Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain, by Peter Sís -- setting personal stories in the context of history (ages 9-16)

How do you help children understand family stories in the context of history? Our lives are impacted by the social and political climates in which we live--and these impact the stories we tell our children about our own family's lives. Peter Sís wrestles with these questions in his memoir The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain, telling the story of growing up in Communist Czechoslovakia during the Cold War.
The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain
by Peter Sís
Frances Foster/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007
Sibert Award for Nonfiction, 2008
Caldecott Honor, 2008
Your local library
ages 9-16
Sís begins with a short introduction, giving context to the historical events. And then he starts his memoir by saying how he loved to draw for as long as he can remember. Throughout, he tells parallel stories of childhood and the political circumstances in Czechoslovakia. At home, he was able to draw whatever he wanted, but as soon as he started school, he was influenced by the state controlled propaganda.
"The Communists take control of the school. Russian-language classes--COMPULSORY.
Joining the Young Pioneers, the Communist youth movement--COMPULSORY."
"After drawing whatever he wanted to at home, he drew what he was told to at school."
Sís conveys the historical context while giving his personal experience at the same time. The short chunks of text with small panel illustrations helps make the information more accessible and immediate. I find that kids like reading this more than one time, as they notice different details each time.

After the liberation of Prague Spring in 1968, the Soviets imposed strict controls once again. But Czechs found ways to push back and share ideas.
"Phones are bugged again, mail opened, people watched... Banned books are secretly translated, copied, and circulated as samizdat."
Sís struggled to keep his artistic identity and independence. He describes both in his journal entries how he was pressured to join the party. And yet, as he wrote, "he had to draw. Sharing the dreams gave him hope." The journal entries (a sample is below) help give even more immediacy and details to how the political climate impacted his life.
"To get a permit to have a studio in my own house, I have to prove that I am an artist in good 'social standing,' that is, a member of the Community Party."
My family and I recently visited the Czech Republic, meeting with several members of the university who have developed a program to honor my great-uncle, George Placzek (a long article about his scientific legacy is in the Cern Courier, the International Journal of High Energy Physics). I was fascinated to hear about how the Communist era impacted their lives, much as it had for Peter Sís. They faced limitations on their professional careers, and even brought a samizdat to show me.

The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain provides a fascinating way to combine visual storytelling, memoir and political history. I am grateful to Peter Sís, not only for persevering to follow his art, but also for telling this story. I know, from my own family history, the pressure to move forward and put difficult times behind you--and the Czech Republic is blossoming once again. But this history, both personal and political, is important to share with our children. Kirkus Review sums it up:
"A masterpiece for readers young and old."
Illustrations ©2007 Peter Sís; used with permission from the publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux / Macmillan. The review copy comes from our personal library. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2015 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

1 comment:

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