Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Picture Books for Hard Times: Day 3

In which we continue our discussion of picture books about characters with financial difficulties. How do the characters transcend their circumstances? Let's look at How I Learned Geography by Uri Shulevitz.

The set-up: a boy and his family flee their war-torn country and move, penniless, to a far off land.

With a few choice details, Shulevitz paints a bleak picture of the family's impoverished existence. The sun-baked houses are made of clay, straw and camel dung. The family shares a room with another couple. The boy has no toys, books, and little to eat.

A couple of telling scenes evoke the wretchedness:

One day his father goes out to buy bread, but instead returns with a map. He could only have afforded a tiny bit of bread, so they would have been hungry anyway. Mother is incredulous.

“No supper tonight,” Mother said bitterly. “We’ll have the map instead.”

The furious son goes to bed hungry and doesn’t think he’ll ever forgive his father. To make matters worse, his roommate is noisily eating:

“oh! how loudly he chewed. He chewed a small crust of bread with such enthusiasm, as if it were the most the most delicious morsel in the world.” The boy covers his head with his blanket so he won’t hear.

Can you feel the pain?

It's important that you do, because of what follows. The next day, Father hangs up a huge map, which floods the cheerless room with color. The boy is fascinated with it. He makes rhymes out of the strange sounding locations, and repeats them like a magic incantation. This carries him far away:

“I climbed snowy mountains where icy winds licked my face.” He goes on to wondrous temples, shady fruit groves, and cities of tall buildings (all lovingly illustrated by the author).

The book ends with: “And so I spent enchanted hours far, far from our hunger and misery. I forgave my father. He was right, after all.”

Even more poignant, the book is based on Shulevitz’ childhood. His family fled Warsaw after the 1939 blitz, and lived as refugees in the Soviet Union, Paris, and Israel. The Author's Note includes a photograph of the artist/author taken in Turkestan, a map he drew on an envelope, and a scene of the marketplace he later drew from memory.

Shulevitz’s writing in How I Learned Geography is spare, honest, and selectively descriptive. The utter dreariness of his life at the beginning of the story sharply contrasts with the sensory richness of the map passages later.

In this hard times book, a loving parent initiates the “solution." It’s the boy’s vivid imagination, however, that transforms the map into something magical. The map offers colorful destinations for his mental journeys, an escape from his deprivation. Like the books discussed in my previous posts this week, “beauty”- whether real or imagined- relieves the child of the sadness of his condition.

Tomorrow: another character, and very different circumstances.

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