Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Peter Sís

genre: children's literature

I first fell in love with Peter Sís decades ago, when I read his picture book Starry Messenger, about Galileo Galilei.  I loved the style and feel of his illustrations.  When I saw that he'd written a picture book memoir about his childhood, I was intrigued.  The Wall is about growing up in Prague, a Prague under the thumb of Russia and Communism.  Early on, our author is aware of the stark reality that he can think and dream and draw one thing at home behind closed doors, but out in the world, he needs to be one very specific kind of boy.  One who loves the State.  One who would be willing to report his parents to the authorities for subversive activity.  One who only wants to make art that would glorify the government.

That's a heavy load, for a child.  And not until western music begins to trickle into Czechoslovakia does Peter truly begin to realize what he's been missing.

The drawings are mostly comic book style - with him making very clear how many of the activities of his youth were compulsory.  Other pages are full of text from his journals as an older child and then as a teen.  You truly get a rich sense of how strict and restraining his community was - watching the "intelligencia" be removed from their jobs and family members imprisoned for small "crimes."

I really loved this story for the perspective it gave me of life in Prague during the time period as well as a basic modern history of the Czech Republic.  The drawings are mostly black and white except when something beautiful creeps into his life - dreams and freedom are a bright and real contrast to the darkness of daily experience.

I would say this is a book for more 4-5 graders, it would be an interesting study of a very different way of life and a different kind of government than the one we have here in the U.S.  There is much to learn and discuss.

Glad I picked it up.

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