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How I Learned Geography Hardcover – April 1, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From School Library Journal

Starred Review. Grade 2–5—Shulevitz provides a note and early drawings to source this story based on his own childhood experience. A small boy and his parents flee Poland in 1939. They travel to Turkestan (modern-day Kazakhstan) where they live in one room in a house made of "clay, straw, and camel dung" with strangers. When the narrator's father returns from the bazaar with a huge map instead of bread to feed his starving family, his wife and son are furious. But the map turns out to provide food for his spirit as the youngster becomes fascinated by its every detail. Using his imagination, he can transport himself to all of the exotic-sounding places on it without ever leaving the dreary room in which it hangs. The folk-style illustrations, rendered in collage, watercolor, and ink, combined with the brief text, create a perfectly paced story. A page turn to discover where Father is going "one day" brings readers into a Russian bazaar with its crowds of colorful sellers and buyers, the scene closely resembling a drawing the illustrator made at age 10. Scenes framed in white depict the family boxed in by their desperate circumstances, first fleeing their war-torn country with its angry red-black sky, and then cramped in their small room in a distant land. The frames disappear as the boy imagines himself released from his confinement to travel his newly discovered world. This poignant story can spark discussion about the power of the imagination to provide comfort in times of dire need.—Marianne Saccardi, formerly at Norwalk Community College, CT
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From Booklist

*Starred Review* Recasting a childhood memory as a fictional tale, Caldecott Medalist Shulevitz revisits the journeying theme from his recent The Travels of Benjamin Tudela (2005), while harking back to the fanciful simplicity of Snow (1998) and So Sleepy Story (2006). Driven from home by a “war that devastated the land,“ a family flees to a remote city in the steppes. One day, the father returns from the market not with bread for supper but with a wall-filling map of the world. “‘No supper tonight,’ Mother said bitterly. ‘We’ll have the map instead.’” Although hungry, the boy finds sustenance of a different sort in the multicolored map, which provides a literal spot of brightness in the otherwise spare, earth-toned illustrations, as well as a catalyst for soaring, pretend visits to exotic lands. Shulevitz’s rhythmic, first-person narrative reads like a fable for young children. Its autobiographical dimension, however, will open up the audience to older grade-schoolers, who will be fascinated by the endnote describing Shulevitz’s life as a refugee in Turkestan after the Warsaw blitz, including his childhood sketch of the real map. Whether enjoyed as a reflection of readers’ own imaginative travels or used as a creative entrée to classroom geography units, this simple, poignant offering will transport children as surely as the map it celebrates. Grades K-3. --Jennifer Mattson

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Product Details

  • Age Range: 4 - 8 years
  • Grade Level: Preschool and up
  • Lexile Measure: 660L (What's this?)
  • Hardcover: 32 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR); First Edition edition (April 1, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374334994
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374334994
  • Product Dimensions: 10.3 x 0.4 x 10.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (34 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #154,096 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

49 of 54 people found the following review helpful By E. R. Bird HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on April 1, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Your story is your own, and when you choose to share it with the world you may find it hard to stop. There is no subject you are better familiar with, of course. Human beings can write diaries with a lifetime's worth of memories. They can pen autobiographies that go from cradle to near grave and still find enough information for a couple thousand pages more. Maybe that's why I have so much respect for the picture book autobiography. Particularly when it's not even a look at an entire life, but a snatched moment in a person's youth that made them who they are today. Look back on your own life. If you had to synthesize it down to the one moment that defined who you are right now, what would it be? For Caldecott Award winner Uri Shulevitz, it all comes down to a map. And so, with brevity and wit and a feel for what makes a picture book worth reading, Mr. Shulevitz recounts a time of trial from his life that is touching in its seeming simplicity.

When young Uri Shulevitz fled Moscow with his family to the relative safety and security of then Turkestan (now Kazakhstan) they had little money and littler food. One day the boy's father goes out to buy bread, but when he comes home it is not with anything edible but with a map. Uri is furious at this dad and has to put up with his neighbors noisily smacking their lips as they devour their own miniscule dinner. Yet when Uri's father hangs the map on their wall, it offers the boy unexpected joys. Through its presence he goes round the world, exploring everything from cold mountain peaks to the thrill of beautiful temples. The map offers the boy escape from his hard life and perhaps helps to set him on his way as an artist and illustrator.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Andrew Schonbek on July 13, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is the jolting start to a book with the innocuous title "How I Learned Geography".

Shulevitz continues, "Everything we had was lost, and we fled empty-handed".

The picture on this first page evokes an almost unimaginable pain and loss. Three figures, faces contorted into masks of suffering, are fleeing from a conflagration. As the father leads the way, the mother turns to hold the hand of a child, who is running to keep up. There is nothing else; the ground is grey and the sky is red.

Should your kids be reading this?

Well, yes. It's a story of loss, of survival, but ultimately of redemption and freedom.

And it's a true story, an autobiography of events that took place when the author was four or five year's old. (This is explained in a helpful author's note that provides the historical context.)

"We traveled far, far east to another country, where summers were hot, and winters were cold, to a city of houses made of clay, straw, and camel dung, surrounded by dusty steppes, burned by the sun".

This is the city of Turkestan, where the subsequent action unfolds.

The Shulevitz family has nothing, is hungry, and truly subsists as strangers in a strange land.

And then - freedom.

The vehicle is a map of the world, and fuel is provided by the imagination of a young boy. And so the circumstances are overcome, and in the end we sense that all is well.

While the content of this book might be seen as weighty, there can be no doubt that it is very worthy.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Yana V. Rodgers on August 15, 2008
Format: Hardcover
A young boy and his parents flee their country with only the clothes on their backs during the war, winding up as refugees in a new land with hot, dusty summers and cold winters. They are given shelter by strangers but the adjustment is difficult, with little food to eat and no toys for the boy to play with. When the father goes to market one day to buy bread and returns instead with a large world map, the boy and his mother are confused and angry. But over the course of time, the map provides the boy with endless opportunities to use his imagination for forgetting about his hungry stomach and escaping to exotic countries.

In this unique book, Caldecott winner Uri Shulevitz draws on his memories of escaping from Poland to Turkestan during World War II and starting over in an entirely different social and economic setting. The simple text, rich illustrations, and author's note in the back yield a powerful set of lessons in economics about how a child faces and deals with scarcity, hunger, and poverty. Teachers and parents seeking books with social studies content that younger readers can understand will value How I Learned Geography for their collections.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Dienne TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on September 7, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I bought this book because it got good reviews, especially the illustrations. I also bought it because of the geography theme. Like the father in the story, I too bought a large map for my daughter (although she never missed a day's food because of it). I was, unfortunately, disappointed on both counts.

The illustrations are certainly colorful, but there's a cartoonish quality to them that simply doesn't mesh with the feel of the story itself. The drawings also don't give more than a vague impression of the locations they're supposed to be representing.

The story also doesn't give much of a feel for moving through actual geography. It is the story of a boy who becomes captivated by geography after his poor father brings home a map instead of food one night. But as a reader, I certainly wasn't drawn in to such captivation. It simply felt like I was reading a story about a boy who likes to pretend to travel, not that I myself was travelling with him.

In fact, there's not a lot to really draw one into the story at all. The opening page is promising with its stark illustration and its brief description of war, but then we leave the war behind and forget all about it. There's nothing compelling in the language that helps to paint the boy's experience.

In fact, I can't quite tell what age the book is written for. The language and the theme are too advanced for most young children, yet I think older kids would describe it as "boring". My own not-quite-four-year-old is utterly indifferent.

Shulevitz could really have drawn readers in by developing the boy's imaginary travels more, but as it is, the book falls flat. I sure don't understand why it deserved a Caldecott honor.

Save your money and check it out of the library. I'd be surprised if your kids want to read it more than once.
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