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Monday, April 16, 2012

Breaking Stalin's Nose, written by Eugene Yelchen. Henry Holt & Company, 2011. $18.50 ages 10 and up

"Dear Comrade Stalin,
I want to thank you personally for my happy childhood. I am fortunate to live in the Soviet Union, the most democratic and progressive country in the world. I have read about how hard the lives of children are in the capitalist countries and I feel pity for all those who do not live in the USSR."

So begins this thought-provoking, historical novel about Sacha Zaichik and his family. He is a ten year old boy who has been dedicated to Comrade Stalin and his government for four years...learning the laws of the Pioneers and wanting nothing more than to be one, so that he might prove his allegiance to the 'great man'.

His father is a member of the secret police, his mother has died under mysterious circumstances and Sasha is dedicated to his life in Russia, and the promises made by Joseph Stalin.. When his father is imprisoned for no known reason and Sasha is forced out of the room that the two shared, he cannot find refuge anywhere. His uncle will not let his aunt help for fear of reprisal. When he arrives at school the following day, he acts as if nothing untoward has happened. As the day passes, he learns much that he does not want to learn.

Sasha's character is a boy who truly believes the propaganda that has been his life. But, his loyalty begins to fade as he deals with the tyranny of a number of groups...the people who share the communal apartment with he and his father, the men who remove his father in the middle of the night, his teacher at school, the children on the playground.  He is told nothing and left to learn much on his own. He believes that Stalin will discover the mistake that has led to his father's arrest and all will be well. But as the action unfolds, he becomes aware that there is little to be done about anything that is happening to him and finally, he agrees to attend the Young Pioneers ceremony. 

Told in Sasha's voice and from his own particular point of view, Yelchin's story has immediate and chilling impact for readers. He has been shielded by his father about many daily events, and has little real knowledge of what life is like for the Russian people due to the extremist propaganda of the regime. It is a short tale, tautly told and worthy of sharing in a classroom or family setting. There is sure to be much discussion that is pertinent to the world we live in today. The memorable graphite illustrations that accompany the text speak to the uncertainty and the drab existence of the people.

Eugene Yelchin grew up in Russia in the 1960s when few people knew much about Joseph Stalin and his reign of terror. Stalin's legacy lingered and the author wants readers to know the fear that so many felt. There came a time when he had to make a decision about his future. The final paragraph of his author's note has this to say about persecution:

 "I set this story in the past, but the main issue in it transcends time and place. To this day, there are places in the world where innocent people face persecution and death for making a choice about what they believe to be right."

Winner of a Newbery Honor and deservedly so!

1 comment:

  1. I think this would be a very hard sell for middle school students. It didn't get any mention at all on the Cybils middle grade fiction committee, so I was really surprised when it got an honor!