Friday, May 4, 2012

Reading Through History: Breaking Stalin's Nose by Eugene Yelchin (2011)

Sasha Zaichik is ten years old, and ready to become a Young Pioneer. He is devoted to Stalin, and proud of his father, who works for the secret police. He blindly accepts the socialist teachings of his society, and sees nothing unusual in his communal living arrangements, or the harsh punishments doled out at school to punish the children of Stalin’s enemies. Sasha’s sense of security is greatly challenged, however, when his father is arrested on the eve of the Young Pioneers induction ceremony, and Sasha himself accidentally breaks a statue of Stalin in the school hallway. Slowly, the truth about Stalinist Russia begins revealing itself to Sasha, forcing him to make some serious decisions about who to trust.

This book is small and short, but very powerful. The most remarkable thing about it is the author’s ability to immerse the reader in the naive mindset of a child raised in a socialist society. It can be hard for kids to connect with history in a personal way because textbooks are written in such dry, analytical language. This book teaches kids everything they could want to understand about living under Stalin, but it does so by appealing to emotions and experiences, rather than listing a litany of facts without context. Yelchin really drives home the fear and unfairness of totalitarianism by showing the way kids in Sasha’s school are punished, even for the smallest accidental infraction, such as knocking over a statue. I was absolutely riveted by the entire story, and worried, as events progressed, for Sasha’s future.

I’m really thankful to the Newbery committee for recognizing this book because otherwise, I’m certain I would have missed it. There aren’t many historical fiction novels out there that expose kids to the darker side of humanity, and this one’s honesty is much appreciated. I also noticed that Yelchin used humor very carefully, but very effectively, to keep hope alive for the reader, even in very dark and disturbing moments.

Breaking Stalin’s Nose is very well done, and will appeal to kids right up through their teens.

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