othersideofthewallThe Berlin Wall holds great metaphorical power as the literal embodiment of the insurmountable divide between Eastern—communist Europe—and Western—democratic Europe—after World War II. It’s fertile ground for stories of heroism and survival, persistence and perseverance, tales of families torn apart and sacrifices made for deeply held convictions. As such, I had pretty high hopes for The Other Side of the Wall by Simon Schwartz. A story set in East and West Berlin promises both stark differences and a spectrum of connecting threads that could appeal to any kid’s imagination and get them revved up about history.

Judging the book by its cover (which is accurate in this case), The Other Side of the Wall is set up to look appealing to a younger reader, with a simple, bubbly, yet essentially journalistic style—very few flights of artistic fancy, very little coloring outside the lines—it almost felt like a comic book written straight for use in a classroom setting.

The book is the true story of the emigration of the author’s parents from East to West Berlin: their growing dissatisfaction with their opportunities for self-determination and self-expression in communist East Germany and their own parents’ divergent reactions to their plans to go West—his mother’s parents’ accepting, supportive attitude, and his father’s parents’ attitude of essentially disowning their child and grandchild for rejecting the communist cause. Furthermore, the story is complicated by their extended family awaiting them in West Germany. The wall is a literal symbol of families torn apart.

Unfortunately, though this set-up has a lot of potential, the delivery is lackluster. There’s a conflict to be had, family politics to be played, and a young child’s life to be changed utterly and forever, but what we get is a relatively simple tale of two young people obtaining papers, crossing the border legally with their baby in a sling, and living more or less happily ever after on the west side of the wall. Perhaps there is something to be said for the matter-of-fact nature of the author’s true experience as a tiny baby (when he didn’t have too much opinion or say in the matter). The story aches to be fleshed out in its broader, dramatic historical context and longs for a stronger personal opinion on the painful realities of a divided Germany.

What we get instead is a flat, dryly reported story that is safe and straightforward for kids, sure, but potentially so safe that the young reader will lose interest quickly which is exactly the wrong way to pique a child’s curiosity about a compelling historical conflict. Perhaps something is lost in translation, textually or culturally, and that’s unfortunate. Regardless, the bones of a great story are not built up here, great translation or no, making The Other Side of the Wall a friendly but forgettable read and a less than satisfying educational resource.

The Other Side of the Wall
by Simon Schwartz
ISBN: 9781467760287
Graphic Universe, 2015
Publisher Age Rating: 12-up

  • Emilia Packard

    Past Reviewer

    This reviewer is not longer actively working on our site, but we would not be here if not for our many dedicated contributors over the years. We thank all of them for their reviews, features, and support! Emilia has been reading graphic novels rabidly since her best friend handed her Craig Thompson’s Blankets over winter break during her sophomore year of college. From that day, her fate was sealed — at Grinnell College, she created, edited and drew strips for a student comics magazine called The Sequence. As an MLS Student at the University of Illinois, she spent way too much time filling up her backpack (and her roommate’s backpack) with the treasures of the Undergrad Library’s comics collection — never less than 40 books at a time. Just in the past few years, she’s worked at libraries and archives in Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, Indiana, and Austin, Texas and consumed their graphic novels collections with great gusto. She has been drawing her stick-figure avatar, Flippy-Do, since she was about 10 years old.

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