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.

The Genius of Book Design

First, a jacket image–ta da! Threads of Peace is finally becoming a reality!

Studying the first pass proofs of a forthcoming book is always a humbling experience. This time, it’s led me to questions about design in nonfiction books.

As a word-shuffler, I know very little about such things, so while I pondered questions of design elements and the use of archival photos, I turned to this beautiful memoir by Ashley Bryan from Caitlyn Dlouhy Books/Atheneum.

Look at this spread, with the sketches working as shadow and light.

The text on these pages is clear and direct, the artist’s voice speaking his truth and also speaking the truth about an iconic period of history from a much needed perspective.

And for a completely amazing design choice, look what we see on the facing page when the story loops back in the end to an anecdote about the children Ashley drew with in a vacant lot in Boston.

All that white space gives the reader space to breathe, to reflect, to absorb the impact of this moving story about the shaping of a generous life.

History and Self in Everything Sad is Untrue

Here is the debut offering from an exciting new press—Levine Querido—notable in contemporary children’s and YA publishing for the minds behind it and for its focus on building a platform for previously underrepresented voices.

Everything Sad is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri is autobiographical. It’s fiction. It’s history. It’s memory. It’s truth. Spanning three continents and carrying influences from a 6,000-year old history, it is told in the sharp yet tender voice of a young narrator and his adult self. Sad without being sentimental, this is no memoir about becoming American. Instead, it elevates complexity, hunts it down in past and present and makes us look it in the eye–family history, the personal traumas of being a refugee, the experiences of generations who have lived in an ever-changing world, and the intricacies of inherited myth. Truth? Lies? Where does memory fall?

But this isn’t an intellectual exercise in pushing the limits of a memoir, either. The story grabs readers and tosses them into the narrator’s life, starting at three with the slaughter of a bull, a normal family, and a larger than life grandfather, Baba Haji. But also Scheherazade and an entire mythic history and poetry and politics and a thousand sensory images. You, reader, suggests Nayeri, you’re the king, and these are tales of marvel. Then he upends the expectations, switches time and place, and we’re hanging on for the ride. Poop stories, God (or not), what it feels like to be sutured without anesthesia, a toy sheep weighted with the longings of childhood, Pringles chips as symbols of welcome. As welcome as is this book, with its multiple layers and its fierce refusal to accept a hyphenated American status for its characters, choosing instead to embrace their humanity.