After a storied and extensive career in picture books, Uri Shulevitz has crafted his first outing for older readers, Chance: Escape from the Holocaust (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Oct.). This powerful memoir documents his Jewish family’s eight-year journey that began with the German invasion of Poland in September 1939. “It would be hard to invent this story,” says Shulevitz, who is 85 and lives in New York City. “If I wrote this as fiction people would think it was too fantastic.”
Shulevitz was only four years old when the Germans bombed Warsaw, where he lived. He and his mother escaped the city in the back of a smuggler’s truck to join his father in the Soviet Union. Though his family avoided the horrors of the Holocaust, Chance documents how they faced starvation and other terrors elsewhere in Poland and in northern Russia, Turkestan, and Germany before settling in Paris in 1947. Their frequent moves followed the shifting politics of the time.
The memoir needed a long time to take shape. “I spent four years writing and illustrating it,” Shulevitz says. “And I thought about it for about two or perhaps three years before that.” He chose the title Chance because pure chance determined who would live or die during the war. “No one knew what would happen.”
Chance not only chronicles Shulevitz’s wartime experience but also details the birth of an artist. He started to draw at age three. “All children draw, but I never stopped,” he says. “Even before I saw myself as an artist, I do think I had an artist’s intuition.” In Russia, where paper was scarce, he would draw on the edges of precious letters. When he didn’t have pen and ink he would use a stick to draw in the dirt or burn a twig to use as charcoal. He would make color from flower petals or leaves.
And in many ways, art saved Shulevitz during the war. It offered a refuge, a focus, and was a source of joy in a bleak time.
Shulevitz credits his vivid recollections with helping him write and illustrate this book. “I have certain memories that are like pictures in my mind,” he says. One, in particular, he remembers from age four, when his mother tenderly tied his pair of new boots and told him they would soon need do a lot of walking. And she was right.
Many of those memories proved painful to relive. When was the family in a work camp in Russia’s Arkhangelsk Oblast, his mother became gravely ill and a doctor said she might not live through the night. “I remembered how my mother, with a very weak voice, delivered her last testament to my father,” Shulevitz says. Miraculously she survived, but the process of writing and illustrating this event brought the anguish back in stark relief.
The sheer volume of writing made the project very different from Shulevitz’s many picture books (he has published about 40 books, half of which he both wrote and illustrated). “It was quite a different way of thinking and approaching for this kind of work and audience,” he says. He expresses gratitude to his editor, Wesley Adams, executive editor of FSG Books for Young Readers. “Working with him on this was a wonderful experience. His suggestions and our dialogue enriched the book.”
In creating the illustrations for Chance, Shulevitz focused on emotion. “As I was writing, I created images in my mind,” he says. “When I started to illustrate, I drew many, many pictures for each illustration. More than I could ever use. And when I selected the final pictures, what was more important than anything was the expressive element. The one that was most alive.”
As a result, there’s a distinct intimacy in the simple, impressionistic black-and-white drawings that illustrate his book. “I approached the drawings in a kind of loose, painterly way,” Shulevitz says. “I think of myself as a painter who illustrates.”
Shulevitz paid careful attention to pacing in Chance. In several sections where he wanted to heighten the drama of events, he employed more highly graphic sequences in panels. For instance, when depicting a confrontation between the family and Soviet officials, he used a graphic sequence to slow the reader down. “There is more of a chance to absorb the impact of the scenes,” he says.
One of the things Shulevitz hopes to convey to readers is how exotic Russia and Turkestan were to his refugee family during the war. “Even as a kid I found the concept of history and geography so interesting,” he says. He describes how little Turkestan had changed since the Middle Ages—living there was a bit like traveling back in time, he says. “They would mention Tamerlane and the Bolshevik Revolution as if they happened around the same time—though these events were separated by 500 years.”
Artistic inclination runs in Shulevitz’s family, which perhaps made it more natural for him to become an artist, too. “I had a cousin who was an artist in Poland, and when my uncle in Paris retired he became an artist, as well,” he says. Though neither of his parents received artistic training, they each had a creative bent and encouraged his abilities.
These abilities shone from an early age. When he was 13 and living in Paris, Shulevitz won first prize in a citywide drawing contest. After his family moved to Israel, he became the youngest person to exhibit work in the Tel Aviv Museum, at age 15.
Shulevitz started illustrating books in New York City. He moved there when he was 24 and worked on Hebrew books. He published his first picture book, The Moon in My Room, in 1963. His book Fool of the World and the Flying Ship earned the 1969 Caldecott Medal, and he won Caldecott Honors in 1980, 1999, and 2009. He’s an elder statesman of children’s literature, and though still young in spirit, he wryly says, “I think I have earned the right to call myself an old man.”
For now, Shulevitz says he plans to spend his time creating. “I’m not working on any new books,” he says. “I am taking the summer to paint. And I’ve been working on collages, watercolors. I need this time to recharge my batteries.”
Especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, Shulevitz hopes his book will inspire a sense of possibility in readers and a knowledge that they can survive anything. “My mother’s stories and drawing were a lifeline for me during that time as a refugee,” he says. “And I hope readers will seek their own lifeline now. Everyone is different, and it will be different for everyone. But finding that is critical. And if this book helps them do so, my book will be happy and so will I.”
Ingrid Roper is an author and freelance writer in Washington, D.C.