This story is one of the most moving picture books I’ve ever read. I’d heard lots about it before picking it up, and it met expectation in every respect. In How I Learned Geography, Shulevitz remembers the difficult period when his family fled Poland after the blitz and ended up in Turkestan. One evening, his father brings home a huge map instead of dinner. So begins Uri’s fascination with the exotic places on the map that he visits only through his imagination. The map changes who he is, offering him dreams and feeding his curiosity.
I love how this story challenges readers to redefine or rethink what it means to be wealthy and what we think it means to be poor. Yes, the Shulevitzes did not have much money to spend, certainly not on luxuries. However, their son was rich in imagination and passion, and what seemed to be a frivolous purchase turned out to be a life-altering, enriching gift.
Sometimes grown ups forget that geography really is a profound act of imagining for kids – and that’s what Shulevitz is getting at here. In spite of all of the connections available to children through the media today, when it comes right down to it, Fukuoka and Pennsylvania and Alberta are still just places on a map that need to be imagined in order to seem three-dimensional. No wonder kids love learning about other places.
I considered using this text to model writing a Found poem in my class. I soon realized that it wouldn’t work, though, because the text is already a poem disguised as a story – beautiful and spare and rich all at once. This book does belong in every classroom, for the sheer pleasure of it.