The Wall:
Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain

by Peter Sís

Peter Sís's The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain

Children's book review by Steve Barancik

Ages 8-Adult

A picture book history book about freedom

Love freedom? Hate communism? Buy Peter Sís's first hand account of what it was to grow up young and artistic in a totalitarian society. But...

Be sure that you really love freedom. Freedom can mean long hair, and The Beatles and not only the questioning of authority but the challenging of it.

If those notions are disturbing to you, you won't want this book.

But I sure as heck hope someone sneaks it to your children!

There's a lot of sneaking about in a society (or family) where the authority figures tell you what to think, and author-illustrator Sís has the experience and skills to bring that home.

The Wall is an autobiography set in an historic time. Sís was born in 1949, as the Iron Curtain was going up around the Eastern Bloc countries. He was coming of age around the time of the Prague Spring, when it looked like Czechoslovakia might actually throw off the yoke of the Soviet Union.

  • Iron Curtain
  • Eastern Bloc
  • Prague Spring
  • Czechoslovakia
  • Soviet Union

Yep. That's all history now, history (this reviewer thinks) your children would be better off knowing.

Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain imparts a sense of those times on a number of levels.

1) A very simple narrative. No more than a sentence per page.

2) Illustratively. Sís's sketches are primarily in black and white, with symbols of Soviet totalitarianism in stark red. Young Sís's artistic efforts, barely visible against all that oppression, appear in soft pastels.

3) Facts. Accompanying the illustrations of Iron Curtain Czechoslovakia are factoids - many of them unimaginable to today's children - about what it was like to live under the thumb of the state.

4) Journal entries. Sís shares with us events from his days growing up that seem almost magically personal and historic.

5) Introduction and Afterward. Sís provides history in the former and some post-history in the latter.

It's hard to peg an age range for this book. There's nothing in the narrative that's too advanced for a too-young-to-read child, but it's going to be up to the adult in the room to provide explanation and context of the other stuff.

At what point would a child be too old for this book? Maybe once (s)he completes her/his doctoral thesis on the subject. Because this book will make a mark on anyone who reads it.

The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain is important stuff, a book that you'll never find yourself selling on eBay. Rather, when the kids grow up, you'll just move it from their bookshelf to yours.

More Caldecott book reviews.

young artist behind the Iron Curtain

Read more of Steve's reviews.

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