The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Anna Desnitskaya + Review of On the Edge of the World
Anna Desnitskaya graduated from the Moscow State University of Printing Arts and has been working as a children’s book illustrator, with a predilection for non-fiction, ever since.
Anna is inspired by daily life itself, with all its complexity and diversity, which she conveys in the books she illustrates. She combines manual and digital techniques which help her to create large, detailed compositions. Her works have received awards and recognition including The Original Art 2023, The Society of Illustrators; the 2022 and 2019 AOI World Illustration Award; the 2019 Bologna Children’s Book Fair Illustrators Exhibition; and the 2017 Bratislava Biennale. Anna was Russia’s nominee for the 2018 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, the world's largest award for children's literature.
Amid the turmoil in Russia in 2022, Anna and her family made the decision to leave their longtime home of Moscow. After several months in Israel, they now live in Montenegro.
She’s the illustrator of Around the World in 24 Farmers’ Markets by Maria Bakhareva (2021), translated by Alexandra Litvina (2020), Gina From Siberia by Jane Bernstein and Charlotte Glynn (2018), The Apartment: A Century of Russian History by Alexandra Litvina, translated by Antonina W. Bouis (2016), and The History of Transport by Alexandra Litvina (2015).
Her author/illustrator debut picture book, On the Edge of the World, released on September 26th.
Welcome Anna, thank you so much for stopping by to talk about your newest picture book and your writing.
Tell us a little about yourself. (such as - Where/when do you write and illustrate? How long have you been writing and illustrating? What is your favorite type of book to write and/or illustrate?)
I have been working as an illustrator for over ten years since my diploma project, the book Two Trams, was published by Samokat in 2012. During this time, I have balanced my work as an illustrator with motherhood. I have three children: my eldest, Boris, is 11 years old, and my youngest, Sasha, is almost 3. Therefore, I usually work in short bursts for a few hours during the day, and I enjoy it. I can concentrate well for a few hours and work properly while the children are at school, or when the youngest is napping, or when she's watching Peppa Pig. 😊
For a long time, I worked only on complex non-fiction books, such as The Apartment: A Century of Russian History, and I loved it. But in 2021, I decided to try creating a fiction book about two children living on opposite sides of the world, and that's how the book On the Edge of the World was born. Now I create books as an author as well.
It is so great to meet you and learn about your journey. What do you like to do outside by yourself or with family or friends?
Right now, we live in Montenegro, and I love going to the beach with my family, watching my children play in the sea, and having coffee. I also enjoy going on short hikes in the mountains with my older children.
Honestly, that sounds like heaven. What was the inspiration or your spark of interest for On the Edge of the World?
One day, I saw an article online titled "On the Edge of the World." It was about small wooden towns in northern Russia, and it was illustrated by photographs from a drone: a few houses and a wooden church in the middle of nowhere. I thought, "Wow, what an interesting theme for a book!" Initially, I wanted to create a non-fiction book about various small provincial places around the world, but then the idea of two children sending signals to each other from opposite ends of the earth emerged, and I realized it would be an entirely different book.
I love that it is also a flip book, with the two kid's signals passing in the center. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or your favorite book as a child?
In my childhood, I adored The Chronicles of Narnia and all sorts of books about Native Americans, from Seton-Thompson to Fenimore Cooper. The first Harry Potter book came out when I was already a teenager, but it's also very important to me. Together with my friends, we eagerly anticipated each new book, stood in long queues at bookstores, and read the entire book in one night.
Both are great series. What was the hardest part of writing and/or illustrating On the Edge of the World? Was one harder than the other? And what was the most fun?
The most challenging part was writing the text. It was my first experience as an author, and I was concerned about it becoming overly wordy. Although the text was quite small, I read it over and over, removing unnecessary parts, as if I were peeling away layers until it became what it needed to be. The most enjoyable part was creating the quiet spreads in the middle!
They are phenomenal! How long did it take you to come up with the format of a flip book and the morse code connection?
As soon as I realized that this book should be about two children on opposite sides of the world, I immediately envisioned it as a two-sided book. I knew that one side of the book should contain a Morse code signal.
I love that one end paper has Morse code and the other has a map with their locations and distance across the Pacific Ocean. How long did it take from the first draft or doodle to publication for On the Edge of the World?
It took quite a while! I made the first sketches in the summer of 2021, but I didn't finish the book until the summer of 2022, a year later. It would have been quicker, but the war started, and we left Russia, settling in a new place, which significantly slowed down the process.
I can only imagine. Many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in On the Edge of the World? Could you share one or more with us? Do you have a favorite spread or one you are especially proud of?
Text & Image © Anna Desnitskaya, 2023.
Certainly! For example, Vera's dog, Muha, is actually my own dog. My mother taught me how to create "secrets" when I was a child, and the most precious items of Vera and Lucas are, in reality, my son Boris's most cherished possessions. My favorite spread is the one where Lucas is having cocoa on the porch of his home in the morning. I believe I captured the feeling of a cool spring morning exceptionally well.
I think so, too. Thank you for sharing these special treasures with us. Is there something you want your readers to know about On the Edge of the World?
I would like to convey that it was essential for me to illustrate everything as convincingly and truthfully as possible, even though I had never been to Kamchatka or Chile. To make the illustrations believable, I corresponded extensively with my friends in Chile and Kamchatka, asking them to send me photos and showing them the finished illustrations. It was challenging to find out how a house in Chile should look, and my friend from Santiago sent me a link to a website where people advertised their homes for sale. It was a real treasure! There were so many valuable details and wonderful photographs that I used as references!
That's interesting. The illustrations are so full of little touches and nuances. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I'm currently working on two projects simultaneously: a small book called The Fort, in which I'm also the author (It's about two friends building a fortress in an empty meadow), and a larger non-fiction book about bread with Maria Bakharova. We previously collaborated on a book about farmer's markets around the world, and this one will be something like a sequel.
They both sound interesting. We'll have to keep our eyes open for them! What is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park (anywhere in the world)? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?
I loved Bauman Garden in Moscow. It was a tiny but incredibly cozy park near my home. There were giant oak trees, an ancient grotto, wonderful playgrounds, and a winter ice rink. I dream of visiting Central Park in New York.
Hopefully, one day, you'll get to see Central Park.
Thank you, Anna, for stopping by and sharing with us. It was wonderful to chat with you.
To find out more about Anna Desnitskaya, or contact her:
Review of On the Edge of the World
This is a stunning author/illustrator debut picture book with an interesting format (a flip book) which explores, in a light-handed and whimsical way, the interconnectedness and similarity that we all share.
On the Edge of the World
Author: Anna Desnitskaya
Translator: Lena Traer
Illustration: Anna Desnitskaya
Publisher: Eerdmans Book For Young Readers (2023)
Loneliness, isolation, family, morse code, friendship, and connection.
A uniquely formatted book about dreams, loneliness, and the universal longing for connection.
Vera and her family live on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, a place that feels like the edge of the world itself. Lucas and his family also say they live on the edge of the world, but their home is thousands of miles away on the coast of Chile. Vera spends her days devouring fantasy books, throwing balls to her dog, and longing for a friend who would care about the treasures she’s hidden underneath the alder bush. Lucas spends his days looking for fossils, playing solo games of soccer, and wishing for a friend who would read with him on the best branch of his favorite tree. One evening, both Lucas and Vera head to the beach, blink their flashlights into the dark—and discover that the edge of the world is not such a lonely place after all.
In this playful, perceptive book, acclaimed author-illustrator Anna Desnitskaya shares the mirroring lives of two children in two separate but surprisingly similar settings. As readers flip the book between Vera in Russia and Lucas in Chile, they will learn just how big—and how small—a place the world can be.
Side One -
Hi, I’m Vera. I live on the eastern coast of the Kamchatka
Peninsula in Russia. There’s only the Pacific Ocean to the east of
us. My mom says that we’re on the real edge of the world.
When I was little, I asked her, “Mom, what does that mean—
the edge of the world? What’s out there, beyond the edge?”
She laughed and said that “the edge of the world” was just an
expression, because the Earth is actually round like a ball. And if
you left from our edge of the world—Kamchatka—and sailed across
the Pacific Ocean for a long, long time, you’d eventually reach
another country, somewhere like Chile.
Side Two (or flipped) -
Hi, I’m Lucas, and I live in Chile. We used to live in Santiago,
the capital. When my father changed jobs, we moved to a small
town on the coast.
On Saturdays we call my grandmother, and every time she seems
upset, grumbling, “Look where you are! It’s the real edge of
the world!” When Grandma first said this, my younger sisters got
scared: “What do you mean—the edge of the world? Is there
really nothing there, beyond the ocean? Does it just flow off
the edge of the Earth into space?” I laughed at them, “No, silly,
everyone knows that’s just an expression. The Earth is round
like a ball and has no edges. If you sailed from our home across
the Pacific Ocean for a long, long time, you’d eventually reach
Australia or China or Russia. That’s all.”
What I LOVED about the book:
As I was putting this together, I remembered my grandfather saying things were "two sides of the same coin." As with any 'coin' the images are not the same, but both related. Here while the location and family structure are different, both Vera (Russia) and Lucas (Chile) live "on the edge of the world," wondering about what's on the other side (or edge) across the Pacific Ocean. I love all the information about animals and the two countries which Anna manages to offer in these "opening" images.
Text & Image © Anna Desnitskaya, 2023.
There is lots to love about this book, some of which you might only find in a subsequent reading. Using the same format, Anna shows us the people special to them, what they dream of becoming, and the most valuable things for Vera (feather collection, flashlight, bird skull, favorite book & food) and then for Lucas (ammonite fossils, soccer ball, flashlight, favorite book & food). And importantly, each of them has learned Morse code!
Both Vera and Lucas express a loneliness and a deep desire for a real friend, though neither holds much hope of finding a friend at school. As they go through their day, we learn a little about their houses, families, and routines. They both have a pet, involved, well-meaning grandmothers, and they both enjoy playing computer games. I love the way Anna includes a yellow outlined figure of the other child (complete with Vera's overalls and Lucas's stripped shirt), participating in the day with them. Until that point, the only yellow in the illustrations appeared on the title page(s) as the beam from their flashlights; so, this important connection really stands out.
Text & Image © Anna Desnitskaya, 2023.
Besides each living in remote areas, there are a lot of deftly woven interconnections between Vera and Luca in the text and illustrations. Regardless of whether you start with Vera's story or you start with Lucas's, you'll find a number of subtle foreshadowings. I really like Anna's use of color and loose shape. Both of these tree scenes feel like magical, special places detached from the world.
That evening, they both go to the beach and, as the pinky glow of the setting sun plays off clouds and across the ocean, send out a morse code message - "Hi, I'm Lucas. / Hi, I'm Vera." And against all odds and the laws of physics, they each see the other's signal. The "ending" of each story, or the center of the book, contains three stunning and magical wordless spreads. The book does an amazing job showing that no matter how far away or remote you live, we are all very similar and like many of the same things. This is such a fun format and a beautiful, heartfelt tale of loneliness and yearning, with a whimsical touch of connection.
- make a morse code bracelet for yourself, family, and/or friend.
- draw a picture of yourself doing a favorite activity with an absent or imaginary friend. Or write a story about your favorite activity and describe what this absent or imaginary friend would look like.
- do you think the friend that Vera and Lucas each spend their day with arrived before or after they received their morse code reply messages? Was that moment the start of a friendship or just a moment of connection?
- check out this video from the Pikes Peak Library District on Morse code. And then try sending messages to a family member or friend.