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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Dark MG Historical Makes Me Think

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

All 10-year-old Sasha Zaichik wants is to be a hero like his father.  A loyal Communist, the older man works for State Security (the secret police), hunting down spies and traitors.  Sasha longs to prove his own worthiness to Comrade Stalin by joining the Young Soviet Pioneers.  He has only one more day to wait—then his father, a true Party hero, will tie a red scarf around his neck with all his classmates watching.  It's a big step, one that will show everyone he's ready to serve his country, just like his father.

Sasha's hopes and dreams are dashed when State Security comes for one of its own.  Sasha can't understand why the police would take his father away, he only knows they have.  With no one to care for him, Sasha will be sent to an orphanage.  Even worse, he'll be known as the child of a traitor, a status that will prevent him from being accepted into the Young Soviet Pioneers.  There's only one thing to do—Sasha must tell Comrade Stalin that he's made a horrible mistake.  Sasha's father needs to be freed from prison!

Turns out, raising your voice is not an easy thing to do in a Communist country, where the smallest dissent may be seen as outright rebellion.  Sasha's finding out the hard way that it's easier to remain silent, compliant, even if it means that others will be punished.  He wants to be an honorable Communist, but what will it cost him?  And is he willing to pay such a very high price?  

Breaking Stalin's Nose, a middle grade novel written and illustrated by Eugene Velchin, a Russian-born writer whose father survived the Great Terror, describes an era not often explored in children's literature.  In fact, I've never read a kid's book about life during Stalin's reign.  Maybe there's a reason for that—even though Breaking Stalin's Nose is ultimately hopeful, it's a dark book on a difficult subject.  Young readers will be drawn to Sasha, no doubt, as his adventures are risky, life-and-death endeavors.  Children may miss Velchin's subtle irony, but in the end, they'll get the point:  Industrial progress isn't worth the sacrifice of a person's—or a people's—integrity.  Although this one didn't blow me away, it definitely made me think.  If it does the same for younger readers, then I say it's done its job, even if it didn't win my eternal book love.       

(Readalikes:  Hm, I can't think of anything.  Can you?)

Grade:  B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated:  PG for subject matter that might be disturbing to younger children (prison camps, executions, etc.)

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find 
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The Gold in These Hills by Joanne Bischof

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