Book review: The First Drawing by Mordicai Gerstein

This is a wonderful picturebook that invites children to imagine they lived thousands of years ago and invented drawing. You see animals in rocks and clouds, watch animals all day and even come face to face with a woolly mammoth. You see animals running and dancing in the firelight on the walls of the cave where you sleep with your extended family. But no-one else can see what you can see until you pick up a charred stick from the fire and start making marks on the wall where you can see the animals: the first drawing. Then everyone can see what you see and everyone draws on the cave.

Being written in second person is really engaging and different, and the detail in the pictures really backs up that feeling of the reader being the main character in the story and being misunderstood by others. The book could easily be read without any words, with the pictures themselves telling the story. If you focus on the pictures you can see the expressions of the wider family as they disbelieve, fear and finally see the animals on the walls. If children look really carefully they can see that one member of the extended family does see, a baby, the most innocent and least socialised person in the group.

If you examine the end papers either before or after reading the book, you can find some clues as to why certain aspects of the book are in there. There is the dedication which reads:

For Susan, with love. Your beautiful drawings open our eyes to our own imaginations. –MG

Who is Susan? Who is referred to in ‘our eyes’? Perhaps Susan is the author’s daughter and she opens her parents eyes to their own imagination, like the hero of the story eventually opens his/her parents and relations eyes to their imaginations. Under the dedication is the hero looking at an elephant in the zoo, which might link to the hero coming face to face with a woolly mammoth. Perhaps that is a memory of the author’s visit to a zoo. Children will have other ideas too.

A focus on the text will provide opportunities for philosophical discussion. The phrases “Why can’t they see what I see?”, “being a mammoth might not be so different from being you.” and “It is magic.” the ‘it’ being drawing, are a few starting points that would lead to very rich dicussions.

The Author’s Note at the back gives more detail about the prehistorical background, explaining that the book was inspired by the cave paintings found in Chauvet cave in southern France. The author tells us that he had always thought children had invented drawing and when the footprint of a child, perhaps aged about 8, was found in the cave, alongside that of a wolf, he felt vindicated. It would be great to compare the drawings in the book to the drawings in Chauvet Cave, which you can find on the Bradshaw Foundation’s website.

Children could even investigate the premise of the book, which is that art was invented in Europe around 30,000 years ago. This eurocentric viewpoint can be challenged as it may be that anatomically modern humans (AMH) created art long before that but not on cave walls where it has been preserved. AMHs first arrived in Australia, it is thought, about 60,000 years ago and they may have already been drawing. A recent find of a scored shell has been dated to before AMH evolved, about 500,000 years ago. It is likely that an earlier human species, Homo erectus, had scored the abstract patterns on the shell found on Java in Indonesia.

It is also not likely that humans lived in the caves that they decorated, and it would be good to read this book alongside Satoshi Kitamura’s Stone Age Boy book that shows a more authentic way of life of these Ice Age people, living in tents by rock shelters.