‘My mum’s books survived Putin’s missiles’: defiance after blast destroys Kherson children’s library

There it is, on a wintry morning: charred masonry, gnarled metal, glass shards, rubble and dust.

Yet another ravaged building in Ukraine: each has its own story, and this violation is against Kherson’s regional library for children, a place of effervescent creativity with a wonderful collection, named Dnipro Seagull library, after the birds that soar over the city’s mighty river – a symbol of the region.

Atop the stairs, there was a beautiful stained-glass panel featuring a seagull on the wing. Founded in 1924, the library was due to celebrate its centennial next year.

The seagull glass is now shattered, after the precision hit by two Russian artillery shells late last month. The streets around the library are empty of people and cars; the sky is grey. In Kherson, even the silence is terrifying.

Library director Olha Kryzhanivska’s greeting is weary, but fired with a will to reclaim this haven and save its collection. “It seems we should be used to it,” she sighs. “The city is under attack every day. We have already repaired the windows after another shrapnel hit.

“Decades of our lives are connected with this institution, and when every corner is dear to you, it hurts – it really, really hurts. It was a terrible shock. One good thing was that the attack didn’t harm anyone, because it occurred in early morning.

“But looking at all these mangled objects, at what used to be part of the prosperous life of our irrepressibly creative library, I can hardly contain myself. But I know that we now have to save what can be saved, by all means.”

In March, my sister Clara, brother Tom and I sent a consignment of more than 550 books by my late mother, the author and illustrator Shirley Hughes, to Ukraine – a quotient of them was hallmarked for the Kherson children’s library.

“In our section of international publications,” says Kryzhanivska, “the contribution by Ed’s family is very significant – the largest collection of publications by a single foreign author.”

Before the books arrived, I visited the library, in a city under relentless bombardment then as now, to be graciously shown round the classical music reference library, the fine art section, “pet magazine” shelves, “Code Club” digital responsibility sessions and more, including the local history learning room. The Kherson region released a picture of that room last week: the wall map shattered by shelling, breakage everywhere.

The shell struck at 5am on 24 November, assailing the facade. “On one hand,” reflects Kryzhanivska, “it makes no sense to repair, because there is shelling every day. On the other, something must be done with the roof, otherwise everything will be drenched. Still, repair is a risk to the workers’ lives, so it’s a difficult situation.” She cites a terrible dictum circulating the city: “There’s a principle in Kherson – if a missile has landed once, it will land several times again.”

Ukraine has a uniquely impressive and committed children’s library network, led and coordinated from the National Library of Ukraine for Children, based in Kyiv. The director general, Alla Gordiienko, reacted to the outrage in Kherson: “What can be as safe, exciting and magical as a house filled with children’s laughter and books? But not for our enemy, who wants to destroy us as a nation and all our historical memory, destroying our children’s terrain, our libraries for children.”

The Kherson library, says Gordiienko, “is one of the most special in our country – beautiful collections, wonderful stained-glass windows, highly qualified staff. But today, the children of the Kherson region do not have their own children’s space, just as the staff do not have their workplace.

“Next 1 February, we were preparing to celebrate the centenary of this unique library. Instead, we will definitely celebrate it after our victory.”

Related: Shirley Hughes remembered: ‘Everything she shone her attention on turned to gold’

The Kherson library cites its top priority now as being to “ensure the safety of the collections and property through evacuation”. Kryzhanivska adds: “We are trying to save property with our own efforts, counting on help to remove everything and develop an evacuation plan.”

What of my mother’s books – I had to ask? The initial report by Oleksandr Prokudin, head of Kherson’s regional military administration, was ominous: “Barbarians destroyed the Kherson book collection, which for years delighted the youngest visitors and their parents,” he said.

But staff braved the rubble to find that many books had survived. This poetic missive arrived from Gordiienko: “In spring 2023, we were delighted to replenish the children’s libraries of Ukraine with magical books by the author and illustrator Shirley Hughes. A miracle, because Ukrainian children have never read such a kind and wonderful storyteller. Books we passed to the Kherson library have been preserved – it’s as though God and Shirley Hughes’s ghost rescued them from the afterlife.”

A number of books were indeed destroyed, but only those close to the windows, says Kryzhanivska: “So far, our copies of Shirley Hughes are unharmed.” It seems that Mum’s best-loved character, Dogger, has survived not only loss by his owner, Dave, and being put up for sale at a school fete – but also Vladimir Putin’s rockets.

The attack on the children’s library is but one latest instance in Russia’s assault on Ukrainian culture in general, and what might be called “librocide” in particular. Shortly before the attack on the Dnipro Seagull library, another in Kherson, the larger adult Universal Scientific Library, was also targeted, hit and badly damaged.

The Ukrainian section of the international writers’ organisation PEN is especially active, monitoring attacks such as these carefully. Teams of volunteers have mobilised as part of a campaign called Unbreakable Ukrainian Libraries, which has so far delivered 13,000 books to damaged libraries.

PEN Ukraine’s director, the philosopher and essayist Volodymyr Yermolenko, says in response to this latest attack in Kherson: “This is indeed a librocide, – a new type of ‘-cide’ which Russia tries to add to the genocide that it has directed for so long against the Ukrainian people.

“With PEN Ukraine, we travel a lot to frontline areas. We were in destroyed libraries in numerous villages and towns, and it is painful to see all these books either burned or lying under stone and dust. Imagine: more than 500 libraries have been destroyed or damaged by the Russians during the full-scale invasion. Over 500!”“The library must return home,” reads last week’s report from Dnipro Seagull library in Kherson. “We are already dreaming of reviving the favourite place of little Kherson residents – and we will need help from everyone who can provide it.”

“All I know that when we win,” adds Kryzhanivska, “we will have the strength and ability to restore not only the premises but also the very spirit of our library.”