Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Wall by Peter Sís

Yesterday, I purchased The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Peter Sís.

It is on the picture book wall at Barnes and Noble. Inside the children's department, next to books for 4 year olds.

This book is not for 4 year olds, notwithstanding it's size and shape and pictures. This book is more appropriate for teens and adults, who are able to process the story it holds, which is black and white and red all over.

Peter Sís tells the story of a child's life being born and raised in Czechoslovakia when it was under the control of the Soviet Union. It's not entirely his life, as the biographical information at the end makes clear –— or rather, it's not the entirety of his life. His life had what sounds like a little more freedom than what is depicted in the book, but only a very little.

After an introduction composed of a full page of text explaining the fall of Tsarist Russia, the independence of Czechoslovakia following WWI and the invasion of Czechoslovakia during World War II, the end of the war and the division of Europe into East and West and the creation of the Iron Curtain and Cold War, Sís begins what looks at first like a picture book.

The first page shows a baby holding a red pencil and a piece of paper, and bears the text "As long as he could remember, he had loved to draw." Sounds simple, yes? One illustration, one line of simple text in third person. But around the edges of the picture, framing it above, left, and right are technical definitions of the words and phrases "Iron Curtain," "Cold War," and "Communism." On the next two-page spread are the main text "At first he drew shapes. Then he drew people." But there are six panels on the first page in the spread, and 5 on the second, to the sides of which are additional text explaining the historical facts that are depicted there.

This is no picture book. It's not really a graphic novel, either, since the text isn't integrated into the pictures, and the pictures in and of themselves don't exactly tell a story -- they illustrate the points made in the sidebars, as tied to the simple text at the bottom of the pages. It is, perhaps, a graphic picture book. And it is for older children and for grown ups, as a way of explaining the history of the Cold War.

Sís editorializes throughout. The military police and other officials are drawn with the faces of pigs. The phrasing makes clear that the communist regime was bad, and the West was good. Considering that the target market for this book is truly older children (tweens and teens, say) and adults, the oversimplification is unfortunate. I'd have preferred him to tell me about the prohibitions and compulsory actions and not tell me what I should think about it -- I'd have drawn the same conclusion, without feeling I'd been a wee bit preached to. But truly, that's a minor criticism, because this book does something for younger readers (and some grown ups) that hasn't been done before: it gives a concise history of the creation of the Iron Curtain and the Cold War, and gives a clear impression of what it was like to live inside Czechoslovakia during that period of history. It explains what brainwashing is, and how easy it is to accomplish with children. It depicts and explains how it feels to live in a community governed by fear.

The book does this not only through its simple text and illustrations, but also through six pages of journal entries. I'd say they were from his actual journals, but since the first entry was from 1954, when Sís would have been five, I'm unconvinced that's the case. Still, the text is surrounded by photographs of Sís and his family, and by reproductions of posters and artwork, which I presume was his art product as a child. (It evolves as he ages within the journal entries.)

I suspect that this book will get attention from not only the Caldecott folks, but also from the Newbery panel as well. It's a terrific book, despite the whiff of didactism it emits, and I'd highly encourage folks who are interested in history to check it out. Not that my saying so means anything, but I'd like to see the bookstores shelving this someplace other than the picture book wall inside the children's department. It would do the book and the readers a service.

*Edited to add: This would probably pair well with the new graphic novel, Notes for a War Story by Gipi, which describes one young man's experience during war in the Balkans, and how war changes people and messes with their perceptions of right and wrong, etc.

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