Asher Lev introduces himself to the reader as a painter mired in controversy. He is an observant Jew and an artist, and he has been painting crucifixions. He then begins to tell of his family history, detailing the lineage of his parents and finally arriving at himself, letting the reader know that he was "born with a gift." From the time Lev can remember, he drew. He recalls fond memories of his mother and his drawings from his early childhood. Lev's father traveled often on missions for the Rebbe, the leader of the Ladover Jewish community of which Lev's family was a prominent member.
When Lev was six years old, his uncle died, causing his mother to fall ill. She is hospitalized, but eventually returns home. Lev's uncle had, like Lev's father, worked for the Rebbe and was killed while on a mission for the Rebbe. When Lev's mother returns home, his father ceases his travel.
Lev's mother is home, sick and mentally unwell for quite some time. Lev is concerned for her and often attempts to comfort her with drawings. To help the family through this time, Mrs. Rackover begins to work in the Lev household. To keep Asher out of the way, his father often brought him to his office. There, Asher heard his father speaking in many languages with people from around the world and began to get a better sense of the work his father did, trying to help Ladover families come to America.
Many of Asher's conversations with his mother during this period of time center around his drawings. He would often draw the world as he saw it. She asks him if he draws pretty things and implores him to "make the world pretty." His responds that he does not want to make the world pretty and, from early on, distinguishes between a good drawing and a pretty one.
One day, Asher's Uncle Yitzchok comes for a visit. He chats with Asher, complimenting his drawing abilities and offers to buy one of his drawings. Asher agrees. Yitzchok takes the painting out of Asher's room, but leaves it behind in the house, not interested in taking it with him. Asher's father returns the drawing to him. Asher is happy to have his artwork back, but disappointed that his uncle did not want to keep it.
Asher continues his obsessive drawing. One day, his father finds him drawing his sleeping mother. He tells him he would prefer that he not draw so much.