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.

Once Upon a Garden Series by Jo Rooks

Once Upon a Garden Series

Jo Rooks, Author and Illustrator

Magaination Press, Fiction

Suitable for ages: 4-8

Sophie’s Shell

Aug. 20, 2019

Book Synopsis: Sophie was always ponders big questions, like
Why is the sky blue?
Why are raindrops wet?
and What are stars made of?

But when Sophie starts school, there’s a wobbly feeling in her tummy and she can’t help popping back into her shell.  She is left with one big question Why am I so shy?

When Sophie meets Stanley, she realizes that she’s not the only one who feels shy. Can she gain the confidence to help a new friend?
A heart warming tale about a sensitive snail who overcomes her shyness with a little help from her new friends.

Lucy’s Light

Aug. 20, 2019

Book Synopsis: Lucy is a lightning bug and the most talented flyer in the squad. There’s just one problem: she doesn’t light up! When it’s time to learn night flying, Lucy is anxious. She tries everything to get her light to shine but nothing works. Lucy is about to give up when her friends are captured by a nasty toad and his gang, who hatched a plan to brighten up their bog. Does Lucy have what it takes to save her friends? Or is she just an “ordinary” bug after all? A sweet story which shines a light on inner confidence, self-acceptance, and courage. Lucy learns that doing a good deed will always make you shine bright!

Doug’s Dung

Mar. 21 2020

Book Synopsis: Doug has trouble lifting heavy balls of dung. He just doesn’t feel as strong as the other dung beetles. When Doug feels down that he isn’t tough enough, a passing butterfly helps him see things in a different light and he realizes that strength comes in many forms.

An uplifting story of a determined dung beetle who finds his unique strength in creating beautiful things inspired by nature, flowers, friends, and the garden.

Layla’s Luck

Mar. 21, 2020

Book Synopsis: Layla is a ladybug with a lucky charm for ever occasion: lucky socks for running races, a lucky pencil for test, and a lucky watering can for her flowers. When Layla enters a baking event, she is counting on her good luck to help her bake a delicious cake. But is luck the only ingredient that matters?

A clever tale of a ladybug who learns that success comes form her own smarts, skill and hard work — not lucky charms and chance.

Why I like this series:

Explore the the world of self-discovery with four adorable creatures from the natural world — Layla, Doug, Lucy and Sophie — in the Once Upon a Garden series by author-illustrator, Jo Rooks. The four curious characters are fun-loving and appear in all of the stories. The series is perfect for young children who are working with issues of shyness, self-acceptance, and courage, and discovering new talents, skills and hard work. There is simplicity in the text and the illustrations are happy and bright, and compliment the emotions and themes in each book. This series is sure to boost the self-confidence of children.

Resources: Visit your backyard and identify the insects visiting your flower beds, gardens and trees. Draw a picture of your favorite insect or make up story about what the insect is doing. The books alone are excellent resources for parents and teachers.

Jo Rooks is an award-winning author-illustrator who studied graphic design and illustration at Bath School of Art and Design. She has illustrated several books including A Box of Butterflies and Hector’s Favorite Place.

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books (PPB) with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s website.

*Review copies from the publisher.