Russian-born author and illustrator Katya Arnold has written several children's books, among them Baba Yaga and the Little Girl: A Russian Folktale, Katya's Book of Mushrooms, and It Happened like This!: Stories and Poems Arnold has also displayed her paintings around the world, and has acted as an ambassador of Russian culture by retelling several popular Russian fables in English-language versions. In addition to her books Baba Yaga: A Russian Folktale and Baba Yaga and the Little Girl, she has contributed to the growing library of multicultural children's literature with her retellings of the stories of noted Slavic author Vladimir Grigorievich Suteev.
Born in Moscow, in the then Soviet Union, in 1947, Arnold grew up in a house full of books because her father and mother were both well-educated academics. She was not allowed to explore the family library on her own, however, until she became a young reader. Instead, her mother would sit and read to her when she was ill and bedridden as a young child. Arnold recalled in particular an illustrated copy of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, with its wonderful drawings by John Tenniel that her mother painted with watercolors in shades of blue and red. “I watched the story come to life with her brush,” the author once recalled in a publicity release for North-South Books. “Ever since that time, I have been stunned by the magic of color, the magic of creating a new world, and the different worlds, real and imagined, that people can live in.”
Artistic talent seems to be a tradition among the women in Arnold's family: her mother was an art historian, and her grandmother was a painter, sculptor, and writer. To add further to Arnold's creative legacy, her uncle wrote children's books. At the age of twelve, Arnold determined that she, too, would become an artist, and she began to study painting. After receiving her undergraduate art degree in 1965, she attended the Moscow Polygraph Institute and graduated with a master's degree in 1971. While doing her graduate studies, she worked as an art teacher and provided illustrations to Russian-language children's magazines and Moscow-based book publishers. Interestingly, her art was considered dissident by Soviet authorities, and she was one of several artists who, involved in a creative rebellion, featured their work in an open-air art show Soviet authorities destroyed with bull-dozers. After marrying fellow artist Alexander Melamid, she continued to work as a teacher and painter while she, Melamid, and their two children left the Soviet Union and traveled around Europe. They lived for a time in Jerusalem and visited Italy, Scotland, France, Finland, and several other countries before settling in the United States.
Baba Yaga was Arnold's first book for young children to appear in the United States. Published in 1993, the book retells a Russian folktale originally collected by Aleksandr Afanas'ev in the nineteenth century. It begins with an elderly, childless couple bundling up a piece of wood like a baby, placing it in a cradle, and rocking it to sleep. Magically, the wood is transformed into a real boy named Tishka, and he is raised as the couple's own son. When evil witch Baba Yaga kidnaps Tishka to eat for her dinner, the boy tricks the witch's daughter into climbing in the oven in his place, and Baba Yaga eats her own child instead. When the furious witch later discovers the frightened Tishka hiding in the trunk of a tree, she tries to gnaw her way through to him, but a goose rescues the boy from the witch's wrath. According to Denise Anton Wright in School Library Journal, Baba Yaga “presents a slice of Russian folklore in an authentic and masterful style.” A reviewer for Junior Bookshelf appreciated the “splendidly colourful” illustrations in the “style of early woodcuts.” Arnold's gouache illustrations are “a fitting match for this retelling,” a Publishers Weekly critic concluded.
Arnold continues the adventures of the evil Baba Yaga in a sequel, Baba Yaga and the Little Girl. In this story, an evil stepmother attempts to rid herself of her troublesome stepdaughter by sending the unwitting girl to the home of Baba Yaga to borrow a needle. Fortunately, the girl is coached by a loving aunt and avoids trouble. This story brings to life the menacing forests and clever heroes that characterize Russian folklore. Praising Arnold's artwork for accurately reflecting the theme of the story, Booklist reviewer Kay Weisman noted that “Arnold's thick black-line drawings resemble woodcuts; the vivid gouache colors give the artwork a fresh, modern look while remaining true to the story's classic roots.”
Several of Arnold's books for young people retell the stories of Russian author Vladimir Grigorievich Suteev. Suteev, who was born in Russia in 1903, released his first animated film in 1931 and became known throughout his homeland. Equally popular as an author of picture books, Suteev based many of his stories on his films. One such story, Duck, Duck, Goose?, is transformed, under Arnold's pen, into “a quirky story imbued with the spirit of a folktale,” according to a Publishers Weekly contributor. Cited by School Library Journal reviewer Christy Norris as “a pleasing tale about identity and acceptance,” the picture book Duck, Duck, Goose? is about a vain goose taking over the best-looking parts of each of her animal friends in an attempt to improve her appearance. She ends up looking totally silly, with the beak of a pelican at one end and a peacock's tail at the other. In Meow! a young puppy searches for the animal that is making a teasing yowl, suspecting a rooster, mouse, and even a bee in turn before discovering a playful kitten to be the noisemaker. “Arnold's brash illustrations are great for this classic,” noted a Kirkus Reviews contributor, adding that the pictures capture “the puppy's energetic bumblings and the cat's prickly-backed hiss perfectly.”
In The Adventures of Snowwoman, again based on an animated film by Suteev, a group of children are preparing for Christmas, but worry because they have no Christmas tree. Deciding to ask Santa for one, they conjure up a snowwoman, made from seven apples, a carrot, and an old stewpot, to be their messenger to the North Pole. Most of the story recounts Snowwoman's adventures on the way to the frigid North Pole. Praising both text and illustrations, School Library Journal contributor Lisa S. Murphy commented that “Arnold's bold illustrations portray exuberant children, a big and beautiful Snowwoman, and the camaraderie of the forest animals with equal verve.” Me Too!: Two Small Stories about Small Animals features two of Suteev's stories: one about kittens, the second about ducklings.
Suteev's fable of animals fighting over the season's last apple is retold in That Apple Is Mine! Hare saw the apple first, but Crow captures it from the tree, and Hedgehog claims the apple for himself when Crow drops it. The three animals bicker until wise Bear wakes up, encouraging the three to share. “This well-paced retelling … begs to be told,” wrote Linda M. Kenton in School Library Journal. A Publishers Weekly contributor praised Arnold's illustrations, writing that she “casts a contemporary artist's eye on a century-old-story and refreshes the familiar theme of sharing.” In Horn Book a contributor noted that “Arnold's lively animals, in strong, black lines,” reflect “the energy of her young audience.”
Moving from folktales to nonfiction, Arnold has also created Let's Find It!: My First Nature Guide. Featuring large illustrations and very few words, the book encourages readers to find plants and animals hidden in each watercolor painting. Each two-page spread features a key on the left that includes depictions of a variety of plants and animals, while on the right, these plants and animals are hidden within a larger painting showing their natural habitat. At the end of the book, Arnold provides information about all the species identified throughout the book. “This field guide to plants and animals is also a visual adventure,” wrote Anne Chapman in School Library Journal. A Kirkus Reviews contributor considered Let's Find It! “an entertaining first-look for nature lovers,” while Booklist contributor Carolyn Phelan described the work as “part picture book, part nature guide, and part game.”
In addition to her career as a children's book author and illustrator, Arnold works as a teacher in Brooklyn, New York, where she shares her talents for painting and illustration with her students. Working together with her husband, she also became involved in a project working with elephants that are no longer used for their traditional tasks in Thailand's logging industry. In Elephants Can Paint Too!, Arnold includes photographs of both the trained elephant's art as well as the art created by her human students in Brooklyn, then adds photos of her human and elephant students. “This is a wonderful book for parents to read to young children,” wrote Temple Grandin, reviewing the book for the New York Times, concluding that Elephants Can Paint Too! “should enthrall children and get them interested in animals and nature.” According to Diane Foote in Booklist, “In addition to the silliness, there's some factual information” about elephants, as well as about the Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project, the group that sells the artwork created by the elephants. “Arnold's amusing and colorful photographs—of elephants and children at work—will have readers laughing as they view them side-by-side,” Foote added.
Fine artist and illustrator. Painter, 1960–; illustrator for a children's magazine and for Moscow publishing houses, 1970–; art teacher, 1965–. Makes frequent school visits. Exhibition: Arnold's work featured at Matthew Brown Gallery, London, England, 2005.
Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.
Aesop Accolade List, American Folklore Society, 1994, for Baba Yaga; Best Book of the Year citation, Nick Jr. Family magazine, and One Hundred Titles for Reading and Sharing citation, New York Public Library, both for Elephants Can Paint Too!