PPBF – Anya’s Secret Society

I saw today’s Perfect Picture Book featured in a list of new picture books and immediately was drawn in by the title and description. I think you’ll enjoy this one, too.

Title: Anya’s Secret Society

Written & Illustrated By: Yevgenia Nayberg

Publisher/Date: Charlesbridge/2019

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes/Topics: left-handed; feeling different; conformity; Soviet Union; art; self-expression; imagination


Anya was born in Russia, in the middle of winter.

Brief Synopsis: Left-handed Anya loved to draw, but conformity in the Soviet Union meant that she could use only her right hand for all tasks. Although she learned to perform other tasks with her right hand, she drew in secret at night with a society of great artists of the past.

Links to Resources:

  • Try drawing with the hand you don’t usually use to draw;
  • Learn more about the famous artists who were part of Anya’s Secret Society: Leonardo da Vinci , Rembrandt , and Michelangelo , who could create with both hands.

Why I Like this Book:

Using a very concrete example that I think even young kids will understand, Nayberg explores a universal issue: feeling different. Left-handed children who have tried to play sports or create art with their right hands will immediately understand Anya’s frustration. I think those of us who are right-handed will empathize with Anya, too, as all of us, I believe, have some trait that makes us feel different from others.

In Anya’s case, she hid the difference, conformed to rules, but maintained her unique left-handed drawing abilities in secret. As Nayberg notes, “The right hand took care of the world around Anya. The left hand took care of the world inside Anya.”

I think older kids will understand Anya’s desire to conform, to hide the difference, while at the same time creating an inner, secret world where her talent could flourish. This story also explores life in repressive societies, the need to fight conformity and oppression, and the relief felt by those, like Anya, who find freedom in a new society.

Nayberg accompanies her text with colorful, surrealistic, acrylic on illustration board and digital collage illustrations. I particularly enjoyed comparing the depictions of Russian and American society and viewing the wonderous animals that Anya imagined and that “her left hand could draw”.

A Note about Craft:

Anya’s Secret Society is based on Nayberg’s own experiences as a left-handed artist growing up in the former Soviet Union. Rather than writing an autobiographical picture book, Nayberg creates a character, Anya, with whom children may more readily identify. She also focuses on one aspect of her experience, hiding her left-handedness, to explore the universal feeling of being different and the desire to hide that difference. Are there times in your past or features that make you feel different than others? Could these be the particulars to help you explore that universal feeling?

Visit Nayberg’s website to see more of her work, including the illustrations for Martin & Anne: The Kindred Spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank (Nancy Churnin, Creston Publishing/2019)

This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Book list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!

15 responses to “PPBF – Anya’s Secret Society

  1. What an interesting story, Patricia. I’ll be sure to look for it.

  2. I love this book. Yevgenia’s artwork is magnificent and the story is universal. I am also left-handed and of similar heritage so it reminded me of stories my mother told me about being forced to use her right hand. Her artwork in Martin & Anne is also NOT TO BE MISSED! Patricia, thanks for sharing it on PPBF.

    • I loved her artwork in Martin & Anne, too, which is why I looked for this one. Fascinating to learn about the treatment of left-handed people in the USSR.

  3. Wow! What a compelling and unusual PB about conformity and self-expression. I hope I can get my hands on this one soon!

  4. I lover her art. And this is cool to know a little about how she developed it albeit through a fictional character.

  5. Interesting book and topic. Kids in the U.S. used to be disciplined if they used their left hands for writing/drawing, too. One of my cousins would have his hand hit with a ruler if he used it for writing. Here’s an interesting little bit of info from an online Smithsonian article: “And for a long time there were all sorts of ways to “retrain” lefties. An article in The Lancet explains the “scientific” rationales used:

    The methods used to obtain this result were often tortuous, including tying a resistant child’s left hand to immobilise it. Typical of the reasoning to justify such practices is a 1924 letter to the British Medical Journal endorsing “retraining” of left-handers to write with their right hands, because otherwise the left-handed child would risk “retardation in mental development; in some cases…actual feeble-mindedness”. As late as 1946 the former chief psychiatrist of the New York City Board of Education, Abram Blau, warned that, unless retrained, left-handed children risked severe developmental and learning disabilities and insisted that “children should be encouraged in their early years to adopt dextrality…in order to become better equipped to live in our right-sided world”.”

    The left hand stigma permeated many cultures.

    Read more: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/two-thirds-of-the-world-still-hates-lefties-64727388/#X9v9h09e2fRVBQfc.99
    Give the gift of Smithsonian magazine for only $12! http://bit.ly/1cGUiGv
    Follow us: @SmithsonianMag on Twitter

    • Wow! I had no idea! Maybe that’s why so many left-handed people have been so successful; always having to fight back.

      • I think it’s especially interesting to note that since that time, lefties have been found to be “above average” in abilities. I know many younger lefties who weren’t persecuted but nurtured, and they are quite creative. So it’s interesting to see that the “curse” of being a lefty is exactly the opposite to what was initially believed. Lefties who survived the stigma must have had a strong determination to be themselves no matter what, and that most likely helped them to the successful as well.

  6. What a fascinating book!
    So happy the stigma of being left-handed has disappeared as we have lots of lefties in our family. In the classroom I barely notice who’s right or left-handed. I only look more carefully if their fine motor skills are lagging.

  7. Interesting story I must look for this one. My hubby is left handed They are very neat writers to I notice.

  8. Pat, what an interesting book. This happened in the US, too. Nuns in Minnesota Catholic Schools required their students to use their “proper,” right hand. Great activities.

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