Whether author and illustrator Eugene Yelchin is creating a piece of art or a story, he must “feel the material,” he says. “It has to really move me emotionally.” In the case of Arcady’s Goal, a story about two survivors of Stalinist oppression who learn to become a family, Yelchin was moved by a photograph of his father, Arcady, pictured in 1945 with team members on the Red Army Soccer Club. Yelchin’s character Arcady, a courageous 12-year-old soccer talent, lives in a starkly brutal orphanage (his parents, deemed enemies of the people, are dead), and much of the story is about Arcady learning to trust Ivan, the kind and decent man who adopts him. In turn, Ivan (who’s had his own devastating loss) learns to open his heart again as well.
Yelchin says that artists don’t choose their subject matter, it chooses them. “You’re just a mouth, a channel for not only your own experiences, but those of your family, your culture, your country.” This channeling occurs knowingly, but also intuitively, he explains; through it you are “learning about yourself, who you are.” Yelchin, who came to the United States at 27 from Russia and spoke no English, says he is “purely a product of a culture that was very dark and continues to be dark.” Like his character Arcady, Yelchin needed to learn how to rebuild a sense of trust—something that having his own children helped him develop. “I came to realize that it’s not what I’m giving to or teaching my children, but what they’re giving to me, how it changes me. And that’s what this book is about on a basic plot level, it’s very Dickensian. It begins in an orphanage with this decent man who wants to give the orphan Arcady a normal life, but the twist is that the child gives the man the courage he’s lacking to be a fully grown human.”
A meticulous researcher who values what he calls “adherence to historical and psychological truth,” Yelchin says he has an “enormous” collection of archival material. He looked through stacks of photographs of orphanages in Russia to get every detail in the story and the penciled illustrations right—including Arcady’s unsmiling face. (“In thousands of photographs, no one is smiling. A smile was a rare commodity.”) As author-illustrator, Yelchin wanted to create “a new kind of book, one where the interplay between text and image is where the meaning and emotion comes through…where both are equal partners in delivering the scene and evoking emotion.”
These days, when Yelchin visits schools and shares his work with students, he asks himself, “How do you bring truth to children?” He feels no “sentimentality toward kids; I treat them as respected equals and try to be honest with them.” In particular, he wants children to know that not everyone lives with such privileged freedom. “So I do a simple thing,” he says. “I show them my childhood in photographs and stories in the hope that they don’t take everything for granted.”
Yelchin feels that writing for children is both a responsibility and an opportunity: “Those formative years when you first read on your own, read someone else’s voice, when you come upon a phrase or passage that mirrors your own experience…you feel not so alone. You realize others have similar pain and fear, that you’re part of humanity.” He believes that the resulting sense of compassion, first for the self, then for others, “only happens in childhood. That’s why I’m writing...toward this moment of realizing we are human, we are the same.…Aha! We are not so alone in this world.”
Jessie C. Grearson is a freelance writer and writing teacher living in Falmouth, Maine. She is a graduate of The Iowa Writers’ Workshop.