Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain

By Peter Sis

I can admit I almost didn't read The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain because it's size and shape is exactly like many hardcover picture books. Plus, it has a baby on the cover and it is filled with drawings. When I began to read, I realized that this book is a great introduction into the world of Graphic Novels- it's sort of a pre-MAUS book- slightly (but not much) lighter with its subject.

I am glad, however, that I took the time to look through it and realize that it wasn't your average picture book, so I selected it. It is a Caldecott Honor book, and it was awarded a Kirkus Star.

Upon opening the book, the things that instantly draw the eye are the intricate drawings- of a little boy with a single curl down his forehead who loves to draw. Also, there are images of Prague and the people around Peter- Peter was born after the end of World War II, in what is now called the Czech Republic. Back in those days, however, it was part of the much larger conglomerate known as the United Soviet Socialist Republic.

When Peter enters school, there are a lot of things that he must do, things that would be voluntary in western nations. Russian Language classes were compulsory; Joining the Young Pioneers was compulsory; collecting scrap metal was; when he is older, joining the military was compulsory. When at school, Peter draws what he is told, when at home, he draws what he wants.

The secret police are everywhere. Parents learn not to be overly opinionated about political matters around their kids, for fear that their kids will report them. Western radio is banned, but somehow, the music of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones is pervasive popular. Kids build their own instruments and make clothes and shoes in the latest fashions to keep up. There are excerpts from Peter's diary- for instance, his father's cousin is imprisoned because he was on a national volleyball team and the secret police discover that the whole team intends to defect upon attending a tournament in another country.

Eventually, things seem like they are getting better with Alexander Dubcek as the new head of the Czech Communist government. Peter begins writing to a magazine in Britain called Record Mirror and he even gets his passport and books a trip to England. The USSR, however, has other things in mind and squashes everything- Peter and his parents were all out of the country when Russian tanks rolled into Prague, but they decided to go back to Prague, thinking it would be safe. The Beach Boys are allowed to come play a concert, but the police are waiting outside with dogs, and violence erupts. One of his friends dies from injuries to his head from a police baton.

Peter has a rock band and many of his friends are musicians- some of these people end up in prison. He thinks this is excessively harsh.

Peter grows up and finds a job as an animator- he has to turn one job down, however, since it requires he join the Communist Party. But finally, in 1989, the Berlin Wall collapses. By this time, Peter is an adult and has been living in the United States since 1984, but he is beyond thrilled.

The youngest person I would recommend this book to would be an 8 year old. Even that, I feel, may be too young. The format this book is in makes it look deceptively simple- but the subject and some of the vocabulary is simply too much for younger children- some examples of words that show up: dissident; Ideological; . Ultimately, I would suggest this for children between 9 and 11, but even as an adult, I thought it was very interesting and would recommend it to other adults, particularly those interested in art.

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