Books CORL (Check Off your Reading List) Challenge 2014 GB Challenges Non-fiction Wednesday Nonfiction Picture Books Reading Themes War, Poetry, Refuge, Peace

[Nonfiction Wednesday] Finding Freedom in times of War through Dance (Li Cunxin), a Map of Dreams (Uri Shulevitz), and the Beatles (Peter Sis)

Myra here.



We are excited to join Kidlit Frenzy’s Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge. We would also be linking our nonfiction choices with our reading themes throughout the year. From July-August, our reading theme is about “Scarred Souls and Bloodstained Memories: Tales of War & Poetry, Refuge & Peace.” These three picture books celebrate finding deliverance in a time of war and uncertainty through a variety of ways: dance, geography (a map), and the Beatles.

IMG_5292How I Learned Geography

Written and Illustrated by: Uri Shulevitz
Published byFarrar Strauss Giroux, 2008
Borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.

The opening of this picturebook is powerful as seen in the following:

When war devastated the land,

buildings crumbled to dust.

Everything we had was lost,

and we fled empty-handed.


This family, with only the clothes on their back, fled “far, far east” to make-shift houses “made of clay, straw, and camel dung.” They lived with a couple who took them in. This young boy had absolutely nothing (“no toys, no books”) but his life and his mind. There was no food to be had.


Then one day, the boy’s father left home to buy something to eat. Both mother and child were worried as it took the father a long while to come back. When he returned, he was carrying “a long roll of paper under his arm” but no food to eat. He said that he only had sufficient money for a very small piece of bread, and so he thought of buying the map instead. That evening, the entire family had a difficult time sleeping with nothing on their bellies. The next morning, however, when the Father hung up the map which took an entire wall, the little boy’s life was transformed. How this happened, I shall leave for you to discover.


The young boy in this story is Uri. I have always been a huge fan of Uri Shulevitz.  I featured his quintessential manual for children’s book creators and artists here, and I also enjoyed several of his picturebooks that found me. This one in particular, speaks of his journey, based on his childhood memories of World War II. I love how there are many things that can feed the human soul; and for young Uri, it was this colorful map that gave him deliverance. For teachers who wish to make use of this picturebook and other works done by Shulevitz, click on this downloadable PDF link created by Macmillan. For a more detailed Social Studies Research and Practice Project, here is a very detailed downloadable PDF link created by Janie Hubbard from University of Alabama that includes comprehensive activities and possible worksheets that may be used in class.

Dancing to Freedom: The True Story of Mao’s Last DancerIMG_5067

Written by: Li Cunxin Illustrated by: Anne Spudvilas
Published byWalker & Company, 2007
Borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.

This is the story of Li Cunxin, a world-famous dancer, who was born in a remote village in northern China. He belonged to a very poor family with six brothers. Despite the entire family’s struggle to survive, given their hand-to-mouth existence, Li’s father would find the time to help him fly kites near their home in Qingdao, where Li would tie his “paper wishes” which he would then allow to fly to the skies. His father also loves telling stories, and Li’s favourite was the story about the little frog in the well who longed to see the world.


Just like the little frog, Li also struggled to escape – from poverty and from the constant worry about whether his family will have enough food to survive. Then one day, strange officials came to their classroom to look for children whom they could bring with them to Beijing Dance Academy to study ballet. They were not asked whether they loved music or whether they enjoyed dancing – the kids were stretched and pulled and checked whether they have the right body structure, enough flexibility, sufficient muscle power. Dance was Li’s key to deliverance during a time of war, conflict, and uncertainty with Chairman Mao Zedong in power.


While there was much rejoicing about Li being selected out of the millions of children in the whole of China to become a dancer, this was also a time of pain and grief as Li had to leave his entire family, his whole world, behind. When he arrived in Beijing, he was terribly homesick, and would sick refuge in the weeping willows. He thought that he was one of the worst students in the entire class. Then one day, he met Teacher Xiao who told him “Nothing is impossible!” How Li became one of the best dancers in China and how he traveled to the United States of America, I shall leave for you to discover.


The Author’s Note found at the end of the book talked a little about the Cultural Revolution and the Communist Party led by Chairman Mao Zedong during the time that Li was growing up. I read the book Mao’s Last Dancer sometime in 2010.


Professor Libby Cohen, one of my former colleagues in the university, who reviewed the original novel here in GatheringBooks, shared the book with me and even told me about the film adaptation of the book.


And so I know that there are quite a number of details left out that I would have wanted to see included in the picturebook as well, such as the fact that Li defected when he arrived in the US and was banned from ever going back to China, which is why his parents’ coming to visit him and watch his performance was such a special event. I could understand though that it might be an entire narrative trajectory altogether and would be very difficult to explain in a picturebook format.

Anne Spudvilas’ art is, as per usual, breathtaking. I love how raw and unapologetically real her paintings are. I could also imagine how much time and research she devoted to making the illustrations as authentic as she possibly could. It truly made the story come alive for me.


For teachers who wish to make use of this picturebook in the classroom, here is a very detailed wikispace created by Diane Brantley, PhD with suggested activities, as well as helpful resources and links that can be further explored in greater depth.

IMG_5300The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain

Written and Illustrated byPeter Sis
Published by: Frances Foster Books, 2007
Bought my own copy of the book. Book photos taken by me.

I was born at the beginning of it all, on the red side – the communist side – of the Iron Curtain.

This is the story of the amazingly-talented author-illustrator, Peter Sis’ life from the time that he was born in 1948 – the period when the Soviet Union took control of Czechoslovakia and closed its borders – until the mid 1980s when Mikhail Gorbachev introduced perestroika (policy of restructuring) and glasnost (openness), and the fall of the Wall and collapse of the Communist system.

As far back as Peter Sis can remember, he has always loved to draw. In the Author’s Note found at the back of the book, Sis noted that there were neither television nor computer at the time that he was growing up, and so he turned to art.


Drawing in his family’s house was something that gave him joy. However, as he grew up and attended school and joined the Young Pioneers (the Communist Youth Movement), they were told exactly what to draw. Through his art, Sis demonstrated how it was a time of suspicion and fear, with children encouraged to report on their parents and friends if they do anything that is against the Communist ideals, or even demonstrate anything that shows capitalist leanings. To say that Sis’ artwork is staggeringly mind-bending would be an understatement.


He has full-spread artwork such as the one shown above. Then there are full-spread sections that are culled from his journals that shows highlights of certain months beginning from 1944 until June 1977 (see a sample below).


One entry that struck me in particular was the one from September 1963:

Colonel Jan Pixa was named a Hero of the Czech Socialist Republic for his ingenious plan for catching “disturbers of the border,” people trying to cross over to the West. He made a fake border so the “bad guys” would think they had gotten through. When they saw the American flag and were greeted by secret service men disguised as American soldiers, they’d think they had reached the West. The defectors would tell the secret service everything they knew and name their friends. What a surprise when the defectors found out they weren’t in the West after all and were going to prison for life. 

Colonel Pixa is a hero.


When Peter Sis became a teenager, colourful elements from the West gradually trickled in from underneath the Iron Curtain. Tie-dyed love and the Beatles simply can not be ignored: this is the glorious period of long-haired, peace loving hippies and rock and roll. The art above is one of my favourites from this book. In the Author’s Note, Peter Sis wrote how music (Beach Boys, Elvis Presley, the Beatles) became their link to the outside world and awakened their stirring sensibilities aflame to the possibility of a different life out there in the bigger world outside the Iron Curtain.

… I can see how easy it is to brainwash a child. We were like sheep… until music from the free world – rock ‘n’ roll and the Beatles – made a crack in the wall. Then came more music… a bigger crack… the Prague Spring… and everything seemed possible.


Sis’ story also showed how there was a temporary period of gradual opening up to the outside world with the progressive ideals and intentions of Alexander Dubček which was soon held in check by the appearance of 500,000 troops in tanks from the Soviet Union in 1968 and the Czech progressive government was subsequently sent for ‘reeducation.’

As I was reading the book, I could not even imagine being thrown into such a tumultous period where one is not allowed to think for one’s self. Once again, it was music and art that gave Sis the freedom that he nurtured and sought from within him. The particular image below left such a huge impact on me as it shows that no matter how frighteningly-stringent the regulations are and how punitive the measures used by state leaders, the colours will find its way through cracks in the walls, echoing with the music of people’s dreams.


The Beauty of Prague

I visited Prague in 2011 and it was in one of my book hunting expeditions there that I chanced upon this book by Peter Sis. I didn’t know of him at the time, and when I discovered that he was born in Czechoslovakia, I made sure that I purchased two of his books I found there, quite possibly from the Knihkupectvi Book shop. Here are a few photographs from that two-week Europe trip as we traveled from Berlin to Prague to Vienna then back to Berlin once again.

Visiting the Wall of Berlin



Reading Challenge Update: 179, 180, 181 (25)


Nonfiction PictureBook Challenge: 25, 26, 27 (25)

11 comments on “[Nonfiction Wednesday] Finding Freedom in times of War through Dance (Li Cunxin), a Map of Dreams (Uri Shulevitz), and the Beatles (Peter Sis)

  1. Well, Myra, you’ve shared (so beautifully) three books I will need to find. Each sounds important to read about. I was older during this time, and often we talked about those who were behind that curtain. I didn’t know Peter Sis was from the Czech Republic-his book sounds terrific. Thanks again for all of these great reviews!


  2. thelogonauts

    Powerful books! I loved “How I Learned Geography” – so heartbreaking and yet fascinating at the same time.


  3. How I Learned Geography looks fascinating. I enjoy going to places and trying to come up with writers or books that take place there.


  4. Myra, I love Uri Shulevitz’s work. Never saw this one, though! And the image for the movie of MAO’S LAST DANCER is so striking. Plus what a visit to see the Berlin Wall, huh? I didn’t realize any of it was still standing!


  5. I LOVED seeing The Wall and the photos of Prague on your post. I JUST got back from there, and all of us on the trip read The Wall before going to get a better understanding of its history. It’s such a fascinating city! Loved the looks of the other books on your list, too. Such beautiful illustrations in all of them.


  6. Oh I love this post and all of your photos. The Wall is just incredible. I lived and taught in what was then Czechoslovakia between 1990-1992 when the wall had just come down – an amazing time to be there. I was in a town in Slovakia but spent a lot of time in Prague. We went back for our honeymoon – first time there for my husband and he loved it too. I love the look of Mao’s Last Dancer. Need to find this book!


  7. Great books, Myra! I’m interested in The Wall… I’ll have to find it soon!


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