Interview with Linda Elovitz Marshall, Author of Brave Volodymyr
I first got to know Linda Elovitz Marshall and her work through a four-person critique group in Albany, New York, to which we both belonged for many years (before I moved to New York City). All four of us were members of the SCBWI Eastern NY Chapter, which is where we first met. At the beginning, Linda was writing picture books and humorous middle grade novels, and had yet to be published in spite of her already large body of work. Since then, however, she has gone on to publish almost two dozen picture books — fiction, nonfiction, and biographies. Among her best known works are The Polio Pioneer: Dr. Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccine, a Sydney Taylor Notable Book; Measuring a Year: A Rosh Hashanah Story; and most recently Bob Marshall: Defender of the Wilderness (no relation), for which she is currently on book tour. Her next picture book biography, Brave Volodymyr: The Story of Volodymyr Zelensky and the Fight for Ukraine, illustrated by Ukrainian artist Grasya Oliyko, is due out from Quill Tree/HarperCollins on October 3, 2023. In just over a week, readers young and old will be able to read this moving story of the Ukrainian president who refused to surrender his country to Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. In the book we learn about the history of Ukraine before and after the country’s independence through the life of its first Jewish president. Linda has offered an inspiring story of the power of truth, humor, and courage in the face of bullying and cruelty on the largest scale.
Lyn: When I took a class in writing picture book biographies, I learned of the importance of a personal connection between the writer and the subject. I know you connected with Volodymyr Zelensky through your common Ukrainian Jewish heritage. What were some of the other connections between you and him that readers may not expect?
Linda: Excellent question. Thank you, Lyn! I totally agree about the writer’s need to find a personal connection with the subject of any biography. For me, that personal connection makes that person become more real, more understandable, more relatable.
My initial personal connection with President Volodymyr Zelensky is that both of our families are Jewish and live (or once lived) in Ukraine.
The second is that I was working on another project – researching the place in Ukraine where my family once lived (I was watching YouTube videos about it, delving into its history) – when, suddenly, Russia invaded Ukraine.
The third connection is that I’d been in Prague in August 1969 – on the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia (now Czechia) – when Russian tanks again took over the streets. I was in a crowd, pushed against buildings, terrified. I had no place to hide. I had no way (as did my European friends) to hop a train home for shelter. One friend of mine – a medical student from Italy – took a photo of the tanks and was promptly arrested and hauled off. Furthermore, I could not speak the language. Somehow, I ducked away, found a phone booth, and called a Czech acquaintance. He met me, escorted me to his mother’s apartment, fed and sheltered me until it was safe for me to leave. They were very kind, very understanding.
So when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, I had a feeling of déjà vu or, perhaps, it was PTSD. All I knew was that I had to do something. And because I’m a writer, that something was to write.
The fourth connection is with Zelensky’s emphasis on the importance of truth. He credits his parents with giving him this characteristic. In a 2018 interview, cited in an article in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (March 1, 2022) written by Philissa Cramer entitled “18 things to know about Volodymyr Zelensky, showman, ‘Paddington’ voice and Jewish defender of Ukrainian democracy,” Zelensky states “I always react painfully to lies…This is the main feature that my parents gave me.” I completely connect here. I, too, find lies – no matter how small – intolerable.
That personal connection gives Brave Volodymyr: The Story of Volodymyr Zelensky and the Fight for Ukraineits through-line: that freedom is a fragile thing, it must be cherished, it must be protected, and freedom depends on truth.
How did you research this book? What sources were most valuable in learning about the life of President Zelensky?
Everything about the war was so new when I started writing what eventually became Brave Volodymyr. Russia had just invaded Ukraine. As I said above, I wrote because I wanted to do something to help…and I felt as if I were there – in Ukraine. I searched newspaper articles, magazines, anything and everything I could find. I discussed my work with others.
Most importantly, I sought out experts.
Ultimately, I contacted with someone I knew from New York City, someone who I thought had a background in Russian affairs or Ukrainian or…something…actually, I couldn’t quite remember what her background was, but I thought it had something to do with that part of the world. I told her what I was working on and said that I needed an expert reader. I asked if she knew anyone who might be able to fact-check my work.
She read my manuscript, offered some suggestions, then told me more about her background. Among other things, she was the Special Assistant to President Bill Clinton for Russia, Ukraine, and the Eurasian States at the National Security Council, worked in the U.S. State Department for several years, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Her name is Toby T. Gati and she has been an amazing source of knowledge and help. She has also become a friend. I am deeply appreciative of Toby and am thankful for her help, her guidance, her caring and her wisdom.
Let’s talk about this book’s journey to publication. Was it difficult to convince a publisher to take on this subject for young readers? How did you address any concerns that editors may have had?
I discussed my interest in the proposed project early on with my agent, Christa Heschke and Daniele Hunter of McIntosh & Otis. They understood its importance and encouraged me to pursue it.
I also discussed the proposed project with an editor who was skeptical because of her concern that “we don’t yet know how the story will end.” I said I’d figure it out…and I did.
And when, at last, the manuscript was finished, polished and sent out for submission, it received offers almost immediately.
Brave Volodymyr: The Story of Volodymyr Zelensky and the Fight for Ukraine is an important story, one that needs to be told.
What were some of the other major challenges of writing and revising this biography? How did you and your editor resolve them?
There are things that may be difficult to explain to American readers, such as the distinction between Russia and The Soviet Union as well as the intricacies of history. For example, while Jews have lived in Ukraine for over a thousand years, Ukraine has also been the locale of horrific anti-Jewish pogroms. Yet during World War II, Volodymyr’s grandfather fought – alongside Russians and Americans – to defeat the Nazis. That, like many other things, had to be explained, but not over-simplified. For these and other issues, Toby was a great help.
I love the details illustrator Grasya Oliyko added to the story, from Volodymyr’s green bicycle and sweater (“Zelensky” means “green” in Ukrainian) to images based on other Kvartal 95 comedians, Elena Kravets and Yevgeniy Koshevoy. What was it like working with her?
Working with Grasya Oliyko, a Ukrainian artist in Ukraine, was terrific. Grasya shared her deep, personal understanding of exactly what was happening. Through our amazing editor, Karin Chaplin at HarperCollins, Grasya made suggestions to help clarify things for me. In turn, I made suggestions to help clarify for her how American readers might see things. Together, we’ve created a beautiful, powerful book.
What are you working on next?
Right now, I’m working on another picture book biography that’s done (but not yet “announced”), two STEM projects, a chapter book, and a middle grade novel that’s forever been a work-in-progress. I like to have several different projects going at the same time, each in a different stage of development. I keep an idea file and, one-by-one, try to tackle those ideas. I’m also working on a board book. And I’m constantly adding to that idea file. Today, for example, I added three new project possibilities.
Thank you for this interview! I’m looking forward to all your new projects!
Thank you so much, Lyn, for helping to get the word out about Brave Volodymyr: The Story of Volodymyr Zelensky and the Fight for Ukraine. I really appreciate it. It’s an important book for everyone, from ages 6 to adult.