Calgary book publisher reprinting a classic Ukrainian Canadian children's book to raise funds for Ukraine

First printed in the 1930s, the Canadian book features stories from Ukrainian culture. Available on March 31, proceeds from book sales will go to the Canada-Ukraine Foundation, which is offering aid to displaced Ukrainians.

The Little Book was widely read in the Prairies by Ukrainian Canadian families

The Little Book: Story Reader for a Free Ukraine was originally published in the 1930s (Durvile Publications)

Calgary-based independent press Durvile Publications is reprinting The Little Book: Story Reader for a Free Ukraine, a Ukrainian anthology of poems and stories, to raise funds for the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine.

When Lorene Shyba, publisher of Durvile Publications, was growing up, she remembers her grandmother reading to her from a small book of Ukrainian stories and phrases. To this day, she recalls the charming illustrations vividly: pictures of little girls with ducks and geese, and small boys with horses and toy trains.

Decades later, Shyba's press is reprinting The Little Book, with all proceeds going to the Canada-Ukraine Foundation, a Canadian charity offering humanitarian aid to Ukrainians who have been displaced from their homes during the current Russia-Ukraine crisis. 

Lorene Shyba is the publisher of Calgary-based Durvile Publications. (Durvile Publications)

The Little Book was published in the 1940s as a children's language reader for the Ukrainian-Canadian diaspora in the Prairie provinces. The small reader contained letters of the Ukrainian alphabet and finely detailed ink illustrations, as well as parables and poems by legendary Ukrainian writer Taras Shevchenko. 

Durvile's reissue, which will be released March 31, features translation by Magda Stroinska, a professor of linguistics and languages at McMaster University.

Shyba, whose family stems from Ukrainian pioneer families that came to Alberta at the turn of the 20th century, was inspired to release a translated edition of The Little Book after spending the last several years working with Dene elder Raymond Yakeleya to develop a series of Indigenous language books using the same method of translation in order to preserve languages at risk of being lost.

"It occurred to Raymond and me that it would be an excellent opportunity to bring hope and pride to the Ukrainian-Canadian diaspora and, most importantly, find a heartfelt way to raise money to donate to the Ukrainian humanitarian cause," Shyba told CBC Books, adding that Durvile hopes to raise around $10,000 through sales of the book.

"It was essential that an English translation be included because otherwise 99.9 per cent of the Canadian population would not have a clue how to read or sound out the Ukrainian Cyrillic characters," she explained. "In the first pages of the book, there is a guide to pronunciation for the Cyrillic." 

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Durvile worked with a version of The Little Book that was printed in Winnipeg in 1940, though Shyba believes the initial printing may have been as early as 1932. While she and Stroniska made efforts to find links to the families of the late original author, Mykola Matwijszuk, and illustrator, O. Kureles, they came up empty — but hope those connected to the creators might come forward when they learn of the reprint.

Translator Magda Stroinska, a professor of linguistics and languages at McMaster University. (Submitted by Durvile Publications)

The book, which Durvile has labelled a "Special Humanitarian Edition," offers a glimpse into Ukrainian culture through lessons, stories and poetry — including verse by Shevchenko, a 19th century writer, artist and political figure who is considered to be the founder of modern Ukrainian literature. One of his poems — which expresses "the sincerity of his love for his homeland," Shyba said — closes out the final page of The Little Book.

"The stories are instilled with cultural values, too — values of caring for the homeland, caring for farm animals and loving family," Shyba said.

She recalled how her cousin, a musician in Chernivtsi, Ukraine, who also helped with the translation, remembered his grandparents telling him some of the stories and poems from the book many years ago — echoing Shyba's reflections on reading them with her own grandmother.

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Shyba hopes the language lessons and stories, which she noted are suitable for children from kindergarten level all the way to Grade 9, will resonate with young readers and their parents at a time when the world is watching the impact of the invasion on Ukraine.

"We cannot help but think the original author and editors would be proud to be part of our plans to donate our publisher proceeds to help the Ukrainian people," she said.

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