What is it about terrific illustrators who have immigrated to the US giving us brilliant picture books about their childhoods? I’ve already reviewed recent books by Ed Young (The House Baba Built) and Allen Say (Drawing From Memory).
Now here’s a slightly older gem by Uri Shulevitz, How I Learned Geography (2008). Shulevitz is a distinguished picture book artists known for his Caldecott honorees like Snow. He also wrote a leading text for would-be picture book authors, Writing with Pictures: How To Write and Illustrate Children’s Books (1997).
How I Learned Geography is a quick, delicious book I’ve shared with many classes of various ages. Little Uri is a displaced person living far from home. (We find out in an explanation on the back page that he and his family fled Warsaw, Poland, with his family in 1939 and ended up in Central Asia, in what was then part of the Soviet Union and is now Kazakhstan.)
They live in squalor, the three of them sharing one room with another couple. One day his father goes out in his mis-fitting clothes to try to get a bit of food for the family. Much later he comes home with no food and a long paper roll under his arm.
His family is shocked. “’No supper tonight,’, Mother said bitterly. ‘We’ll have the map instead.’
’I had enough money to buy only a tiny piece of bread, and we would still be hungry,’ he explained apologetically.”
Shulevitz writes that he was shocked and thought he would never forgive his dad.
The second half of the book is Dad hanging the giant world map on the wall and Uri becoming completely absorbed in it. He studies it and draws it on scraps of paper. Soon he is going on flights of fancy to deserts, beaches, snowy mountains and exotic temples. We see him dancing, climbing and even flying over wonderful scenes the map brings out of his imagination.
Maps are magical to me too. Shulevitz gives us a touching, true story. And it gives a chance to think and talk about wonderful places you want to discover someday. What a big, exciting planet to explore, even if it’s just with a picture book.