The Genius Under the Table by Eugene Yelchin

Please note that this will be my last review of 2021!  I will return on Jan. 3, 2022.  Enjoy your holidays!

The Genius Under the Table: Growing up Behind the Iron Curtain

Eugene Yelchin, Author and Illustrator

Candlewick Press, Memoir, Oct. 12, 2021

Suitable for ages: 10-15

Pages: 208

Themes: Soviet Union, Family, Communal living, Poverty, Surveillance, Talent, Memoir  

Opening: “The first time I saw real American tourists, they hopped out of a tourist bus in Red Square in Moscow and cut in front of us in line. “Nice manners!” my mother shouted. “We’ve been freezing our butts off for hours and they just breeze in like that?”

Publisher’s Synopsis:

Everyone in communist Russia is keeping secrets — including Yevgeny. By day, he longs to become an athlete, like his brother, or a dancer, like his mother’s beloved Mikhail Baryshnikov, an icon with secrets of his own. By night, however, Yevgeny’s world comes alive on the underside of his grandmother’s heavy oak table, where he uses his father’s stubby pencil to sketch out all the drama, confusion, and difficulty of life in the USSR. Grappling with the looming threats of surveillance and poverty — an armed with only his pencil and a tendency to ask difficult questions — Yevgeny is on a quest to understand his society, in a tale heartbreaking and hilarious in equal measure.

Why I like this book:

Eugene Yelchin has written a witty and dark memoir about life in the Soviet Union in the 1960s-1970s. He lived in Leningrad as a child, which makes his story even more believable for readers. And it reads like a piece of fiction. Yelchin’s artwork graces nearly every page of the story, perfectly complementing the text. 

Life is hard in the Soviet Union. Extended families live in communaka (communal) one-room apartments. They share the bathroom, hallways and kitchen with other dwellers. Food is rationed. Many books and artwork are banned. There are paid spies in every communalka. Everything about life is based on rules. Freedom of speech is forbidden. Antisemitism is still prevalent.

The only way to succeed and get out of poverty is to have a talent, like Yevgeny’s brother, Victor, who is a talented ice skater and athlete. I was fascinated at how the USSR used talent as a secret weapon against the United States during the Cold War. Yevgeny doesn’t appear to have a special talent. His mother wants him to be a great ballet dancer like Baryshnikov. But he DOES have a talent that even he’s not aware of.

I especially enjoyed how Yelchin weaves the famous Baryshnikov (and his defection) into this story. Yevgeny’s mother works at the Vaganovka Ballet Academy for where Baryshnikov studied dance as a child. She has an interesting relationship with the artistic world. She takes Yevgeny to see her beloved “Misha”  dance at the Kirov Ballet Theater, where they stand in the wings and watch him perform. (And, yes there is a secret backstory about his mother and ballet.)

Yevgeny’s father is a committed communist and has a deep love for poetry — much of which is banned in the USSR because poetry tells the truth. In the USSR it is dangerous to tell the truth or criticize the government. Artists who survived learned to make art by the rules. Readers will learn about how people keep secrets, especially about family members. They even cut pictures of loved ones out of photographs. And Yevgeny really wants to know what happened to his grandfather, but his grandmother remains silent.

I was drawn to this story because I’ve always been fascinated with Russian history and political science and studied Russian in college in the 70s. There are no tidy endings to this story, as Yelchin’s memoir represents his family’s experience of living behind the Iron Curtain.

Eugene Yelchin is the the coauthor and illustrator of the 2018 National Book Award finalist The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, cowritten with M.T. Anderson. He is also the author and illustrator of the Newbery Honor Book Breaking Stalin’s Nose, and the recipient of a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Tomie dePaola illustrator Award. Eugene Yelchin lives in Topanga, California, with his family.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Review copy provided by Candlewick Press in exchange for a review.

About Patricia Tiltonhttps://childrensbooksheal.wordpress.comI want "Children's Books Heal" to be a resource for parents, grandparents, teachers and school counselors. My goal is to share books on a wide range of topics that have a healing impact on children who are facing challenges in their lives. If you are looking for good books on grief, autism, visual and hearing impairments, special needs, diversity, bullying, military families and social justice issues, you've come to the right place. I also share books that encourage art, imagination and creativity. I am always searching for those special gems to share with you. If you have a suggestion, please let me know.

17 thoughts on “The Genius Under the Table by Eugene Yelchin

  1. My best friend’s family had an exchange student from Russia live with them during one school year when I was growing up. Tonya had may stories about her life back home and I still remember them today. I will have to get a copy of this book to read. The MC has all the makings of being able to carry this story. Thanks for featuring on MMGM. See you again in 2022!

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  2. I haven’t actually read any of Yelchin’s books before, but I know people really like them, and this sounds like such a compelling and impactful memoir! I imagine I would learn a lot about the trials and tribulations of Soviet life, which I’m not really familiar with. Thanks so much for the great review, Patricia, and happy holidays—see you in 2022!

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  3. I have this one on reserve, but wonder about the kid appeal. Breaking Stalin’s Nose was one that really struggled in my library. I love the era and the topic, but there’s something about the illustrations that my students don’t readily pick up. I’ll read and see what I think. Thanks for more insight. Happy holidays!

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    • Yes, I wondered about kid-appeal. Adults will like it. I would have loved it at age 14 and up because I was fascinated with the Soviet Union. But, it’s also a book about self-discovery and finding your talents. It is a very well-written memoir and I loved every moment I spent with the book. Will be interesting to read your thoughts.

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