Father Knows Best

h1 June 16th, 2008 by jules

I set out once again—like last week—to make this a Nonfiction Monday post, but this book also does not officially get lumped into the nonfiction category, though it’s based on an experience the author/illustrator had as a child.

Ah well. I’m going to tell you about it anyway, because it’s a beautiful thing.

How I Learned Geography by Uri Shulevtiz, released in April by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, has already—in its relatively short existence—garnered a whole heapin’ ton of critical acclaim:

  • “Caldecott Medal winner Uri Shulevitz’s newest picture book, How I Learned Geography, is really a love story for the world. It belongs to the newly popular genre of memoir as picture book. Shulevitz handles his autobiographical material with grace and humor. . . . Shulevitz always puts character at the forefront of his work. The expressions and gestures of his characters are believable, human-scale, and tender, full of dreaming and a touch of the untamed Eden.” — Liz Rosenberg in The Boston Globe
  • “It is a masterpiece.” — Elizabeth Devereaux in The New York Times
  • “A tribute to the power of wide imaginative horizons, this gains impact from its basis in Shulevitz’s own experiences, which give it reality beyond mere wishful thinking.” — Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books
  • “Whether enjoyed as a reflection of readers’ own imaginative travels, or used as a creative entree to classroom geography units, this simple, poignant offering will transport children as surely as the map it celebrates.” — Booklist, starred review

…and on and on. There are many more such laudatory comments.

All well-deserved.

Shulevitz tells the story of a young boy who fled, empty-handed, with his family during a time of war. The family travelled “far, far east…to a city of houses made of clay, straw, and camel dung, surrounded by dusty steppes, burned by the sun.” Living with strangers in a very small room, the boy is sad. There’s very little food, and he has next to nothing: No toys, no books, no real home. His father heads to the bazaar one day to buy bread but returns to cheerily announce that he purchased a map: “I had enough money to buy only a tiny piece of bread, and we would still be hungry,” he tells them. The boy and his mother are greatly saddened, not to mention furious. They go to bed hungry, the boy having to listen to his writer roommate chew loudly on a small crust of bread: “He wrote in silence, but, oh! how loudly he chewed.”

The next day, however, the boy takes in the great wall map his father had purchased while he hangs it. “Our cheerless room was flooded with color.” The boy stares at it, is fascinated by it, and draws on scraps of paper what the map inspires in his imagination. He repeats the names of cities on the map, wonderful, delicious words that he turns into rhymes, “like a magic incantation,” and he is “transported far away” in his mind away from his hunger and sadness — “without ever leaving our room.” The final six spreads, resplendent in their color and magic, are of the places to which the boy flies in his mind (he is depicted as if in the air, flying to each destination): deserts, beaches, mountains of ice and snow, temples, fruit groves, busy cities.

And so I spent enchanted hours far,
far from our hunger and misery.
I forgave my father.
He was right, after all.

This is a picture book experience you won’t want to miss. The changes in scope and perspective and color from the early to final spreads in the book—reflecting the opening up of the boy’s world in his imagination—are stunning, Shulevitz’s art work full of engaging details and textures and angles and shadows; this is one you’ll want to pore over for a long time. In an Author’s Note, Shulevitz notes that he lost the original map years ago but created them for this title based on his memory, using collage, pen and ink, and watercolor. He also explains that the story is based on his experience of fleeing Warsaw with his family in 1935 after the Warsaw blitz. He was four years old: “I remember streets caving in, buildings burning or crumbling to dust, and a bomb falling into the stairwell of our apartment building.” His family fled to the Soviet Union, living in what is now Kazakhstan for six years. He also shares his only surviving photo of himself from that period, as well as a map he drew on the back of a letter at age ten and a drawing he made at the age of thirteen.

At turns playful and intense, and always emotionally stirring, I don’t think Ms. Devereaux of The New York Times is speaking hyperbolically when she calls it a masterpiece. And this is Shulevitz-as-an-artist at his best. This is one for all ages. For all art-lovers everywhere. Not to be missed.

7 comments to “Father Knows Best”

  1. So, J – is this one gonna be Caldecott #2 for Shulevitz, or what?

  2. it’s possible, e.

    as i was driving along on the interstate today, my mind wandered to next year’s caldecott winner (based only on the year thus far, of course. i should state for the record: I AM NOT PSYCHIC. some readers may wonder, you know). why did my mind wander there? i dunno. anyway, i could see A Visitor for Bear or this book or What to Do About Alice? or In a Blue Room winning…i probably shouldn’t say this in case i’m forgetting some stellar book, but there. i said it.

    ….for the record. i’ll come back here next january and either cheer or say a big, loud, resounding D’OH!

  3. Wait! There’s also On the Farm.

    Yeah, I’m having a conversation with myself.

  4. Okay, okay. I’ve heard enough great stuff about this book, now I’ll got get me a copy!

  5. Our library copy of this book came in the week before last, and I got all misty standing there reading it there in Tech Services.

  6. I used this book as an example for a project in my library class. It is a wonderful book!

  7. […] REVIEWS AND INTERVIEWS Jules at 7 Imp give us Father Knows Best, a review of How I Learned Geography by Uri […]

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