The Genius Under the Table, by Eugene Yelchin

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If you visit here regularly, you know that I mostly review middle grade sci fi and fantasy.  This does not mean this is all I read–today’s book, The Genius Under the Table, by Eugene Yelchin (October 2021, Candlewick), is a mg autobiography (though one I think has lots of appeal for mg sci fi/fantasy fans, about which more later…).

Young Yevgeny grew up in the Soviet Union.  The Cold War still threatens to become hot, fear of the KGB is part of life (there is a KGB spy right there in his apartment complex), and keeping warm and fed is a constant struggle.  On top of this is the antisemitism of the USSR.  Yvegeny’s older brother is a talented ice-skater, and on track for a life free of some of this struggle in a society that rewards its international stars, and his family hopes Yvegeny too might have some talent that will be his ticket into comfort and relative security.

So to please his mother, who works at a dance studio, he tries ballet…and although Barishnikov has burst onto the scene and a shining exemplar of what is possible (his mother even takes him backstage to see him dance), Yvegeny’s talents don’t lie in that direction.  Instead, he draws.  Mostly at bedtime, under the table where his cot is placed at night (there is no room for it anywhere else in their cramped space.  The underside of the table is his canvas, and he fills it with drawings. When his parents find his drawings, they know that art is his path forward, and they encourage him as best they can. 

It’s not a full autobiography with facts about the author’s life from birth to the present.  Instead, it’s a slice of life in this particular time and place, quite often bitterly humorous, and just as often bitterly grim, though the child the author once was doesn’t realize the grimness and fear of his family’s life the way the reader might, and in this group of “readers” I include not just people my age, who remember that time, but even 9-12 year olds living in comfort in the US today.

And this vivid picture of a dystopia, in which a wonderful pair of jeans has to be kept secret, in which many records are banned, in which anyone can turn on you and report you to the authorities and all the adults in the family live in fear, will I think especially appeal to middle grade fantasy/science fiction fans! The book starts with a visit to see Lenin’s corpse, a lovely horrific hook for that demographic!

So if you have such a kid in your life who you think needs a nudge to a different genre, or needs a biography to read for school, give them this book!  It’s also the sort of book– accessible, interesting, and despite all the differences, very relatable (there are lots and lots of kids out there, wanting to discover a talent that will make their parents proud!)– that is lovely for teaching young readers history.  I wish for the sake of young readers that there was an introduction with time and place and a bit of context, but they know how to google/ask their parents for information.  

Lots of Yelchin’s quirky drawings accompany the text, adding lots to the kid-appeal of the story.  And though the story ends with him still in the Soviet Union, it’s very easy to follow on to one of his illustrated fiction books (I’d suggest The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge for the mg demographic) to see how his art developed!  I’d also show the young reader a clip of Barishnikov dancing (that being said, I just watch a few clips, and Simone Biles is more amazing so kids today might not be that impressed).

I myself have a brother-in-law who is an artist who grew up in Leningrad at around the same time as the author, which added a personal feeling to my reading of this fascinating, disturbing, and moving autobiography.  I am not sure he will want to revisit his own childhood as vividly as the book would make him, but I will offer it to him and see.

disclaimer–review copy received from the publisher

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