by Melissa Bialecki
On March 30th, a particularly rainy Saturday, children and adults of all ages gathered in the iHotel and Conference Center to explore literature as part of a Community Day Celebration. The event hosted a wide variety of authors who came to talk about their works, answer questions, and sign books for young readers. REEEC was excited to bring in graphic novelist, Julia Alekseyeva, whose Soviet Daughter: A Graphic Revolution tells the story of life in the Soviet Union through the eyes of her great-grandmother.
In Alekseyeva’s talk, she described how she came across her great-grandmother’s memoirs, and how reading them inspired her to turn those memoirs into a graphic novel that immersed the reader in the Soviet experience. The resulting work illustrates moments in Soviet history through the eyes of a brave, Soviet Jewish woman. What most fascinates me about this comic is the author’s approach to tackling concepts of truth and memory in history. Alekseyeva pointed out in her talk that her goal was not to offer a factually accurate historical account of Soviet life, but to explore moments in history in a way that was true to her grandmother’s memory. The author eschewed fact-checking in favor of exploring the Soviet Union as it was remembered in her ancestor’s diaries. Layered into this narrative are mini-chapters set in the present day, which illustrate the author looking back on her grandmother’s life, thus creating a comparison between the Soviet Jewish experience outlined in her grandmother’s memoirs, and the American Jewish experience looking back on those memories from across space and time.
Memory is also emphasized through artistic style and method. Alekseyeva expressed that she wanted each image in the book to feel like an old photograph, something fragile and fading. This look was accomplished through inkwash, a method that utilized only ink and water to create a fuzzy, faded effect that mimics the sepia-toned look of an old photograph. The author also immersed herself in a wide variety of media from the periods described in the book—film, music, literature, etc.—in order to get a sense of life in each period, and to recreate that atmosphere in her comic. Alekseyeva’s graphic novel offers young readers (roughly of middle school age) a unique way to engage in Soviet history with this beautifully illustrated graphic novel.
In addition to Alekseyeva’s talk, the festival hosted a number of literature-themed activities and crafts for participants. I had a wonderful time helping festival-goers make firebird masks at the REEEC table, while other tables had supplies to design your own bookmark, or have your picture drawn by a caricature artist. There was also live music by groups such as the Papashoy Klezmer Band and the Edison Middle School Jazz band, and even a Punch and Judy puppet show! What I loved most about volunteering at this event was seeing so many young people engaging enthusiastically with literature. I saw young readers asking authors questions about the writing and publishing process, and just generally being excited about writing and reading books. The Youth Literature festival was a wonderful way for families to spend their Saturday afternoon learning about, engaging with, and just generally geeking out about literature of all kinds.
Melissa Bialecki is a PhD student of ethnomusicology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is interested in how affective musical performance shapes political thought on the Ukrainian conflict and Russian-Ukrainian relations. Her research focuses primarily on the Ukrainian folk revival as well as ethno-punk and pop bands in Ukraine and the North American diaspora. She is a Foreign Language and Area Studies fellow through the Russian, Eastern European, and Eurasian Center at the University of Illinois, and will receive a Title VIII fellowship from Arizona State University to study Ukrainian in Kyiv this summer.