Totalitarian regimes make for good children’s books. They just do. What could be more inherently exciting plot-wise than a world in which you never know who to trust? Where children report parents to the police and freedom and creativity are stifled under the boots of oppressors? That makes for good copy. This year alone we’ve the Cultural Revolution book, “The Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party” by Ying Chang Compestine and the much discussed Peter Sis title, “The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain.” “The Wall” brings together your standard gorgeous Peter Sis imagery with content that is sure to cause debate and interest. Though it’s not a book I would necessarily site as a personal favorite and that I have a couple issues with, I appreciate that Sis has created something worth discussing with kids, teens, and adults alike.
He was born at the very beginning of The Cold War in Czechoslovakia. A kid with a penchant for drawing, right from the start, we watch as the growth of young Sis is paralleled with the rise of fear in his nation. Peter draws at home and at school and alongside this story we read of the compulsory and discouraged actions both required and prohibited by the government. The drawn sections are broken up by journal entries Sis wrote at the time, reflecting his beliefs and dreams. With the late 1960s, Sis was entranced by Western influences, a dangerous thing at the time. Near the end, Sis dreams of flying away above it all with wings made out of his art. His escape is cemented by the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and an Afterword explains how he left and what Prague is like now.
This is certainly an earnest book. Not humorless, but certainly gung ho in its love of all things American. It’s difficult to criticize a book on that basis since what Sis has gone through is unlike anything I could understand or appreciate. The book feels like a cathartic release but it lacks distance. There’s a danger of the author being almost too close to his material. Compare “The Wall” to “Persepolis” and you see the difference. The content is similar but the approach varies wildly. Satrapi is part of the story and, at the same time, removed. She doesn’t simplify the story into strict terms, but instead allows the audience to draw their own conclusions based on the information she presents to you. I just don’t feel that Sis has done that here. He tells you what to think of the subject matter and when to think it. For example, without batting an eye he suggests that Europe is said to contain, “Truth. Integrity. Honor. Liberty. Virtue,” etc. while on the East side of the Berlin Wall there is only, “Envy. Stupidity. Lies,” and so forth. He has every right to do so, particularly when you consider that this may be an image of what the young Sis believed lay in the West rather than what was really there. Unfortunately, as it currently stands, the image suggests that the readership not draw their own conclusions and accept the “Virtue” on top of Western Europe and the “Envy” on top of the Eastern half. Even the oppressors are featured with pig noses rather than looking like average everyday joes. How much more interesting it might have been to make the bad guys as human as the good guys. How much more interesting if, like Satrapi, he’d been able to take that one baby step backwards and not tell us what to believe.
Audience has never bothered Peter Sis, so I doubt we should let it bother us either. To my mind, this book is ideal for high school students. You can teach and teach the Cold War to them all day, but unless they get a little primary source material presented in an interesting fashion, who knows how much information they’re actually going to take in? Kids might like this book, but they probably won’t be able to understand the journal passages. I appreciated that Sis did find a way to make the book kid-friendly, though. At the bottom of each page are sections that can be read to kids and that make sense of young Peter’s life. It’s only when you read the captions that pop up on the sides of these pictures that you understand the background behind such innocuous statements as, “He didn’t question what he was being told.”
The journal passages were especially interesting to me. I liked the photographs of young Sis (particularly the hunky mop top with the raised eyebrow) and the glimpses of his art surrounding these passages. It was particularly interesting that Sis’ professor at the Academy of Applied Arts was Adolf Hoffmeister who wrote “Brundibar”. I wonder now how Sis felt about the Tony Kushner/Maurice Sendak picture book version of that tale. The information and details found in these journals just about make up for the lack of a Bibliography in the back. I suppose that since this is a first-hand account, Sis didn’t need to scout out kid-friendly sources to give some context to his lesson. Still, that means that we’re being told what to think about these events without a secondary source of any sort. It would be nice if kids were able to learn more about these times on their own, say, with a list of useful websites or books on the subject. I’ve been discussing whether or not Bibliographies are necessary in picture books. Maybe not always, but if I’m going to recommend this book to teens as well as kids as a bit of non-fiction (and the Dewey call number is 943.704092, after all) then I’m going to want some secondary sources.
(CONTINUED IN PART TWO)