The Genius Under the Table by Eugene Yelchin

Published on January 28, 2022

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Reviewed by Elizabeth DeVincenzo



This middle-grade autobiography by children’s author Eugene Yelchin (Newbery Award Honoree and National Book Award Finalist) tells the story of his childhood and early adolescence growing up in Leningrad, USSR before the fall of the “Iron Curtain”. Yelchin who was born in 1956, lived in a one room apartment with his parents, older brother, and grandmother. Bathrooms and the kitchen were shared with all the residents of their apartment building. Their room was so small, that Yelchin slept under the table and would draw on the underside of the table at night before he went to sleep. Yelchin describes with humor and sadness the everyday aspects of living in a communist country- standing in a long line to visit the tomb of Lenin, hearing forbidden American pop music recorded secretly on x-ray photographs, living with neighbors who are spies for the government, asking questions without receiving answers, and a general sense of paranoia. In addition to living in a repressive society, Yelchin and his family experience racism for being Jewish. Anti-Semitic graffiti is drawn on their apartment door. Neighbors make racist remarks towards them. Despite all these hardships, this book has a very light-hearted tone. The conversations between Yelchin’s grandmother and his family are very witty and funny. Short chapters accompanied by Yelchin’s comical cartoon illustrations are created in the style of his childhood table drawings, giving this work a sense of time and place and making it accessible for reluctant readers. This book along with Yelchin’s middle grade novels Breaking Stalin’s Nose (2011) and Arcady’s Goal (2014) provides good supplemental material to a history unit on communism. I also recommend watching this short documentary on YouTube about American records that were recorded on x-rays in the Soviet Union during the cold war years.
X-Ray Audio: The Documentary - YouTube
Target audience: Grades 4-6
2022 Sydney Taylor Book Award Winner (Honor)

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