One of the most delectable, memorable pictures books I’ve ever seen is The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Peter Sis. This 2007 picture book/ memoir/ history lesson joins a remarkable set of childhood memoirs by some of our most distinguished picture book illustrators, all of them American immigrants. (See also my reviews of Ed Young’s The House Baba Built describing a wartime childhood in China, Allen Say’s Drawing From Memory set in Japan, and Yuri Shulevitz’s How I Learned Geography giving a snapshot of his time as a Holocaust era refugee in what is now Kazakhstan.)
Sis’s cover is a small boy banging a drum enclosed by a wall on all sides. Inside the book’s text is as simple or detailed as you want it to be. For the basic story of a boy who loved to draw, Sis ingeniously has a simple one line narrative going at the bottom of most pages. For the complex world of Communism in Czechoslovakia little captions on the margins describe events.
His wonderful black ink drawings feature color very sparingly, notably red, emphasizing the hold of repression in Czech life. His babyhood coincided with the Soviets taking control of the country and closing the borders in 1948. Even as he scrawls a zigzag on his paper in a crib, a red flag hangs in the background.
I doubt this book would much interest elementary students, but what a concise and compelling trip for middle schoolers all the way to adults! Margin notes define Cold War, Iron Curtain, and Communism. In one tiny frame happy little Peter brings his parents a red flier and they quietly recoil, afraid to criticize the propaganda.
Like the other amazing memoirs I’ve been pushing, this one is multimedia too. One spread has notes from childhood journals with a background of his drawings, childhood photos, and Soviet era propaganda signs and posters. As a teenager, he begins to question things. The Beatles, Elvis and the Rolling Stones sounds slip into his world. He joins a rock band. The Prague Spring in 1968 brings incredible hope and a taste of freedom. The center spread is a crazy full-color painting. He’s banging his guitar in a landscape of wonder, with a yellow submarine flying by. In two more pages Soviet tanks crush it all. Back to black and white with red flags on the pages.
And yet there are tiny glimmers of hope. One page says “The Beach Boys arrived. America to the rescue!” The end notes describe him being a disc jockey, interviewing the Beatles and others, and traveling to Czechoslovakia with the Beach Boys. (This reminds me of the late Czech playwright, dissident, and eventual president Vaclav Havel being inspired in the ‘60s by rock culture like Frank Zappa and Velvet Underground.)
His last spread is the enormous wall falling in 1989 with tiny people chopping it up or standing atop in triumph. “Sometimes dreams come true.” Way up in the blue sky is a map of Europe with the political boundaries and all the countries that gained freedom 1989-1991.
So read The Wall, a book for anyone who cares for dreams, art or freedom. The graphic design is pretty incredible too.