuscripts and books in order to eat, and died at 45.
What’s your favorite children’s book about Russia? Do you have any recommendations?
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