Quit hogging the camera.
Anastasiya Tikha and Arthur Lee never considered leaving Baileys (left) and Zeus behind.

Here’s a story of human and non-human bravery so extraordinary that you might find it unbelievable—but probably still exciting—if it’s ever turned into a movie.

Anastasiya Tikha is a 20-year-old Ukrainian woman who lives in the town of Irpin, 13 miles north of the country’s capital, Kyiv. She’s a veterinary student who also runs a small animal shelter with her husband, Arthur Lee, 26.

Irpin and its 60,000 inhabitants came under attack in March, as invading Russian forces attempted to encircle Kyiv. Missiles and artillery fire devastated the smaller city—aerial pictures show block after block of rubble. Like many homes and businesses, Tikha and Lee’s shelter was left without electricity and running water. Among other hardships, the dogs were forced to drink from the shelter’s aquarium. (How the fish felt about that AIR MAIL Pilot couldn’t say.)

The couple was preoccupied with the animals, but with much of the city now under Russian control and many residents fleeing, a friend urged Tikha and Lee to get out. As Tikha told The Guardian, her friend finally convinced them that “we had to go or we would be killed, that this was our last chance for us and the animals to survive.” “And she was right,” added Lee. “Our house was later in the heart of the heavy fighting.”

A photo of Anastasiya fleeing Ukraine with nine dogs went viral on social media.

The couple evacuated along with 19 dogs and five cats, plus a hamster, a turtle, a chameleon, a salamander, and two lizards. Their only route to safety was a bridge two miles away. They were on foot, and paw. Two of the animals, a pair of border collies named Strong and Baileys, rode in canine wheelchairs because of spinal injuries; another dog, an amputee, hobbled. To make matters worse, Russians were shelling escape routes throughout the city.

“I did think at one point that we would not make it,” Lee told The Guardian. The walk to the bridge took three hours, and the bridge itself was under heavy fire. The animals were so terrified that four of the dogs chewed through their leashes and ran away. One of those was the couple’s own dog, a beagle named Zeus.

Tikha, Lee, and the remaining animals made it across the bridge, where a minivan arranged by their friend drove them to Kyiv. They somehow all found shelter in a presumably largish sauna attached to a house. But the couple refused to give up on the missing dogs. Every day, Tikha went back to a Ukrainian military checkpoint demanding to re-cross the bridge into Irpin to search for the runaways.

Finally, after Tikha’s fifth day of pleading, the officers let the couple through, though the bridge was still under fire. That first day they found Zeus, who had returned to their home, and brought him back to Kyiv, along with some neighbors’ abandoned dogs.

After two more risky trips into Irpin, they had rounded up the other three runaways. Meanwhile, a photo of a desperate but defiant Tikha with nine dogs taken at the first bridge crossing had gone viral on social media—a symbol of Ukrainian courage. The surprised couple found out about it watching the news one night. They were even more surprised when the anchorperson said that Tikha had been killed. (AIR MAIL Pilot doesn’t normally celebrate errors made by other news organizations, but we’re happy this particular report was false.)

Irpin is now firmly back in Ukrainian hands, and Tikha and Lee have rented a new house. Their dog and cat totals are now up to 30 and 10, respectively. Talk about rescue animals. —Bruce Handy

Good books can introduce readers to many types of people.

A good book is infinite. A good book will stay with you for a lifetime. It’ll break you and incite feelings of euphoria while simultaneously invoking immense agony. A good book will take you on a journey. It will make the impossible possible, and the ordinary extraordinary. It will make you smile foolishly at your book, or maybe even make you shed a couple of tears. A good book will make you want to scream out of frustration. A good book will make you forget about the world around you or deepen your understanding of it.

I’ve read a lot of good books in my 15 years of life. However, I didn’t have a sudden revelation while reading that led to my love of books. My love and appreciation for reading came slowly. The more I read, the wider my perspective on the world and myself became.

Through the books I read, I met a variety of people. I got to know people at a deeper level than I knew most of those around me. I met a talking rat who worked for a famous newspaper and went on bizarre adventures. I met a girl who could move things with her mind. I met two young boys, alienated by classmates, who found companionship in each other.

I met a young teenage girl who longed to escape the cycle of abuse towards the women around her. I met a woman with an astonishing bond with her dog. I met a person who suffered in silence—all through high school—after being sexually assaulted by a close friend. I met a girl who met a girl and fell in love. I met a boy who didn’t live to graduate from high school because living was just too hard.

Kyjuany Cintron, the prize-winning author of this essay.

The more people I met, the more I learned. I learned how deeply I could care for people I had never truly met. I now know their deepest secrets. I found comfort in that. I found comfort in completely knowing a stranger. Could I even call them that anymore? I know them better than I know myself, better than I know my friends, and better than I know my family.

Their happiness made me happy, and their pain made me sad. It seems simple, but it’s not. My relationship with these non-existent characters has become more complex. I’ve grown to feel guilty, like I don’t deserve to impose on a person’s life in such a way. To make up for the invasion, I give them my all. It’s a two-way street. As I take in their stories, I devote myself to the book. I make sure every sentiment I feel is felt to its greatest extent.

A book is infinite because of the people you meet through it. A book is infinite because of the lessons it teaches, which will never be forgotten. Just as I’ve learned to care for them, I’ve learned to care for myself and those around me. —Kyjuany Cintron, The Young Women’s Leadership School of the Bronx, class of 2024

This week, Cintron, 15, received the sixth annual Harvard Library of New York’s Young Readers Prize for this essay

During the pandemic, this essay’s author, Erina Chowdhury, learned to love reading.

While the sun blazed on my prepubescent body as an eight-year-old, my arms began to sweat as I held onto my mother’s palms. With each step closer to the library, my mother’s disappointment lingered during the silent, yet painful walk. My dread reached its peak in front of my local library, where all my anxieties suddenly washed in front of me. I didn’t want to be there. As my mother told me, “Reading will make you smarter.” My frown deepened on this sunny day.

Reading hasn’t always been something I enjoyed. During my elementary-school years, my mother forced me into the library to read books that she chose. It was always the typical non-fiction books that apparently would make me “intelligent,” which made me hate them even more. I couldn’t understand what I was reading; it felt foreign to me. My anger from each visit overshadowed any chance of me reading for fun—until the infamous coronavirus pandemic hit.

During this time, I had to come up with ways to satisfy my boredom at home, as I had an endless amount of time to spare. I began to do everything you can imagine, but I still felt bored. Coincidentally, my sister offered the book A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini, as a way to suppress the madness. I gave in.

Since the pandemic started, Erina has read more than 70 books!

Imagining myself in Afghanistan, with Laila and Mariam in their war-torn environment, enthralled me. This story of hardship, friendship, and the endless beauty found within darkness opened my eyes to the different realities people faced. I immediately began to read every Hosseini book, fascinated by his craft and each character’s evolution.

Starting from one book to now 70, every new adventure shows me infinite perspectives on unique human experiences. Through each event, characters share a puzzle piece of their wisdom with me. Anne’s courage in Anne of Green Gables inspired me to create my school’s first magazine; Keiko from Convenience Store Woman showed me the importance of being content; and Qian from Beautiful Country depicted the realities of being an immigrant, like my parents. The point of a book is not necessarily to relate fully to the protagonist. It’s to actively learn and gain knowledge from those so different from you.

Reading has provided me a space to fully immerse myself into my imagination. I see myself hidden in the dark shadows, next to my favorite protagonists trying to understand a complex situation. I involve myself in every aspect of a book while learning valuable lessons about human life.

Although as an eight-year-old I couldn’t understand the point of books, I now see the importance of stepping into someone else’s shoes. I will continue to see others through an empathetic lens because of reading. As George Eliot emphasized, even though we’re all humans, we’re still different in many ways you might not expect. Reading will forever be my escape from reality because I start to step into another world, another reality, and another mind. —Erina Chowdhury, The Young Women’s Leadership School of the Bronx, class of 2024

This week, Chowdhury, 15, received the sixth annual Harvard Library of New York’s Young Readers Prize for this essay. Don’t miss a third prize-winning essay, by Khaleel Wright, which will appear in tomorrow’s issue of AIR MAIL