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.

Every Falling Star: How I Survived and Escaped North Korea

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Every Falling Star: The True Story of How I Survived and Escaped North Korea

Sungju Lee and Susan McClelland, Authors

Amulet Books, Memoir, Sep. 13, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 11 – 14

Themes: Life in North Korea, History, Family Relationships, Homeless Boys, Street Children, Gangs, Poverty, Loss, Survival, Escape,  Multicultural, Hope

Prologue Opening: My toy soldier peers over a mound of dirt not far from where my father, abeoji, my mother, eomeoni, and I have just finished our picnic, near the Daedong River in Pyongyang.

Synopsis: Every Falling Star is the memoir of Sungju Lee, a North Korean (Joseon) boy who grows up in a privileged military family in Pyongyang.  He dreams of becoming a general in the army. His father is an important military leader, his mother a teacher and his grandfather a doctor. Sungju plays with his toy soldiers and his father joins him to teach him war strategies. His favorite television cartoon is Boy General. His loving  family lives in a large apartment near Kim Il-sung Square. Life is normal and there is plenty of food. Sungju attends school where he listens to the stories about the eternal leader, Kim Il-Sung, studies regular subjects, and learns about the monsters that want to attack his country — the Americans, the Japanese and the South Koreans. He takes taekwondo lessons, attends birthday parties, and goes to the amusement park.

One day Sungju’s father is asked to leave his job because of something he’s done. The family is sent north to Gyeong-seong, where they are to work as laborers in the countryside. Sungju is shocked by his new life and the starvation and death around him. He attends school where he makes friends, but attending is not worth his time. Eventually the family’s money (won) runs out and they fall upon hard times like everyone else. His parents hunt for wild vegetables, roots, small animals in the forests to survive. Sungju sells his books in the market. When his father goes to China to sell valuables and his mother heads to an aunt’s home for food, Sungju is alone. They never return and he is homeless. The twelve-year-old is forced to live in the streets and fend for himself. He survives for four years by joining a gang (kotjebi) and creates a new family with these brothers. Eventually he leads his own gang. Life is dangerous, brutal, and unforgiving. Sungju learns to steal, lie, and fight-to-kill. Everyday he fears arrest, imprisonment and even execution. It is the hope of finding his parents that keeps him alive.

Why I like this book:

  • Sungju Lee’s brave memoir captivated me from start to finish. I know so little about life in contemporary North Korea, and his gripping and powerfully haunting story touched me in a way I won’t forget. This is a true story that humanizes history for readers.
  • Lee and author Susan McClelland vividly depict the sharp contrast between life for the privileged families living in Pyongyang and the grim, deplorable and brutal life for the poor living through the famine outside the city in the 1990s. You understand how children in Pyongyang are brainwashed with propaganda based on myths from birth. You feel the anger, hopelessness and despair of those starving in the countryside and wonder how you would survive an authoritarian government where censorship is rampant and your freedoms are taken away.
  • Readers will observe Sungju’s transformation from a naïve child, loving and dutiful son in Pyongyang, to a resilient, fearless and notorious street gang leader. He uses the military tactics his father teaches him as a child to outsmart his street enemies, merchants and the police. He has rules his gang all agree to live by, like never stealing food from a child. He develops strategies, secret codes and hideouts. He is a leader and becomes hardened. The only heart he shows is towards his loyal gang brothers: Young-bum, Chulho, Min-gook, Unsik, Myeongchul, and Sangchul. They are his family.
  • The story is a page turner, reads like a novel and is packed with action. The pacing is fierce with most of the storytelling focused on Sungju’s street survival. He and his gang are always on the move. They hop trains to other cities, fight with different gangs for control over markets, manipulate merchants, and are chased out-of-town by police. They move on to other cities and repeat their activities. They also suffer personal injury and loss of two of their brothers.
  • Readers will have to wait until the very last chapter to discover how Sungju leaves his street life and is reunited with his family. The ending feels rushed and I wanted to know more about his big escape. After all, it is a risky event. Thankfully, there is an Epilogue at the end that fills in the gaps. Verdict: Teens will find this powerful memoir about adversity and hope, engaging and satisfying.  Every Falling Star belongs in school libraries. Although the publisher lists the book for ages 12-14, the School Library Journal recommends it for middle grade readers, ages 8 -12. Because of the drinking, drugs, stealing and violence in the book, parents should make that call for tweens.

Quote: “But I hadn’t lost everything. I had hope that I would meet my parents again. With this hope, I made a wish whenever I saw a falling star.”

Resources: There is a Brief History of Korea and Prologue at the beginning of the book. There is an Epilogue and Glossary of Korean words at the end.

Check other Middle Grade review links on author Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.

Positive

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Paige Rawl with Ali Benjamin, Authors

Harper Collins, Memoir, Aug. 26, 2014

Suitable for Ages: 12-16

Themes: Paige Rawl, HIV-positive children, AIDS in adolescence, Bullying, Suicide, Hope

Book Synopsis: Cheerleader, soccer player, honor roll student. One of the good kids at her middle school. Then on an unremarkable day, Paige disclosed the one thing that made her “different”: her HIV-positive status. Within hours, the bullying began.  They called her PAIDS. Left cruel notes on her locker. Talked in whispers about her and mocked her openly. She turned to school administrators for help. Instead of assisting her, they ignored her urgent pleas…and told her to stop the drama. She had never felt more alone. One night, desperate for escape, Paige found herself in front of the medicine cabinet, staring at a bottle of sleeping pills. That could have been the end of her story. Instead, it was only the beginning.

Why I like this book: Paige Rawl and Ali Benjamin have written a realistic, raw, brave and powerful memoir about a teen living with HIV since birth. Although Paige is stable on medications, HIV is such a sensitive subject and tough diagnosis for a teen to deal with — especially when her best friend betrays her. Once Paige’s secret spreads like wildfire at school, the bullying begins. This is one of the best memoirs I’ve read this year. It is a real page turner that I could not put down. Although what happens to Paige is heartbreaking, her courage to reclaim herself and move forward is inspiring. You will find yourself rooting for Paige as she finds a voice she didn’t know she had. Her memoir is written in short chapters and is well-paced. Her voice is strong and determined. In sharing her story, she encourages other teens to find their inner strength in the midst of any storm. And her experience has made a difference for others.

Resources: There is extensive information and facts about HIV, bullying and suicide.  She shares information on programs for kids who are touched by HIV/AIDS, a National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and programs to stop bullying.

Brown Girl Dreaming

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Jacqueline Woodson, Author

Nancy Paulsen Books, Memoir, Aug. 28, 2014

Winner: National Book Award, the 2015 Newbery Honor Book and the 2015 Coretta Scott King Author Award

Suitable for Ages: 10 and up

Themes:  Jacqueline Woodson, Childhood, Family relationships, Living in the north and south, Finding one’s voice, From girl to author

Pages: 366

Opening“I am born on a Tuesday at University Hospital/Columbus, Ohio./USA– a country caught/ between Black and White.”

Synopsis: Jacqueline Woodson shares what it is like to grow up in the 1960s and 1970s in both Brooklyn, NY and Greenville, SC.  The south is home for Jacqueline and her brother and sister as they spend the summers with their grandparents. Children tease Jacqueline and her siblings about their northern accents. She struggles with the subtle prejudices in the South as her  awareness of the civil rights movement grows. In Greenville there are loving grandparents, friends, and a lot of love. In Brooklyn she’s teased about being a Jehovah Witness and having to follow rules that her  friends don’t understand. And living in the shadow of her sister’s academic performance in school presents another challenge. Jacqueline has difficulty with schoolwork. It is through her poetry and storytelling that a teacher tells  her “You’re a writer.” Jacqueline’s voice begins to grow stronger with each word she pens because she wants to believe.  Readers will find Jacqueline Woodson’s journey to become an author engaging and inspiring.

Every dandelion blown

each Star light, star bright,

The first star I see tonight.

My wish is always the same.

Every fallen eyelash

and first firefly of summer…

The dream remains.

What did you wish for?

To be a writer.”

What I like about this book: Brown Girl Dreaming is a deeply personal and authentic memoir for teens struggling with race, prejudice, absent fathers, and finding their place in the world. Jacqueline Woodson’s determined and uplifting voice is eloquent. Her use of free verse compliments the theme in her memoir.  Her story is lyrical, emotional, and powerful. Each page is a clever, lively or soulful poem about a growing girl’s identity; her struggle with reading, a love of stories, and a desire to become a writer. She gives her readers hope and the sweet taste of what it’s like to follow your dreams.

Jacqueline Woodson is the winner of the Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement in writing for young adults, the recipient of three Newberry Honors for After Tupac and D Foster, Feathers and Show Way, and a two-time finalist for the National Book Award for Locomotion and Hush.  Other awards include the Coretta Scott King Award and Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Miracle’s Boys. Visit Jacqueline Woodson at her website.