Review of The Genius Under the Table: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain

The Genius Under the Table: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain
by Eugene Yelchin; illus. by the author
Intermediate, Middle School    Candlewick    208 pp.    g
10/21    978-1-5362-1552-6    $16.99

When it becomes clear that unathletic Yevgeny is not going to follow in the footsteps of his figure-skating-whiz older brother Victor, their mother hopes — against all evidence — that he might make it in the world of the Soviet Union’s other big artistic export, ballet, where she ­herself works and even has the acquaintance of the rising star Mikhail ­Baryshnikov. But Yevgeny’s genius lies elsewhere, literally under the family’s noses, if they only thought to look beneath the dining table where Yevgeny sleeps (and draws) each night. (It’s a one-room apartment in 1960s Leningrad, housing Yevgeny, his brother and parents, and his grandmother, who gets some of the best lines in this book.) We now know Yevgeny as Newbery Honor–winning author and illustrator Eugene Yelchin (Breaking Stalin’s Nose, rev. 9/11), and this memoir of his adolescence is a forthright, darkly humorous, and indelible portrait of an artist emerging. Family crowding and dynamics aside, the obstacles in Yevgeny’s life are large (Soviet authoritarianism and antisemitism chief among them), but always grounded in the particulars of this kid’s story: “Don’t cry, boy,” says a neighbor to an upset Yevgeny. “Have a cookie. You yids like sweets.” As you can see from the excerpt on pages 21–28 of this issue, Yelchin, wonderfully, allows his text and pictures to interrupt each other with glee, reminding us how life begets art. It certainly does here.

From the September/October 2021 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

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