karrie's corner's Reviews > The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain

The Wall by Peter Sís
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As I read The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Peter Sis, I was thinking back to my visit to Prague a few years ago and tried to imagine what it must have been like to grow up there when Peter Sis did. The Prague I saw was nothing like the government controlled, society censored, and creativity crusher that he describes in this intricate story. When I was in Prague, it was as if the citizens were making up for all the lost time under Communist rule. Women in provocative clothes propositioned everyone who walked by. The shops were wallpapered with t-shirts sporting Western bands and famous people; some t-shirts were subtle with sexual entendre, but a majority were boldly sporting naked bodies and overt sexual positions or comments. There was electricity in the air, and the people of Prague seemed genuinely happy and good-natured. I thought then that there seemed to be a party atmosphere, and had I read The Wall before going, I would've understood why I had that impression. It was almost as if they were basking in freedom, making up for lost time. I walked miles around Prague, engaged in conversation with the locals, bought beautiful crystals, and watched the astronomical clock chime on the hour, and thought what a charming place it was. A typical tourist without any appreciation for the people of Czechoslovakia had been through.

After reading Peter Sis' book, I'm embarrassed that I didn't know how oppressed people under Communist rule really were, and I did not appreciate the history of such a beautiful place while I was there. I'm embarrassed that I didn't know people who lived behind the Iron Curtain were denied art, music, and books. I'm horrified that people were spied on and turned in to the government by suspicious neighbors. I grew up during the Cold War, but it was one of those things that existed in the background of American children. We knew Communists were bad, but I never really got it. What a history lesson The Wall was for me! I was immediately captivated with the first words, "1948. The Soviets take control of Czechoslovakia and close the borders," and hung on every word after that. I could almost hear an iron door slam. As I began reading the pictures -- and that is what one will do with this book, I was drawn in first by the shot of red in each picture. It became a sort of Where's Waldo of the Wall. Where will the Reds appear? My eyes would wander over the incredible detail in each picture, and I'd marvel at the intricacies of each picture. The story is extraordinary -- descriptive, yet simple enough to understand, moving at a pace that grips the reader. Combined with the concise text, I found myself on the edge of my seat reading it intently. Three times it took me to make sure I was seeing everything I needed to see in his pictures, and each time I saw a new detail and new information.

I recently read Snow by Uri Shulevitz to my Kindergarten and 1st graders. It was during the first snowfall of the season, so I went to my shelves and pulled out this Caldecott Honor Book. I remember thinking what a perfect book it was for that day. The pictures in Snow are primarily gray and stark, and we were having a gray Chicago day. Swollen snow was starting to come down and gather on the frozen ground. Everything around us was dull. At the time we had fun counting the snowflakes on the pages, looking at how creepy some of the pictures were, and commenting about how excited the children were that it was starting to snow outside in their world, just like the little boy in the book. But after reading The Wall, I have a totally different perception of Snow. The village looks like a Russian village under Communist rule. Like The Wall, there is very little color and what color is on the pages of these books expresses generally the joy,happiness and imagination of a child. Snow was first published in 1998 -- which surprised me because I was convinced it had been published in the 1950s and had been reprinted. The book gives a very distinct feel that it took place decades earlier -- during the Cold War. I can't help but wonder if Shulevitz was writing a metaphor for the same period of time that The Wall takes place. (I'm probably really late to this ah-ha moment.)

I highly recommend both of these books -- perhaps even together, in a lesson about the Cold War. Adults and children who read these books will get a very good picture -- literally -- of what it was like to live behind the Iron Curtain.
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