Category Archives: Memoir

The Wall

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.


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Filed under Age: Early Elementary, Age: Middle Grade, Age: Young Adult, Memoir, Non-Fiction, Reviews

How I Learned Geography

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.

“I bought a map,” he says.

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.

cropped imageThe 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.


Filed under Age: All, Memoir, Non-Fiction, Picture Books, Reviews

Drawing a life

           Up until this year I’ve missed the boat on Allen Say, a prolific, widely-admired writer and painter of picture books.  Imagine my surprise to find he’s a resident right here in Portland!  At the Atkinson Elementary Scholastic book sale I saw his new book, Drawing From Memory.  For me it’s just irresistible.  What a format, a multi-media memoir of his path to becoming an artist in WW II era Japan.  It’s a large 64 page book that feels quite a bit like a graphic novel.  It’s an absolute perfect blend of photos, painted illustrations in color and black and white, and even color comics.

His parents aren’t pleased with his art inclination.  Dad tells him artists aren’t respectable.  Then in first grade his teacher tells him he has a wonderful talent.  It’s a blast to see his color drawing of her that he’s done from memory over 50 years later.

Remarkably he ends up living alone at age 13 in a room in housing for the poor so his family can send him to a prestigious school in Tokyo.  His room becomes his art studio.  He makes sure to do well in school but dives into art.  Soon he’s an apprentice working for his favorite cartoonist in Postwar Japan.  Amazing! The cartoonist even puts two new characters in his comic strip based on Say and the other apprentice that this book shows a sample of.  Allen Say gets to see his sensei (teacher) again more than 50 years later.  (Say had immigrated to America in 1952

I’m trying not to tell you too much. But I hope you’ll enjoy the wonderful ride through Say’s early life and his art development.  Subsequently, I read two more Say books, Erika-San and Tea with Milk.  They don’t have the exciting multi-media format, but they are lovely stories about cultural displacement and assimilation.

One more thing:  at one point Allen Say’s sensei tells him he’s a young Hokusai, the great Japanese painter (everybody knows his painting of the great wave).  Speaking of Hokusai, I just have to tell you about a fabulous French book by Francois Place called The Old Man Mad About Drawing:  A Tale of Hokusai (2004 American edition).  It’s a terrific, genre-bending book.  It’s a sort of small format biography full of color illustrations telling us the story of the great man.  It’s a book you want to tell everyone about.  Feels like a perfect biography hitting on themes of talent and persistence.  Cartoon-y color pictures make it feel like a graphic novel.

Hope the “graphic memoir” genre continues and thrives.  Remind me to tell you sometime about the compelling and remarkable book The Wall:  Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Peter Sis about growing up in Czechoslovakia.  Some books are perfect!

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Filed under Age: All, Memoir, Non-Fiction, Picture Books, Reviews

The House Baba Built

The House Baba Built: An Artist's Childhood in China

My new favorite sub-genre could be called the Illustrated-childhood-memoir-by-a-distinguished-children’s-illustrator-immigrant.  I’ve  already eaten up books by Peter Sis, Uri Shulevitz and Allen Say.  The latest gem is The House Baba Built:  An Artist’s Childhood in China by Ed Young.    This 2011 memoir is a big, beautiful multi-media recreation of the world Young grew up in Shanghai.  He was born in 1931 during years of crisis:  the Great Depression, invasion, World War II.

What a beautiful book.  The cover is like the wrought iron gate of the beautiful house Young’s father built for his family.  His father builds this house on a wealthy landowner’s property on the condition that his family will get to live there for twenty years.  Young takes us back to the sights and sounds of his childhood  and his wonderful home vividly, with paintings, drawings, and photographs, introducing us to his siblings and the world he knew.  It’s a spectacular work filled with foldout pages.  As the war goes on, his family takes other people in, including a German refugee family with a little girl, Jean, who’s sort of like a new sister.

What a gift Ed Young has given to the world with The House Baba Built.  It will be enjoyed by young and old.  Middle grade kids interested in history or art should be an enthusiastic audience.  Young, who turned 80 in 2012,  has insured that a wondrous childhood in old Shanghai will live on.


Filed under Age: All, Memoir, Non-Fiction, Picture Books