The Soaring Imagination of Uri Shulevitz

In two of his pic­ture books Uri Shule­vitz intro­duces a child alone in a room, iso­lat­ed, sim­i­lar to our quar­an­tined chil­dren today who are stuck at home, cut off from friends. But where is the iPad, tele­vi­sion or com­put­er screen? Look close­ly — there are none in the pictures.

The child is alone when the mag­ic begins. The source? His imagination.

One Monday MorningIn One Mon­day Morn­ing (1967) it’s rain­ing. We see the block and the pud­dled street. Turn the page and the first vis­i­tor arrives: a king in turquoise, magen­ta and yel­low, fol­lowed on the next page by the queen and the lit­tle prince, a strik­ing con­trast to the drab city neigh­bor­hood where the child lives. Alas, the lit­tle boy is not home. He’s wait­ing at the bus stop.

The pat­tern con­tin­ues through the week. Every day the parade of vis­i­tors grows longer. And each day the lit­tle boy isn’t home to wel­come them. He’s on the sub­way, at the laun­dro­mat or the gro­cery store, look­ing at toys in a shop win­dow or try­ing to free his kite from a street­light. The neigh­bor­hood is somber — grey, blue and brown with fire escapes, garbage cans, graf­fi­ti, an urban world, lack­ing in col­or and vitality.

But the vis­i­tors have plen­ty of both.

illustration © Uri Shulevitz, from One Monday Morning, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux
illus­tra­tion © Uri Shule­vitz, from One Mon­day Morn­ing, pub­lished by Far­rar, Straus & Giroux

Each day the line of vis­i­tors grows, crowd­ing the stair­well and the hall in glow­ing col­ors and each day the lit­tle prince decrees, “We shall return …” Final­ly, on Fri­day when the line now includes the king, queen, prince, knight, guard, cook, and bar­ber… and last, the lit­tle dog, the boy is home to wel­come them.

But the book doesn’t end there. On the last word­less pages we see the boy with a deck of cards spread on a table, a doll on the win­dowsill, a draw­ing of a dog on the wall. The vis­i­tors, ani­mat­ed by his imag­i­na­tion, were inspired by the cards and toys in his room.

How I Learned GeographyA sim­i­lar trans­for­ma­tion hap­pens in Shulevitz’s auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal pic­ture book How I Learned Geog­ra­phy (2008). To escape war, his fam­i­ly fled to a for­eign city. “I had no toys and no books. Worst of all: food was scarce.” Father went to the mar­ket to buy bread but instead brought home a map. “‘No sup­per tonight,’” Moth­er said bit­ter­ly. ‘We’ll have the map instead.’”

Father nailed the huge map to the wall. “Our cheer­less room was flood­ed with color.”

illus­tra­tion © Uri Shule­vitz, from One Mon­day Morn­ing, pub­lished by Far­rar, Straus & Giroux

The child lay on the floor draw­ing the map. He recit­ed the exot­ic names “like a mag­ic incan­ta­tion and was trans­port­ed far away with­out ever leav­ing our room.”

Glow­ing illus­tra­tions fill the pages as the child soars above the map, leaps and dances in pic­tures of desert and beach, climbs moun­tains, vis­its tem­ples, jun­gles and cities, all imag­ined land­scapes. “And so I spent enchant­ed hours far, far from our hunger and mis­ery. I for­gave my father. He was right, after all.”

In these two books, pub­lished forty years apart, Uri Shule­vitz shows us the immense pow­er of a child’s imag­i­na­tion, his abil­i­ty to tran­scend the present moment, no mat­ter how drab or bleak. These are hope­ful, joy­ful cel­e­bra­tions of imag­i­na­tion. The elec­tron­ic screens in our children’s lives today can­not compare.

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Lulu wootton
Lulu wootton
3 years ago

This arti­cle offers love­ly insights to the mean­ing and impor­tance of imag­i­na­tion. It imme­di­ate­ly made me want spend hours with Uri Schule­vitz’s illustrations.

Jacqueline Martin
3 years ago

Thanks Chris­tine. This col­umn makes me want to find these books and spend time with them – and share them with kids I know.

Joan Hamilton
Joan Hamilton
3 years ago

I have always loved both these books. Thanks for remind­ing us of the impor­tance of the imag­ined life espe­cial­ly dur­ing the pandemic.

Barbara Scotto
Barbara Scotto
3 years ago

These are won­der­ful­ly fan­ci­ful books for par­ents and teach­ers to share with chil­dren. Imag­ine the live­ly and inven­tive con­ver­sa­tions that could grow out of that sharing.