Childhood and Art in Chance by Uri Shulevitz

I am old enough to know Uri Shulevitz best for his 1985 book, Writing With Pictures. For the first decade of my writing career, it was the definitive text on creating picture books. Even after the chapters on four-color separation began to appear quaint, I kept hoping Shulevitz would revise it to keep up with the times. He didn’t, but I still maintain that the first four chapters are essential reading for anyone trying to crack the form of the picture book.

Now, after a distinguished list of picture books to his name, here’s a gift from Shulevitz to upper middle grade and YA readers. Chance: Escape from the Holocaust is a powerful memoir of childhood, an account of the writer’s Jewish family’s story beginning with the German invasion of Poland in 1939.

But it’s more than that. The book, illustrated with black and white sketches that range from terrifying to funny, also documents a gifted artist’s personal and creative journey. The memoir zeroes in with unerring delicacy and insight on the experiences of its author’s younger self. Here’s an excerpt from a Publisher’s Weekly profile:

“I have certain memories that are like pictures in my mind,” he says. One, in particular, he remembers from age four, when his mother tenderly tied his pair of new boots and told him they would soon need do a lot of walking. And she was right.

In Chance, we look through this window into unforgettable times and places. Through a narrative at once unflinching and sweetly youthful, we get to see the randomness of war and genocide, and the effect of that titular chance upon one boy and his family.

Here’s a small sample of the book’s voice and style: young Uri’s walking over a narrow wooden plank, where bombs have destroyed a staircase in their building. This is the image:

Here is the text:

Before the war, father once took me to the Warsaw Zoo. I never forgot the hippo that opened his mouth to yawn, revealing what looked to me like a deep cave with two teeth as large as butcher blocks.

I was blessed with, or perhaps cursed by, a vivid imagination.

Now, walking down the wooden planks, I was convinced that I’d be swallowed up by that whole – the hole that looked to me like the hippos gaping mouth. If that happened, I knew I would be chewed up by huge butcher-block teeth and with die a horrible death.

Shulevitz, Uri. Chance: Escape From the Holocaust. FSG/Macmillan, 2019

Compare this book with another brilliant author-illustrator memoir, Infinite Hope: A Black Artist’s Journey from World War II to Peace by Ashley Bryan. (See post on book design). How lucky we are to see these two books published only a year apart.

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