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24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on September 12, 2007
Not only for the children:

Everybody is familiar with the saying "we take certain things, like freedom for granted". Peter Sis' book is about living in a country where this self-evident asset did not exist. Bear in mind, the author does not write about some high ideas whose proclamations would endanger the state. He is talking about criticizing government actions within a scope of a neighborly gossip - one cannot complain about the shortages of particular goods, telephones are bugged, certain books and films are banned, press, art and whole culture are censored, foreign radios are jammed, letters are opened and censored, informers are rewarded for snooping etc. "Yes", some readers might say "we already read about it so many times, and the cold war ended seventeen years ago". Of course, books were written about it and some adults even read it, but what is new about this book is its target. It is aimed for the children. The author, a world famous children books illustrator was born in former Czechoslovakia under the Communist regime and he presents the way of life during that terrible period as seen with the children eyes. The book is illustrated with the child -like, but artistic drawings. One might classify it as Comics for the gifted children. Since the facts are refined by the child lenses, I would recommend to read it together with the parents and I am certain that both sides will benefit. Specifically two chapters titled "From my Journals", where the necessary historical ,political events are recorded, could be fully understood only by the High school and higher up students. Since I lived under that system during my adolescence years I could testify for the accuracy of the facts with the understandable omission of the gruesome show trials, where the innocent people were sent to gallows or to heavy imprisonment in the concentration camps. We are aware that it is for the children and we hope that they will learn from it more than our generation did from the books for the adults.
I could voice only one critical comment. The author did not explain how this system came to power as experienced by a common man. Especially the children are prone to follow the logic of the "good guys" against the "bad ones". In general it followed the same path as any would-be totalitarian system. The Communist Party did not proclaim its final goal: total power. In the transient democratic period it promised to the masses essentially a heaven on the earth, for any problem, however complicated offered simple solution, in other words they pretended to be "good guys" and they succeeded... Once in power the Communists simply did not allow any free elections. Of course they were helped by the threat of the Soviet invasion, which had to come anyway many years later. This way presented lesson could help better to-days children to orient in the politics around us.
I strongly recommend this book as an educational and entertaining medium for the whole family.

Karel Kriz,
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40 of 50 people found the following review helpful
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, 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.

The comic book bloggers have been calling this book a picture book graphic novel, and have claimed "The Wall" as their own. It's a very interesting take. At first glance I just assumed that this story was similar in its layout and structure to the Galileo and Darwin books Sis has put out before. And it is, in a way, but then I took a closer look at the structure. Though this is not the case on every page, the art is consistently broken into panels. There aren't speech balloons or much in the way of text integrated within the pictures. Because the words surround the pictures, the eye has something to dance between. The tiny dot style Sis employs here works beautifully within the context of the story. Colors stand out against a black and white background. With the exception of the color red, nothing in Prague is allowed to be colorful. Only Westernized objects and ideas appear in anything but pen and ink. The two-page multi-colored spread of the Spring of 1968 (shown here) stands in sharp contrast to the red-infused earlier spread of Stalinism and its ilk.

Sis hasn't won a Caldecott Award proper quite yet. He's been honored for Tibet Through the Red Box and Starry Messenger (not The Tree of Life, bizarrely) but "The Wall" is bound to be the best bet he's had yet. It's a beautiful book and no one is going to contest that. Shoot, it's already gotten at least four starred reviews in professional journals and is bound to garner some more. Come award season it'll sweep the nominations and everyone will get to hear a lovely Peter Sis speech (he's a very good public speaker) and it will all be lovely and droll. I don't object to the book winning, but I do wish the heavy hand guiding it could have trusted the audience a little and not spelled out its message quite so blatantly (i.e. "America to the rescue"). It's quite an accomplishment but one that could have stood a drop of irony in the mix.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on January 18, 2008
This wonderful book manages to be both creative and insightful, documenting life behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War in words and graphic design. Peter Sis's use of color in his intricate illustrations highlights and enhances the matter-of-fact language of his text. He has managed to create a journal, biography, and social/historical commentary that is fascinating reading for older children and adults alike.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on June 22, 2008
I am a great fan of Peter Sis and collect all his books, this was my last acquisition. Being the same age and growing up in the same place, I can relate to everything he has to tell, and on top of it, between the lines my own thoughts and memories always resurface and add more dimensions to his story. My favorite of his books is the Tibet through the red box. There is an adventure, suspense, politics, the mysterious Tibet, and everything told so beautifully and illustrated with incredibly sweet detail!
The Wall is an important book and had to be told to the world, though many similar stories had been written on the subject. This one adds yet another facet. Again, the illustrations are fabulous, yet for me, personally, opening the book took some time. Apprehensions, goose bumps, unwillingness to relive those times and reopen old wounds...
In another of his books, The Three Golden Keys, on the publisher page is a tiny note: Thank you for a dream J.O.! A nice reminder that Jackie Onassis, who then worked for Doubleday, was an editor of the final outcome. It is somehow missing in his future books :(
So, yes, a good book to read, an important one, and hopefully it will lead to curiosity about his other books. They are too good not to own and collect.
By the way, did you know that Peter Sis made beautiful wall mozaiks for the New York subway station at 86th Street and Lexington? You must see it!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on July 30, 2008
We in the West often cannot believe,or rufuse to believe what it must have been like to live behind 'The Iron Curtain'.Surely we are told,those tales of repression are merely 'Mc Carthyite propaganda' and 'cold war nonsense'.For some strange reason the idea of a socio political system that murdered more than one hundred million of it's own people while enslaving over a billion more is just too much to face.Leave it to a 'mere childrens book' to show us a slice of life behind the iron curtain.Peter Sis's book does more to open our eyes to life under communism than a spielberg movie ever could(or ever would).Using simple drawings he communicates the hopes and fears of those trapped on the other side of "the wall".Hope springs eternal and oppresion is ever present in a world where a young boy only wants to draw pictures and listen to music without the authorities telling him what to do and how to think and behave.Art and music were seen as powerfull tools and therefor powerfull weapons by soviet rulers.Play a guitar in the West and you were just like everyone else..maybe you could even make a living at it.In the East,a guitar or paintbrush or pen could get you imprisoned or even killed.The West was forbidden fruit.While the West tuned in turned on and dropped out in 1968,the people of Eastern Europe cowered against oppresion,while the West could'nt care less.Revollution was in the air,please dont confuse the issue by pointing out the results of said revollution.While we in the West fictionalsed socialism,it's victims turned to us and our freedom as if it were a drug.The Beachboys..the Beatles..Led Zeppelin.Powerful stuff.All the while the hopes and dreams of one little boy(and countless others)survived the brutallity of socialism and eventually survived to witness the collapse of the Iron Curtain.Sis survives and his artistic life continues.I dont know if this book can be compared to the likes of such works as "Maus" or other well known graphic books.It is a simple book,simply illustrated and simply told.But it is told well.But please dont think of it as a 'mere childrens book'.I can think of only too many grownups who could take a gander and maybe learn a thing or two.But that may be asking too much.Already i can hear some say "he's awfully tough on those poor socialists and way too easy on America".No...he is merely telling the truth...a small slice of life as it was.In fact,the reality was far more grim than even hinted at in this book.This is a simple book.An easy book.A good book for children (of all ages).This is a great book for a budding young artist or musician...or tenured proffessor or even Bay area resident.Liberals should love this book as much as conservatives(how many books can that be said of?).
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on October 25, 2012
In an author's note, Sis states that the best way to answer the questions about whether he is a settler in the United States is through the medium he communicates best in: drawings. The result is a beautiful, gripping, heartbreaking story about a boy born into communist Czechoslovakia who loves to draw what he wants. That is until the government begins telling him what to draw.

This graphic novel style set-up works well for the subject, which is dealt with delicately enough that a slightly younger but mature audience can find understanding. And yet it is so well balanced that it serves as a great teaching tool even for adults.

An excellent inside look at the horrors of communism and government control.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on December 28, 2013
The book is simple yet very powerful. I am a daughter of a political prisoner (10 years) from communist Cuba. I purchased this book for my kids to have a better understanding of what a bad and oppressive government is like and where part of their history comes from. People telling on one another, phone conversations and letters being surveillance was part of what both my parents had to endure. Just like in the story my parents as teenagers were sent away from home and were forced for several months to go to the fields and do labor work for free . My mother was persecuted for practicing her faith because like in the book religion was not tolerated. My brother was harassed (by the school staff who encouraged the children to do the same) because of his faith and because of his father's incarceration. The story also writes how the people had to make lines to get food. This is also another sad reality. My mom had to stand in line for hours out in the sun to get her family's portion of rationed food. Sometimes when her turn came there was no food left to receive. I will never forget as a young child how my mother sobbed in our first visit to an American supermarket. She couldn't believe so much food was available while people in her country go hungry. She spent the first few years hoarding food and things like soap and shampoos for fear that it could be hard to find later. When I read this book for the first time I couldn't help and shed a few tears because everything that I heard growing up (I was 2 years when my family arrived to America with a political asylum visa) was written there in those pages along with large drawn illustrations. America is indeed an awesome country and do not allow anyone to convince you otherwise!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! LOVED the BOOK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on April 7, 2008
Imagine a life where you could only draw what the government said you could draw. A life where you couldn't listen to music or read books of your own choice, you couldn't grow your hair long, and you were asked to report your parents if they said anything negative about the government.

This was what life was like for Peter Sis and countless others who grew up in Cold War Era Czechoslovakia under Soviet rule.

Through journal entries, captions, and the story of a boy who loves to draw (Sis), we get an account of the Cold War era from 1948 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The boy in the book is allowed to draw anything he wants at home, but when he starts school, he can only draw what he's told to draw. We learn how easy it is to brainwash children who are encouraged to report their parents if they hear them say anything against the government. To Sis, this is the way life is until he gets wind of things he isn't allowed to know about: rock `n roll music, the Beatles, Elvis Presley. We then learn what it's like to be oppressed, to be denied freedom and get glimpses of Sis' dreams to be free.

Sis' graphic-novel like book effectively conveys tone through color. With black and white sketches, the only splashes of color are communist red and the colors in the boy's drawings. During the Prague Spring of 1968, the colors in the book brighten, demonstrating hope and cheerfulness--colors of freedom. But they quickly go back to the black and white drawings when the totalitarian regime comes back in full force.

A stirring book, I recommend this for older kids who are able to grasp the seriousness of the content and even high school students who are studying the Cold War.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on February 6, 2008
The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain is Peter Sís' autobiographical story of growing up in Czechoslovakia during the Cold War. Told primarily through simplistic, child-like drawings with side notes of a running timeline of the events during his childhood, you are given a simple but powerful account of what is was like to be a child and growing up in Czechoslovakia during this time.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on November 28, 2012
The book Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain is an accurate depiction of what it was like to live in Czechoslovakia while under Soviet rule. Young people today take for granted the freedoms they enjoy every day and in my opinion this book would help anyone to empathize with the characters going through this turmoil. By telling the story through a child's eyes, the author takes adult situations and problems and makes them relatable to young readers. Readers have the opportunity to see what life would be like if they could never have a private phone conversation, never draw what they wanted, never be what they wanted or even do what they wanted without permission from the government. Sis also refers to brainwashing and instilling evil in children as tactics used by the Soviet to control his home land. The pictures in the book are lively and give great insight to what it must have been like to be a young man in the middle of this conflict. During the Prague Spring of 1968 the pictures contain color and suggest freedom is on the horizon but this doesn't last long as the totalitarian regime returns with full force soon after. In my opinion this book is mature in content and should be saved for skilled readers that can fully understand the seriousness of the story, or for young readers with active parental guidance.
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