Review: The Genius Under the Table
The Genius Under the Table: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain
written and illustrated by Eugene Yelchin
Category: Middle Grade
Reviewer: Stacy Nockowitz
Set in Cold War Russia, Eugene Yelchin’s The Genius Under the Table offers middle grade readers a darkly humorous look into Yelchin’s experience growing up in the USSR during the Cold War. Yelchin wrote and illustrated this delightful graphic memoir, in which a young Yevgeny Yelchin and his family go through the pains and perils of living under a communist regime. The family- Yevgeny and his older brother Victor, their parents, and Yevgeny’s grandmother- all sleep in one room in their apartment bloc. They are not-very-secretly watched by their neighbor, Blinov, who spies on everyone for the KGB. Life is especially difficult for the Yelchins because as Jews, they are a constant target of blatant and subversive antisemitism. But Yevgeny’s main concern is finding his special talent. His older brother Victor is a world-class figure skater who will enjoy many freedoms. But Yevgeny’s parents fear that without a special talent, their younger child will never have a better life. It is not until late in the book that they discover Yevgeny’s artistic talent: the boy has been drawing on the underside of the family’s table at night when he crawls under it to go to sleep.
Yelchin doesn’t pull any punches when writing about the hardships his family experienced. Their life is colorless and bleak as a Russian winter. But the family endures: Yevgeny’s mother adores the ballet and brings Yevgeny to see Baryshnikov dance. His father reads poetry. And his grandmother never loses her wry sense of humor. Readers will be stunned and saddened by a tragic event late in the story, but Yelchin still manages to infuse his story with hope. Yelchin’s illustrations are charming and add a playful touch.
This memoir’s authentic rendering of Jewish life in communist Russia will captivate and educate middle grade readers. While Yevgeny’s circumstances may be nothing like their own, young readers will relate to his efforts to please his parents as well as his awkward attempts to understand his world. Eugene Yelchin’s plainspoken, unguarded writing style make The Genius Under the Table both heartbreaking and touching. The Genius Under the Table should garner strong consideration for the Sydney Taylor Book Award.
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