A Year Without Mom by Dasha Tolstikova (October, 2015).
Kind of a middle grade graphic novel, A Year Without Mom tells the story of Dasha’s 12th year in Moscow, the year her mother leaves for America to attend school. If you loved Jane, the Fox and Me, I think you’ll love this book too.
It’s one girl’s growing up, with specificity of characters and moments and friends and feelings. Swan Lake on the television during political unrest. A trio of friends and the worries of feeling left out. School. Slights. Worries. Insecurities. Spurts of joy. New discoveries. Cold, cold Russian winter. Dasha’s crushes: Petya who’s the coolest ever as well as the nice guy who’s always there in art class, Maxim.
The whole book so beautifully captures the pre-teen and early teenage years, moreso perhaps because of the absence of Dasha’s regular caregiver. Every event is infused with the swings and sways of adolescence.
But it all adds up to something wonderful to read and behold. Something true about childhood and change and resiliency. About how the way we grow up shapes us even as we have no idea we’re being shaped. About how children need an anchor, like a mother, in the midst of the turmoil and mundaneness of everyday life at school. About how our stories are our own.
The book begins and ends in two entirely different places, but with the same girl, with the same name, with the same pink cheeks. That girl’s going to be okay.
This Picture Book Life: Can you tell us about how you’d classify this book in terms of memoir or fiction or combination of both?
Dasha Tolstikova: I was actually just asked today by the Swedish publisher of AYWM (what?! A Swedish publisher? I know! I am so excited!) whether I would mind if they refer to the book as a graphic memoir – which I think is very interesting. But really it’s a combination of both memoir and fiction – real life events and situations are a jumping off point – my mom DID go to America to study, I DID stay with my grandparents, I DO have best friends named Masha and Natasha – but there are also some places where things are exaggerated to move the plot forward.
TPBL: When did you have the idea and how did that turn into a graphic novel/lengthy picture book for Groundwood?
DT: The book started out as a graduate thesis project while I was at the School of Visual Arts. I had come across another Groundwood book actually, called Harvey, and became obsessed with it and its format – a picture book novel about a boy who comes home to find out that his father has died – and wanted to immediately make a book like it. It felt right to base it on a story that happened to me. I knew that I wanted it to be for older kids – so a story that happened when I was twelve seemed appropriate.
And I also knew from the beginning that I wanted it to be a long book. My first dummy was 212 pages and I had thought I would be able to finish the whole book in six months for our graduate show (hahahaha) – but then only completed the first chapter.
Sheila Barry, the wonderful Groundwood publisher, found my work online about a year after I graduated and thought it might be the right fit for them – obviously I was thrilled – I had felt (hoped?) like I was making it for Groundwood all along. And it was incredible to have someone in my corner while I DID finish the whole thing – it took two years – I scrapped everything I had done at school and started the art from scratch.
TPBL:The illustrations in A Year Without Mom are fantastic. This may sounds simplistic, but I love the variation in pages. You use white space, then a spread filled up with gray. You vary your composition to great effect so that we’re kind of zooming in and out with different page turns, seeing details then people then settings. Can you talk about your process and vision with illustrating a lengthier book like this?
DT: Thank you so much!
I really wanted every illustration to be emotionally meaningful, but also to be coherent and to move the story along – so I spent a lot of time thinking about individual compositions, but also about the flow of the book as a whole. I made a lot of really haphazard dummies and also these crazy diagrams – almost like shot lists for a movie.
TPBL: What’s your medium and who are some of your influences?
DT: I draw with a mechanical pencil and use sumi ink washes on Arches Hot Press watercolor paper. For this book all the color was added digitally.
Some of my illustration influences are: Anne Herbauts, Beatrice Allemagna, Laura Carlin, Marc Simont, The Provensens, Zach O’Hora, Isabelle Arsenault, Hadley Hooper, David Roberts, Tomi Ungerer, Carson Ellis – I can keep going for a long time…but then there are also fine artists and novels that I read and movies and everything around me all the time.
TPBL: How much American popular culture was part of your growing up in Moscow and what was your relationship to it?
My friends and I were actually pretty snobby about American pop culture when we were growing up – and I wasn’t super excited to move to the States – but I don’t even know what we were basing our opinions on – it’s not like we had a lot of exposure to it – we did read a lot of classics (Dickens and whatnot) and there was a sort of cult of England when I was growing up – so maybe America seemed in opposition of that somehow? But also maybe we were just bratty children.
But then there were American movies – which we LOVED – they screened a lot of old movies in movie theaters and we went frequently. After I moved away Masha continued to go on her own and eventually studied to be a director of photography in Paris.
They did broadcast soap operas and I got really into Santa Barbara as a child – when I moved to the States I was SO EXCITED to find it on TV – except of course the episodes they were showing in Russia were from much earlier seasons and none of my favorite characters were even on anymore.
TPBL: I assume you were 12 or so years old during the coup against Gorbachev. Did life change after that?
DT: You know, it did – but this is actually where the book is really true – that first year after the coup was a pretty selfish year for me – navigating life with my mom in America and growing up – I remember the personal stories a lot better – and I did move to the States in 1992 – I think things got even crazier politically after that – my former classmates have some intense stories of what life was like in the 90s – but I wasn’t there anymore…
TPBL: Can you tell us what happened after the book ends in terms of your own life? Did you really only stay in America for one year and then go back to Moscow? What about Maxim?! What is your story of moving to America and that adjustment?
DT: After my mom and I came to Urbana – we ended up staying for nine years – I went to high school and college there and she got her PhD. We went back to Moscow pretty frequently and after I graduated from the University of Illinois I moved back for about three years. Maxim is an amalgamation of two boys I had crushes on at the time – one of them continued to go to art school with my cousin and they even ended up at architecture college together – she said he asked about me from time to time – which warmed my heart, of course – the other boy I still have a little crush on and sometimes see out and about when I am home visiting my grandmother…
The adjustment of moving to America is something I am toying with as a subject – I feel like it’s such rich material and then also MIDDLE SCHOOL!
TPBL: The book is an entire year in which the character’s mother is abroad. How do you think that changes life for a twelve year old? What does one miss out on and what does one gain from that kind of experience?
DT: You know it’s hard for me to say – because this was my actual experience I can only speak to how it affected me – I think I grew up a little faster – but who knows what would have happened had my mom NOT gone to America, it might have all been the same, or entirely different. I generally feel like ALL experience propels us forward – it’s all it can do really – bad or good – so I think I tend to think of things that happen to me as stories – so this happened and then that – and it wasn’t good or bad it just happened and now I’m THIS kind of person – it’s sort of a positive sum game.
TPBL: Finally, your opening is this really interesting technique of almost a prologue, then a visual introduction to the setting and main character. That prologue is: “Once, when I was very small, I bit my mom’s finger.” It takes quite a few pages for us as readers to hear about that occasion. Tell us about why you used it to frame the opening and what it tells us about the character of Dasha.
DT: I wanted something that highlighted the relationship between the mother and the daughter immediately. It’s also a real thing that happened that I remember. I was about three and mom was feeding me a tomato and I bit her finger really hard – not on purpose – the tomato was just really good.
Thank you so much for having me.
Big thanks to Dasha for talking to us and for providing images!