NOTE: Among others, Ukrainian refugee kids need books. Wondering how to you send yours? Find out, below.*
This month, we welcome author-illustrator Mariya Prytula to our Member Interview Series. As a self-taught artist working in both picture books and middle grade material, she is illustrator of P.L. Handley’s forthcoming novel, Aran. Among other awards, Mariya won a SCBWI Spark Award Honor for illustration of the picture book Little Moss, Big Tree. Check out Mariya’s website for merchandise adorned with her lively illustrations.
Where did you grow up, and how did that place (or those places) shape your work?
I spent my childhood in Odessa, Ukraine and at age 12 moved to a suburb of Houston, Texas; so I like to say I’m a Southern girl, through and though.
As a kid in Ukraine, I was exposed to amazing historic museums, and art and theater was extremely encouraged in school. While on vacation, I’d rather go to a folk art or natural history museum than play with other kids. Everyone used guache for school projects, started writing with fountain pens in first grade, and used pencils rather than chunkier crayons, so these fostered confidence in materials that people sometimes label as “hard.”
There were a lot of picture books when I was growing up, but not a lot of contemporary middle-grade other than crime mysteries, so I ended up reading those as well as classics, natural healing/witchcraft newspapers (yes, that was a thing in the 90s), and Soviet and Ukrainian sci-fi.
When I arrived in the U.S., I didn’t know much English, but I loooved books. First, Scholastic magazine and bookfair were heaven for me. My one Russian speaking friend loaned me her abridged Lord of the Rings in Russian, which I inhaled. I didn’t know Harry Potter went in order, so I started from the third book, then first, then fourth, then second—often confusing the words for “wand” and “broom.” That made for an interesting read.
Did you always want to be an author-illustrator, or did that come later?
I wanted to be an illustrator back in high school, and have been drawing since I was very young. Some of the first drawings I remember were anatomical drawings of my parents (I was very observant), UFOs, and The Wizard of Oz, which I guess was my first book cover. However, many of my friends’ parents discouraged it and said it wasn’t a career option. I’m glad I got my Bio Pre-Med BS degree and worked with medical devices because it gave me a lot of necessary skills for life and business that an art school wouldn’t have provided, at least a decade ago.
In 2019, I was doing a portfolio review with an art director, and he suggested I try writing. So, I spent a year trying to do that and working on some dummies. Writing for me is a very different process from illustrating. It’s closer to impromptu-acting out all the characters and somehow writing the script at the same time. Versus, when I illustrate, I have to draw the movie that’s already in my head.
If someone were to follow you around for 24 hours, what would they see?
I don’t think I ever have the same 24 hours. The things that stay the same are: my husband, my two border collies, and many cups of tea. I’m an extreme night owl, so going to bed between 2 and 3 a.m. is normal, but as a result I usually wake up late and take my time. Which is nice because by the time I feel less fuzzy, the western windows of my studio are filled with lovely, bright light. I have two desks – one for computer work and another for traditional art. Both are covered with various books, tools and inspirational ephemera.
Please don’t follow me around before 10 a.m. ^_^
How does your everyday life feed your work?
I think my work is primarily fueled by being attentive to people. Especially right now there is a lot of need and heartbreak. By being open to it rather than closed off, it helps direct our energies toward and attract projects that are meaningful and feel worthwhile, even if that is not every project we take on.
My small garden is a big calming source of inspiration for me as well. I love watching how things evolve and grow. It really helps put things in perspective. I could talk about gardening forever.
Tell us about some accomplishments that make you proud.
I don’t think any of them are art related. I’m proud I was able to help multiple families and kids get out of Ukraine. I was able to find long-term hosts through friends of friends for three Ukrainian families in Europe (none of them friends or relatives), offer them emotional and some financial support—and they’re all doing well, all things considered. The first month of war was absolutely nuts—I didn’t go to sleep until 6 a.m. and woke up at 3 p.m. just trying to monitor forums and help people find resources and information, which was changing sometimes every day. I volunteer with Refugee Services of Texas and also support ATX Free Fridge with regular donations and bakes. I’m more proud of helping my fellow humans reach safety, or their potential, than any physical object I will ever create.
There is a quote by a philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer which I absolutely love:
“The work of art is the absolute present for each particular present, and at the same time holds its word in readiness for every future. The intimacy with which the work of art touches us is…a demolition of the familiar. It is not only the ‘This art thou!’…; it also says to us; ‘Thou must alter thy life!’”
If art or our creation process doesn’t get us to change our life and motivate us to get involved in what matters the most, then we must push ourselves and our art further.
What surprises you about the creative life?
That you can’t create in a vacuum—or at least I cannot. We need a safe community where we can bounce our ideas and grow. I also need to have a high volume of work to keep up the day to day momentum.
When a reader discovers your work, what do you hope they find?
That someone really cares for them. Whatever hardship they may have in their life, I want them to know there is someone on the other end who loves them, and hugs them, and bad things will pass. That’s why at the end of Little Moss, Big Tree there is new growth. That was an addition that I fought for, and it hits people in the feels.
*You are originally from Odessa, Ukraine. Can you offer any suggestions for ways that SCBWI members could share their books with recent refugee children?
One of the things I would encourage members to think about is that our city hosts refugees from multiple countries: Ukraine, Afghanistan, Palestine, Syria, Rwanda, Mexico and beyond. Just because there is a new conflict, doesn’t mean that kids who arrived half a year earlier do not still need our help as well. On top of that, one in three kids in Texas do not have any books at home either.
Some places to donate locally would be:
– Refugee Services of Texas (RST), which has a bookshelf in the lobby
– Send them to me —since I give them out with donated toys when I do deliveries for RST. This way, I match the book with the recipient.
– Little Free Libraries in lower income neighborhoods
– If your publisher is in Europe or can ship there, I can help recommend some organizations there. Just let me know the number of books you wish to donate.
– Classrooms!!! Teachers do an absolutely fantastic job supporting refugee children. Some of the schools that have the highest number of refugee kiddos are Travis Heights Elementary and Lively Middle School, so check with them.
Regarding which books are easiest to share at the moment:
– Coloring books, especially floral, landscape, still life or geometric ones, are always appropriate. Craft kits and how-to-draw books are lovely as well. They help avoid phobias and process trauma. If you are donating them, please bundle up with some crayons or colored pencils and a sharpener (Austin Creative Reuse is great for a low cost version.) Avoid markers, which often bleed through or dry out.
– Board books and picture books with a lower word count or even wordless. If parents can read or there is an older kiddo in the family, that’s usually a good mix. Keep in mind that themes should be appropriate for kids who may have witnessed seriously horrific things, lost loved ones, or may never reunite with some of their family members. While I absolutely love The Cat Man of Aleppo and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, let’s wait on those for at least six months.
– PLEASE donate the first two volumes of Front Desk. It is absolutely amazing in capturing the immigrant experience in the U.S., and I cried like a baby through both of them. But while it’s extremely touching for an adult immigrant, it will be a source of strength for the kiddos.
– I would say wait a little while on middle-grade books, other than the one above, or donate those to Little Free Libraries and classrooms—unless they are easy readers with pictures. It takes about a year of ESL for kids with no English to start gravitating towards those.
What’s your favorite mountain?
Oh, that’s a hard one; no fair! I absolutely love mountains.
– I painted in the snow on top of Fred’s Mountain in the Tetons so that is really special.
– Or, maybe it is Mount Edith Cavell in Jasper National Park, with a ridiculous number of marmots and pikas (one of my favourite animals)
– Paradise on Mt. Rainier is unreal
– I also got married on a mountain!
Do you have any group illustrator/watercolor trips planned soon?
I was hoping to this year, but the war in Ukraine took my attention away. Since I like to take a big group of around 10 women and queer folks, and pool our money to cover the food and house as well as any rental cars, it takes about half a year or more in advance to organize.
But, hopefully covid numbers will stay down, things will be stable, and we’ll be able to resume. We’ll probably go to the Smokies again during late spring or early fall and bathe in the waterfalls. Did I mention I love mountains?
The best way to find out about these trips is to follow me on Instagram.
You work in animal rescue and conservation. If you were an endangered species, what would you “say” to the children of today?
“Respect me, respect my home, and respect my friends – we can’t survive without each other, you cannot survive without us, and we are not pets.” I’m a very wordy endangered animal.
I’d also tell them to watch the film “Once Upon a Forest,” the Czech animated series “The Little Mole in the City” (no words), and the film “Boy and the World.” Even though the last one is not about animals, it’s important to have respect for human animals as well.
When I was a toddler, a little boy in the park gifted me the book version of “The Little Mole in the City” along with some flowers, and that sealed my fate.