I was quite surprised when Breaking Stalin’s Nose by Eugene Yelchin won a Newbery honor this year. In fact, it was only last week that I even had a chance to get my hands on a library copy of this book, so in my small town libraries it still hasn’t caught on. However, I devoured this short but very compelling and suspenseful story in one afternoon, and it is one that I’m very glad to have read and will definitely add to my children’s TBR lists when the time is right for them to read about life in the Soviet Union under Stalin.
Breaking Stalin’s Nose is the story of Sasha Zaichik, student at Moscow Elementary School #37 and son of a State Security officer. The story opens on the eve of Sasha’s induction into the Young Pioneers. All Sasha desires is to grow up and become a Good Communist, just like his father. However, his life veers into chaos when his father is taken away in the middle of the night with no warning and no recourse, only these words: ” ‘It’s more important to join the Pioneers than to have a father.’ ” Immediately, Sasha’s world dissolves, and suddenly the things he knew to be true are called into question: what really happened to his mother? Will Stalin rescue his father who has obviously been falsely accused of something? Are the bad guys who he has always throught they are? What about the good guys?
If this sounds a bit heavy for a middle grade novel, well, it is and it isn’t. Obviously, the subject matter itself is very somber. However, the tone of the story and Sasha’s voice are both very naive and innocent. We first meet Sasha as he is writing a letter to Comrade Stalin, thanking Stalin for his “happy childhood,” expressing his desire to become a Young Pioneer, and promising to follow all the rules of the Young Pioneers. Sasha’s thought life is very much a part of the story; in fact, the climax of the story comes about because of Sasha’s involvement in his own imaginary world. The story takes place over a period of just a couple of days, so the plot isn’t terribly complex. This is a good thing considering that a child reading this story first has to try to grasp living under such a regime. Eugene Yelchin is both the author and the illustrator of this story, and the illustratrions, sprinkled liberally throughout the short chapters, are comic bookish yet very evocative of the mood and emotion in the story.
I’m really glad I read this little book. I’ve been intentionally vague about the plot because it would be difficult to spell out much without giving much away. This will make a great addition to a study of the Soviet Union and twentieth century history in a couple of years. Although I still think it’s an odd pick for a Newbery honor book because of the very focused, message-laden subject matter, my opinion in no way detracts from how very well written and compelling this book is. It is obvious that Eugene Yelchin knows whereof he writes. Highly Recommended. (Henry Holt, 2011)
I have now read all of this year’s Newbery books, both the Medalist and the honorees. Here are links to my reviews:
- Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos (Newbery Medal)
- Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhaa Lai (Newbery honor)
Of the three, Inside Out and Back Again is my favorite, but Breaking Stalin’s Nose is a not-too-distant second.
- Author website
- Book website (includes lots and lots of interesting links about this time period in the Soviet Union)
- Review at Diary of an Eccentric
- Review at The Fourth Musketeer
- Review at Becky’s Book Reviews
I’m adding this review to the Award Winning Books Reading Challenge database for June.