Megan Swift: Picturing the Page: Illustrated Children’s Literature and Reading Under Lenin and Stalin

University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Canada, 2020, 240 pp., $75.00, Cloth Hardcover, $29.95 Trade Paperback, ISBN: Cloth Hardcover 9781442647152 Trade Paperback 9781442615311

Readers are presented with a fascinating deep-dive into Soviet-era education and childhood in Megan Swift’s recent book, Picturing the Page: Illustrated Children’s Literature and Reading Under Lenin and Stalin. Providing detailed examinations of seven of the most beloved (and sometimes contentious) works of Russian literature, Swift discusses how Russian stories and the illustrations that accompany them impacted not only Soviet-era children and adults, but also how these texts helped to solidify the Russian revolution, the death of the Imperialist era, and the spread of Soviet messaging.

Picturing the Page examines seven major works in Russian literature, which includes both stories written for children and adult stories adapted for a child audience. Swift’s research focuses on works published (or republished) between 1917 and 1953, the years between the Russian Revolution and the leadership of Vladimir Lenin through the end of Joseph Stalin’s regime. The heart of this book and Swift’s research is aptly summed up by L. Kormchii in a 1918 Pravda article: “The children’s book [is] a major weapon for education [which] must receive the widest possible distribution” (p. 14). Swift examines throughout her book how certain works of Russian literature changed over time to help further the Soviet agenda, and she specifically engages with the malleable nature of illustrations as they interact with the fixed text of these Russian favorites. The book aims to discuss the different ways illustrations can function as cultural and political tools by acting both as the “visual articulation of new book art” (p. 5) as well as a way of repurposing past Russian favorites, repositioning these works to appeal to the child reader and connecting them to the cultural and political messages of the time.

Picturing the Page begins with a detailed introduction from Swift explaining the goals of her research and how it fits in with the other literature on the topic. Swift explains that although there are articles and books about Soviet children’s literature, they mostly cover pre-war books, or are chronological overviews of great artists of the time. Picturing the Page differs in its focus on war-time books for the youngest readers, and its focus on just a handful of artists. In Part I, Swift examines two classic Russian fairy tales (The Tale of the Priest and His Worker Balda and The Little Humpbacked Horse) and how their fates changed between pre-Revolutionary times through Stalin’s death. In Part II, Swift takes us through the repurposing of Russian classics, in which we are shown The Bronze Horseman and Anna Karinina. Swift walks us through how The Bronze Horseman has changed over the years to show both fear and control as well as bravery and rebellion. And Anna Karinina was used as a tool to reveal how in the past, women were not given the freedoms they saw in Soviet-era Russia. Finally, in Part III, Swift introduces readers to the interconnectedness of the first- and second-generation Soviet readers and the works they consumed. Swift explains how Let Us Take the New Rifles, Mail, and War-Time Mail were transformed from their original forms as stories for the first Soviet children in the 1920s to instead appeal to the next generation of soviet children in the 1940s.

Swift provides plentiful historical information, making this book not only appealing to lovers of Russian history but also those new to the world of Russian literature and its past. As she discusses in her introduction, Picturing the Page is meant for both the Russian expert as well as the casual scholarly reader (p. 5). The books featured in this study are well-known and loved, and many are still being reproduced to this day, making the discussions familiar and accessible. It is fascinating to dive into the intricacies of illustrations, such as featured colors, positioning of character on the page, and the use of timely cultural references—all pieces that may escape a casual reader’s notice, but ultimately helped to solidify Soviet messaging.

Swift did a masterful job keeping her focus narrow and tackling studies not yet seen in the current research available. However, Swift’s explanations of her methods are a bit sparce. We are not told how many editions of each book Swift examines, or whether they were read in English or Russian (although it is safe to assume they were read in Russian, with the beginning of her research being performed at a the St. Petersburg Public Library in Russia). We are told in the introduction that Picturing the Page is based on her close readings, analysis of book art, and commentary on cultural history (p. 5), but how she performs these analyses is not further defined, making any sort of replication of her study difficult. Additionally, with this book having a heavy emphasis on the use of illustration, the final product did not include as many illustrations—especially colored examples—as one might hope for. Perhaps this is due to publishing constraints, or a lack of reproductions permissions, but having all or most full-color reproductions of the illustrations discussed in detail in the book would help the reader to more effectively visualize what Swift is attempting to demonstrate in her study. Illustrations or not, however, Swift has created an intriguing masterpiece that will be an enjoyable read to anyone interested in children’s literature’s impact on society, Russian or otherwise.

Megan Swift is an associate professor of Russian Studies at the University of Victoria. Swift earned her PhD from the University of Toronto in 2002, becoming a specialist in Russian literature, art, and culture. Swift has published many articles centered around Russian and Slavic literature, and she was co-editor of a collection of essays titled We’re from Jazz: Festschrift in Honour of Nicholas V. Galichenko, bringing together commentaries on Russian literature, film, music, and more. Swift’s work with Russian literature also led to the creation of the bi-annual Teaching Russian Conference.

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Correspondence to Jennifer Ladwig.

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Ladwig, J. Megan Swift: Picturing the Page: Illustrated Children’s Literature and Reading Under Lenin and Stalin. Pub Res Q (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12109-021-09788-8

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