Sunday, April 06, 2008

Personal History: The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Peter Sis

Like the 2008 Caldecott Award-winning The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Peter Sis' 2008 Caldecott Honor book The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain (Caldecott Honor Book) is nothing like the picture books which usually win this award.

Writing for middle readers, teens, and adults, Peter Sis documents his childhood in Prague under Soviet-style Communism in this combination graphic novel, memoir, and historical eyewitness account. Except in the occasional "My Journal" sections, the text is terse and simple and the illustrations are executed in a childlike simplicity of line and color. Despite the spare style, the emotion beneath the surface leaps from each page. The cover sets the mood, with a trompe le oiel brown paper cover bound by string. The central illustration is of Sis as a baby with toy drum, surrounded by a cookie-cutter star-shaped wall made of red bricks.

Inside, the text tells the story of Sis's youth as a much treasured child who began his art as a baby and was allowed to draw anything he pleased. One illustration shows Sis as a baby playing with a red pencil, the border ominously formed by the definitions of the terms "Cold War," "Communism", and "Iron Curtain. Sis then depicts himself in mostly black and white line drawings as a gradually more circumscribed child, wearing the red kerchief of the Young Pioneers, accepting all he was told by the Communist government, living in a society in which friend spied on friend, child spied on parents, in which the Russian language was compulsory and political indoctrination was foremost.

"He drew what he was told to at school.

He drew tanks. He drew wars.

He didn't question what he was told.

Then he found out that there were things he wasn't told."

As Sis grew into adolescence, he learned about the Secret Police, the disappearances of anyone who dissented, including his own relatives. Despite the surveillance and brainwashing of the regime, influences from the West began to filter into Prague as Sis became a teenager. "We all wanted to be Beatles," he says, as he describes how they grew their hair to illegal lengths and made their own "Western" clothes and shoes, guitars and amplifiers. Defying the orders against joining in Western decadence, Sis joined a rock band, read all he could, and went to concerts, poetry readings, and plays. At last, during the Prague Summer of 1968 he took a job with the Beach Boys' tour, traveled to England and hitchhiked around Europe, absorbing the warmth of intellectual and physical freedoms that flowed beyond the Wall. In this section of the book, as Sis documents his journal entries from the 1960's--seeing Louis Armstrong on the street, wearing real blue jeans, listening to a 45 record of "Hard Day's Night"--his palette turns to the sunny pastels of the flower children, full of curving lines, spirals, blooms, and peace symbols.

When the Soviet tanks rolled again into Prague, Sis's illustrations turn to dreams of escape. "He was painting dreams," he writes, dreams of surfboards, the Statue of Liberty, bottles of Coke, and the Golden Gate Bridge. While his journal documents arrests and assassinations, his art shows Prague becoming a city of constantly changing street murals, the artists pursued by the secret police but never fully suppressed. At one point Sis recounts with dark humor the story of his cover illustration for a record album which the government checked to make sure that the wind sock on an airplane hanger showed the wind blowing from east to west. "You're in luck," they reported. "Your wind is blowing in the right direction."

Sis finally made his escape, but only after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Bringing his experience in Milos Macourek's animated films with him, he settled in the United States. Sis reports that his children, visiting modern, democratic Prague can hardly believe that it was for him "a dark place full of fear, suspicion, and lies." "Are you a settler, Dad?" his American kids asked. "How did you decide to settle here in America?" Out of their questions, The Wall was created.

For older children and especially teen readers who understand the history of the Cold War and perhaps a bit about youthful rebellion, Sis's book should bring alive the history of this period, the clash between East and West which occupied so much of the world's energy and attention in those years. It's a book which every library should own. Although, as one reviewer says, "Mr. Sis is the master of the not-necessarily-for-children picture book," it's a very personal look back into recent history which all young people should experience.

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