Heavy Medal Mock Newbery Finalist: THE GENIUS UNDER THE TABLE by Eugene Yelchin
Introduced by Heavy Medal Award Committee member Dawn Dvorak
THE GENIUS UNDER THE TABLE by Eugene Yelchin (2012 Newbery Honor Winner) tells the story of young Eugene (then, Yevgeny) and his family’s life in Russia during the Cold War. Their life is difficult. They are crammed together in one room, and must mind every word they speak, lest the spy in their midst report them to the KGB. The only way to escape this life is to have a talent: for sports, for arts, for something important. Unfortunately, Yevgeny is terrible at every sport, so his forthcoming ballet audition may be his last chance for greatness and ultimately, freedom.
“Talent you have enough for two, Yevgeny. What you need is a little freedom to show it, but they make you sleep under the table.”P 83
Though his family doesn’t know it yet, Yevgeny shares his secret talent with readers. While his family sleeps, he draws beautiful pictures on the underside of the table with his father’s pencil. These remembered drawings become the illustrations for this autobiography.
The evocative vignettes that are both humorous and poignant bring Yevgeny’s childhood to life. His carefully crafted descriptions, along with his illustrations, paint a vivid picture of a mundane yet harrowing life. He describes the slowly mounting tension as violence against Jewish people (which Yevgeny and his family are) escalates, the neighborhood spy goes missing, and the impending ballet audition approaches.
Though the stories are specific to the author’s life, many of the themes are universal. Who doesn’t have stories of zany family antics, albeit without spies? Whose parents don’t wish for a better and easier life for their children? And who doesn’t search for a passion in life to keep the doldrums away? Even if it’s as simple as doodling quietly in a secret place with a stolen pencil.
Heavy Medal Award Committee members and others are now invited to discuss this book further in the Comments section below. Please start with positive observations first; stick to positives until at least three comments have been posted or we reach 1:00 pm EST. Let the Mock Newbery discussion begin!:
About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired in 2022 after 35 years as a full-time librarian. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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