Told in bold black and white illustrations and through adorable non-human characters, Siberiak is part travelogue, part coming-of-age memoir. The teen protagonist, a budding activist, signs up for a peace mission to the then-USSR. By rowboat, bicycle and raft, American and Soviet youth travel through Siberia camping along the River Ob. In her first trip without her parents, the recent high school graduate slowly comes out of her shell to make friends with both Russian and Americans. Through the discomforts of communicating without language, staying with host families with customs so different than their own, mechanical difficulties and the unwanted attentions of a grown man, ultimately our American girl ends up admiring the Siberians and their community-centered way of life.
Jaeckel is an award-winning illustrator living and working in Victoria, British Columbia. She has two other graphic memoirs that are forthcoming, as well as a collection of short stories.
What reviewers are saying about Siberiak:
“In a graphic novel originally self-published by the author in 2011, Jaeckel recalls her participation in a remarkable cultural exchange at the height of U.S.–Soviet tensions in the 1980s. Along with 24 other American high-school students, Jaeckel joined a group of Soviet teenagers to cycle, row, and raft down Siberia’s river Ob in a trip meant to further peace. In simple, pared-down b&w cartoons, Jaeckel creates a cast of human-animal hybrids, giving the Americans long, floppy ears and the Russians neat, cropped ears and sharper snouts; throughout, she records discoveries about the ways her Russian counterparts are either unexpectedly similar to Americans (they love the Beatles) or unlike them (boys and girls display easy, unself-conscious physical affection toward members of their own sexes). Jaeckel documents a kaleidoscope of impressions and perceptions, including her own small contributions toward international relations, as when she’s confronted by four grim-faced grandmothers, greets them in tentative Russian, and is rewarded with broad grins. With an emphasis on dialogue and interior reflection, it’s an honest, closely observed account that readers–especially those with an interest in Russia–will find facinating.”
“In an increasingly fearful era this author Jenny Jaeckel demonstrates the openness of youth to experiences that enforce the humanness in us all. Too often the media coldly focuses on invasions and tragedies in nations far away. Yet this book highlights the welcoming manner and true acceptance of different cultures. Ms. Jaeckel shares an important message, and writes with simple honesty for young and mature audiences.”
–Rochelle Becker, Executive Director Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility
“Siberiak is one young peace activist’s story of doing something many Americans don’t get a chance to do, or don’t even want to do: go to another culture to observe first hand how the ‘enemy’ really lives. Jaeckel tells her tale in a way that is fun, informative, and inspiring.”
–Cindy Sheehan, Peace Activist and Author
The Bulletin for the Center of Children’s Books (BCCB) Review (Recommended Grade Level: 10-12)
This graphic novel–format memoir explores a young woman’s peacekeeping and goodwill group trip along Siberia’s Ob River in 1988. While thrilled to have been chosen, Jenny quickly learns that she isn’t prepared for such a massive adventure. After several days of trekking, traveling, and endless introductions, though, the shy girl gathers a few close pals and breaks out of her shell enough to absorb her incredibly beautiful (and lucky) trip. Text-heavy panels share space with scenes wherein the protagonists are portrayed as simply drawn animals with expressive features; while the use of contrasting white space and dark shading is effective in reinforcing the narrator’s frequently shifting perspective, there is a lot to absorb in many panels given the small text and overall visual darkness. Even so, the openness of the Russian people Jenny’s group encountered is instantly clear in the depiction of the residents’ faces, and it is obvious that their easy generosity and acceptance were standout memories for Jaeckel. While her adult perspective occasionally peeks through, particularly in the slightly weary acknowledgment that her group didn’t do as much as they believed to alter the course of the Cold War and American/Russian relations, a raw feeling of authentic isolation pervades the novel as Jaeckel frequently indicates the ways in which her social awkwardness limited her own experiences. Teens might not know much about the Soviet/American relations at the time, but there is enough context woven seamlessly into the early sections that they’ll be up to speed and better able to absorb what an unusual trip this was. -AS
“This graphic novel appealed on several levels, beginning with the fact that the author self-published her book, and it did so well that it was picked up by Raincloud Press. An impressive feat in this era of tsunamis of self-published material. I was also intrigued because it is the account of her participation in a grassroots mission of peace to the Soviet Union in 1988 when she was seventeen. I was in college then, studying Russian literature, and the memories of nuclear bomb scares were still fresh in my mind. So her descriptions of growing up with Cold War fears resonated on a personal level.
The artwork is a blocky black and white style with hand-drawn lettering. Americans are depicted as rabbits and Russians as mice, which reminded me a bit of [Maus]. The story is a combination travel memoir and coming of age story. The author grew up on a commune, so she was a bit of an outsider, even with the other Americans. Her trip to the Soviet Union, then participation in the building of a Kon-Tiki type raft, and subsequent float down the River Ob is described with a shy, innocent voice presumably reminiscent of the author’s younger self. Although there are no grand conclusions, I enjoyed sharing this unusual journey at a familiar point in history.”
“I totally loved this book. It was adorable!
For anyone who has traveled abroad, spent time learning another language, and has become absorbed in another culture, this story, told simply as a travelogue in graphic novel form, will tug at your heartstrings. Some experiences are just universal. Jenny recalls her trip as a teenager to the U.S.S.R. where her group of Americans teens was teamed with a group of Soviet teens and treated to a trip of rowing, biking, and rafting. During their adventures, the Americans were hosted by Soviet families and grew to learn more about their fellow Soviet travelers.
I liked the different animals for the different nationalities, an idea that was probably taken from [[Art Speigelman]]’s [Maus]. I liked Jenny’s black ears, a good way to identify her on each page. I liked the Russian words, but would have also liked a key to the Cyrillic alphabet, more translation, and a key to pronunciation. Not having it wasn’t that bad, but I really love languages and would have found those items helpful. I thought the printing in this book was a bit too small for my aging eyes, but that didn’t bother me too much. I squinted because I didn’t want to miss any part of this story!
Some parts of this book were laugh-out-loud funny. I loved the scene where Jenny’s grandmother asks Jenny’s mom if her girlfriend was Jewish.
By the end of this book, I did not want these kids to have to say goodbye to each other. Was I there? Maybe, in a way, I was. This book shows me that a terrific way to promote peace is through promoting international friendship.”