Monday, October 26, 2020

How I Learned Geography written and illustrated by Uri Shulevitz

How I Learned Geography 
written and illustrated by Uri Shulevitz
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008, 32 pages

In his powerful memoir Chance, Escape from the Holocaust, recalls the time when his family was living in Turkestan and his family went to the market to buy bread, but came home with an enormous, colorful map instead. I found the story particularly interesting because I had read Uri Shulevitz's picture book How I Learned Geography when it first came out in 2008. 

In September, 1939, Uri and his family are forced to flee their home in Warsaw, Poland when the Nazis invade their country, leaving almost everything they owned behind. They flee far east, eventually coming to a city "...of houses made of clay, straw, and camel dung, surrounded by dusty steppes..." that was very hot in summer and very cold in winter.  

One day, Uri's father goes to the market to buy some bread. Late in the evening, he comes home but without any food for the family to eat. Instead he has bought a large, colorful map of the world. Angry, Uri and his mother both go to bed hungry, listening to the couple who lived with them in their small room smacking their lips while they eat what little bread they have. 

The next day, Uri's father hand the map, which covers the entire wall, and their "...cheerless room was flooded with color." Fascinated with it, Uri spends his days studying every detail of the map, even drawing it on whatever scrape of paper he could find. 
Thanks to that map and what looked like a foolish purchase, Uri finds escape from the difficult conditions he and his parents finds themselves in. Uri uses his imagination to travel far and wide, from deserts and snowy mountain tops, to the tropics and to big cities, spending ..."enchanted hours far, far from [their] hunger and misery." 

How I learned Geography is a poignantly written story, told in Shulevitz's straightforward, but spare language. He doesn't go into describing things in depth, allowing his own watercolor and ink illustrations to fill in the details for his. And they do - wonderfully well. Pay particular attention to the variety of facial  expressions and body language Shulevitz has captured. For instance, take a look at how Uri's father's changes in the three illustrations above.   

How I Learned Geography has a kind of Jack and the Beanstalk feeling to it, where an act of folly turns out to be just the thing that is needed. Uri's family ended up impoverished and hungry because of the Nazis invading their homeland, Jack's because of the giant stealing their possessions. The difference, of course, is that Uri's story is based on his life.

This book is recommended for readers age 6+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Monday, October 12, 2020

Chance: Escape from the Holocaust written and illustrated by Uri Shulevitz

If the name Uri Shulevitz sounds familiar to you, it is probably because he has won four Caldecott Medals in his career as a children's book writer and illustrator. What most people don't know is that Uri and his parents managed to escape the Holocaust by, as Uri writes, "blind chance deciding [their] fate." (pg 65)

Living in Warsaw, Poland with his parents, Uri is only 4-years-old and a budding artist specializing in stick figures when the Nazis begin bombing his country before they invade it. No longer feeling safe, first his father leaves and makes his way to Bialystok, then part of the Soviet Union. Finding a place to live and a job, he tries to return to his family, but is caught and returned to Bialystok. Instead of going back to them, he writes for Uri and his mother to join him. Traveling by smuggler's truck and on foot, mother and son make it to the Soviet Union, leaving all their family behind in Poland.

But when the Soviets order refugees to register for Russian citizenship, the Shulevitz family is denied because of Uri's name. The official is sure he was named after a well-known Zionist. When his father loses his job for not being a citizen, the family finds themselves without an income. Luckily, Uri's father finds another job, but soon, they are again forced to move, and find themselves in a labor camp in the Archangel region of Russia, when Uri is 5-years-old.

It is there that the Jewish people are told that they are no longer considered enemies of the Soviet Union now that the Germans are attempting to invade Russia, and that they are free to travel anywhere they wished. When Uri is 7-year-old, the family travels to Soviet Turkestan. They spend three year's there, often without any food in freezing cold winters and unbearably hoy summers, until the war finally ends. 

But just because the war is over, doesn't mean things return to what they once were. Instead, when the family goes back to Poland, they are greeted with rampant anti-Semitism and the sad news that  no other family has survived the Holocaust. Once again, they are on the move, ending up in a Displaced Persons camp in Bavaria. There, in 1946, Uri's father discovers that a brother is also still alive. and living in Paris. The Shulevitz's leave the DP camp for Paris. 

Although Uri Shulevitz's first person narrative gives a linear account of how he and his parents were lucky enough to not fall into the hands of the Germans, he does so through a series of linked vignettes and his own drawings.  And he chronicles what happened to them during that time, in such a way that it feels almost intimate, like his talking directly to you, and only you. And given how much the Shulevitz family experienced, it's hard to believe this chronicle only covers 8 years of Uri's life, from 4 to 12. 

Most of what he is relating is wrapped in anti-Semitism, hate, starvation, illness, separation and loss, but there are, of course, also moments of laughter, of kindness, of sharing and helping, reminding the reader that no matter how terrible war is, there are still some good people. What clearly stands out is just how much love this family had for each other. If they hadn't, they just might not have survived. Uri says one of the things that really sustained him was his mother's stories. And all through their ordeal, both his mother and father encouraged Uri to continue drawing.

Chance: Escape from the Holocaust is an interesting account in that it is almost devoid of Nazis. It is not the kind of Holocaust story we are accustomed to reading. But it does gives young readers yet another look at what being a Jewish family in Nazi occupied Europe and their enemy the Soviet Union was like. We keep learning more and more about the Holocaust, thanks to survivors like Uri sharing their stories. 

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an eARC gratefully received from the publisher.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Rip to the Rescue by Miriam Halahmy

It's 1940 and London is being bombed nightly by the German Luftwaffe. Wanting to do his bit for the war, and tall for his age, 13-year-old Jack Castle convinced the wardens that he is 17 (and kept the fact that he is deaf in one ear to himself) so he could become a messenger boy.  Now he rides his bike through the destroyed neighborhoods of London every night delivering important messages to fire brigades. Not only does it make him feel proud to be doing his bit, but it also gets him away from his angry, authoritarian father. Mr. Castle served in WWI and lost his lower leg. Now he has an ill fitting prosthetic, and a bad case of PTSD, and he's taking it all out on Jack. His parents don't know about his messenger activities, and Jack has convinced them that he goes over to help his grandfather to the shelter. Granddad does know what Jack is doing and lets him keep his equipment in his flat.

One night a bomb explodes so close Jack is thrown from his bike. Injured and dazed, after the All Clear, he is helped to an emergency room by a young girl his age named Paula, then to home. The next day, Paula comes by and she and Jack head out together. But they soon run into Rocky and his gang, boys from Jack's school who have always ganged up on him because of his deaf ear. One of the boys, Ned, seems to be pals with Paula's younger sister Becky, 10. 

On his way home later, there is a day raid and seeing a neighbor attending to his Granddad, Jack is heading home when he hears scratching behind a broken wall. It turns out to be a dog, hungry and cold. Knowing he can't take the dog home after freeing him, so he brings it to his grandfather's, who is delighted. Named Rip because of his one ripped ear, the dog turns out to be a great companion for Jack, who ends up leaving him with Paula and Becky during the day and taking him on his messenger rounds at night.

One day, after another day bombing, Jack and Paula hear a woman screaming about her baby buried under a pile of rubble that had been her home. Sensing someone is trapped, Rip runs up the pile and starts pawing and barking. Sure enough, he's located where the baby, still alive, is located. Soon the baby is freed and Jack wonders if Rip has the ability to locate people buried alive under rubble. 

There's a lot going on in Jack's story. Halahmy has captured the fatigue of Londoners brought on by the unrelenting nightly bombings by the Germans, spending sleepless nights in the Underground, basements, and even in crypts. Jack's nightly bike rides show readers a city torn apart, but also people who meet the enemy with courage and determination.

For all Jack has been the victim of bullies in school, he is now quite the hero. As he and his new friends Paula and Becky begin to trust each other more, they share their secrets - Jack tells them about his deafness and the bullying, Paula and Becky tell him they are Jewish but to keep it private. Becky is rather devil-may-care about things, but Paula is so afraid that the Germans will invade, she shows Jack the hideout she creating for her family. 

His new friendship with Paula and Becky cause Jack dilemma's throughout. As brave as he is as a messenger, and as embarrassed as he is when Paula witnesses his father's behavior, Jack wonders if he will ever be able to stand up to his father's constant berating? And will his father ever see him for who he is? When he catches Ned stealing food, does Jack tell or show compassion when he learns why Ned steals and keep his secret? And when a sudden raid happens close by, will Jack reveal Paula's hideout to others?

Rip to the Rescue is a fast read because it is a real page-turner. Full of action, suspense, and danger, it is sure to hold the attention of young readers. 

And you can download an Educator's Guide, courtesy of Holiday House, HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an eARC gratefully received from Edelweiss+