One-Minute Book Reviews

December 13, 2008

‘How I Learned Geography’ by Uri Shulevitz (Countdown to the Caldecott and Newbery Awards, #4)

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:25 am
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This post is the latest in series about possible candidates for the Caldecott and Newbery medals to be awarded next month

How I Learned Geography. By Uri Shulevitz. Farrar Straus & Giroux, 32 pp., $16.95. Ages 2 and up.

By Janice Harayda

For more than 40 years, Uri Shulevitz has ranked among the finest illustrators in the United States, and How I Learned Geography suggests why. This picture book uses the simple language of a folk tale but gains real depth through evocative watercolors and big themes.

In How I Learned Geography a boy and his parents lose everything they own when war forces them to leave their home and seek safety in a distant land. They have no food or books and live a single room with a dirt floor.

But one day when the father goes to the market for bread, he comes home instead with a map. The boy and his mother are furious – they have nothing to eat. But when the father hangs the map on the wall, “Our cheerless room was flooded with color.” Exotic place names inspire visions of deserts and mountains, temples and cities. The boy’s fantasies allow him to spend “enchanted hours far, far from our hunger and misery” and to forgive his father.

How I Learned Geography grew out of Shulevitz’s boyhood in World War II, when his family fled to Turkestan in Central Asia after a bomb fell into the stairwell of their apartment building in Warsaw. But the book names no cities, which helps to give it a mythic quality. And the tale works equally well as a survival narrative and as a parable about how a rich inner life can help children transcend an impoverished outer life. This book could be a wonderful tool for adults who want to help children explore moral and psychological questions such as: What should you do when you have more than one need and both seem equally important?

Best line/picture: The opening image of Warsaw burning. Shulevitz shows the family fleeing against an abstract red and gray background that suggests danger without using images that could make the book needlessly frightening.

Worst line/picture: The narrator remembers a fantasy inspired by a map: “I came to a city of tall buildings and counted zillions of windows, falling asleep before I could finish.” The pictures show cars from the 1940s or so. Wouldn’t a child of that era have thought “millions” or even “thousands” instead of “zillions”?

Published: April 2008

Furthermore: Shulevitz won a Caldecott Medal for The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship and Caldecott Honor citations for Snow and The Treasure. He also wrote So Sleepy Story, reviewed on this site on Feb. 24, 2007

Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear on this site every Saturday. To read other posts in the Countdown to the Caldecott and Newbery awards series, enter the word Countdown without quotation marks in the Search box at right.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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