Illustrator Eugene Yelchin's first novel, Breaking Stalin's Nose, is a brilliantly conceived expose of the horrors of life in Stalin's Russia, seen through the eyes of a very naive young boy. And since the book was recently recognized with a Newbery Honor, it is likely to make it onto the shelves of school and public libraries around the country.
Ten-year old Sasha has been dreaming of being a Soviet Young Pioneer ever since he can remember, and he can recite all the Young Pioneer laws by heart. He loves Comrade Stalin like a revered grandfather, but when the long-anticipated ceremony to be inducted into the Young Pioneers is finally to take place, everything seems to go wrong. When his father is taken away by the police, arrested as an enemy of the people, Sasha slowly begins to wonder if everything he has learned about Stalin and the Soviet state is a lie.
With its naive, optimistic narrator, this book reminded me very much of Morris Gleitzman's Once, John Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and Jerry Spinelli's Milkweed. Like the heroes in those novels, Sasha's naivete manages to be somehow funny and heartbreaking at the same time. Through his eyes, we see the incongruity of the Soviet propaganda and the realities of life in a society where even children were encouraged to inform on their parents.
Although there are many novels for children about World War II, there are few about Stalin's Russia, and this book definitely fills a gap in the literature. Despite the sophisticated subject matter, the simplicity of the language in the book is suitable for children in elementary school, and would work well as discussion for a book club as well. Yelchin provided the dramatic graphite black and white illustrations for the book as well as the text.
An author's note provides some background on Stalin's reign of terror, and, paradoxically, how few people of Yelchin's generation (he grew up in the Soviet Union in the 1960's) were aware of the scale of Stalin's crimes, which were carried out in secrecy. There is also an excellent website for the book, which allows users to click on various images to learn more about Stalin, Sasha's dad, the Young Pioneers, Sasha's school, Lubyanka Prison, and other topics dealt with in this slim but powerful book.