How I Learned Geography by Uri Shulevitz is a story from World War 2 that resonates for today’s children as it is child-centered and informative. This post has a short review of the book and a free printable. Although this book looks like a fun fantasy story, it is actually about how a boy uses his imagination to escape his life as a refugee. It is child-friendly and could begin a gentle discussion about how children might have to live during or after a war. The author of the book, Uri Shulevitz, was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1935. When he was four his family fled and spent much time in what is now Kazakhstan. Eventually he moved to Paris, Israel, and then New York.
Given the discussion about refugees in current events now, I remembered this book and updated the printable for classrooms and library book talks.
Adults can well imagine what was going on historically at this time. This story is stark at the beginning, but simple and short so that the family is already relocated on page two. They are living without furniture, toys, books, and have very little food. The boy is bored and unhappy. Then one night the father brings home a map but no food for dinner, making things seem even worse. The map ends up being helpful in allowing the boy to use his imagination and learn geography to escape the harsh reality of his life. The author is also the illustrator and the pictures are beautiful, especially at the end of the story. Even without much paper for drawing, the author became an artist as a young boy.
On the last page, Uri Shulevitz has some historical information and photos of his amazing drawings that amazingly survived the many moves from when he was ten and thirteen. He was a true child artist and mapmaker and has a remarkable memory for details he included in drawings. This is an impressive book in many ways.
The pictures in the discussion guide are of course not actually from the setting of the book but are to help students think and visualize the author’s experience. This page asks what the family could take with them when they had to leave. The answer is, of course, nothing.
Did the family have toys and books? No. Did they have furniture? No. Did they have to live with other people? Yes.
Where did the boy and his family sleep? On the floor.
How did the boy feel when his father brought home a map instead of dinner?
The book would be a very good one to share as children begin learning about refugees. Of course, there isn’t a really “happy” ending, but the map proved to be a nice escape and learning opportunity for the family.
As a note to adult readers meaning “grown-ups” interested in this topic, Theodore Jerome Cohen has a World War 2 story about a violinist and his wife who escaped the death camp at Treblinka. The story inspired by his aunt is in the second book of short stories. The story is “The Luthier of Ozone Park.” A luthier is a violin maker. I have read this highly interesting book which has quite unusual stories. The information about the book can be found on his Website. You might also like to see Ted’s author page on this site with links to posts about his children’s books and the free teaching resources I made for them.
Cohen’s story was part of my inspiration for writing this post.