Saturday, January 28, 2012

Book Review: Newbery 2012 Honors Winner Breaking Stalin's Nose by Eugene Yelchin

I had not read this prior to the announcement of the Newbery 2012 Awards, but I immediately requested it from the library (along with the winner, Dead End in Norvelt, which I also hadn't read).  So this review is looking at the book not only on its own, but as one of the Honor winners of this year's Newbery Awards.

Breaking Stalin's Nose by Eugene Yelchin

I'm much more torn about this book, having read it knowing it was a Newbery Honors winner, than I think I would have been had I just read it straight.  It is definitely a good book on a really important topic that I don't believe is covered much in American children's literature--namely, the Great Purge, Joseph Stalin's campaign of terror and repression of the Soviet people during the years of 1936-1938.

It is estimated that over 20 million people were killed, imprisoned, or exiled during Stalin's reign, and almost no one could rest confidently in the knowledge that he or she would not be next.   Even the low estimates of actual deaths during that period believe that Stalin's purges killed at least as many people as the Nazis did in the holocaust (not even including the six to seven million who starved to death in the Ukraine from a famine that Stalin basically created).  Yet few students are aware of the fact that Stalin was on par with Hitler in terms of genocide.

So it is definitely an important subject to be covered, and one that is difficult to cover in a way appropriate to early adolescents.  I sympathicize with the author on how difficult it must be to try to walk that narrow path.  Yelchin, who was born and raised in the Soviet Union and whose father survived Stalin's regime, tells the story from the point of view of a young boy who idolizes Stalin and is a true believer in communism.  It is a tale of a dramatic 24 hour period in which several people he knows get caught up in the betrayal, bigotry, denunciation, and disappearance that was so common at that time, and he must figure out what path is right for him.   It is a powerful and affective way for students who are learning about the Stalin purges to experience them through the eyes of someone their own age.

My issue about the book, though, is whether students reading it on their own can really "get"a lot of the messages that are packed into the story.   Since we are studying 20th century history this year, and have been reading about Lenin and Stalin and such, it is a perfect adjunct to the histories and biographies my son has been reading.  But without that context, I don't know that students would understand some of the things that are implied, but not stated.

The problem is enhanced, I think, by Yelchin's writing style.  It is a short book--only 160 pages--and they are little pages, many of which are actually illustrations (Yelchin is a children's book illustrator).  Plus it is pretty simple vocabulary, without a lot of exposition or interior dialogue and such.  This makes it a very quick read.  I read it in under an hour; my son said it took him 20 minutes.  So I think there is a tendency to read through it quickly and to not really consider what the book is suggesting about the Soviet system at that time.  The simple style makes it seem like it is geared to the younger end of the Newbery spectrum--nine or ten year olds--but I don't think many children study anything about Stalin until at least middle school, and sometimes not until high school.    But without some background, I just don't think students are going to pick up on what I think the book is really saying.

In short, I think it is a wonderful resource to have on hand when studying this awful period of history.  But I'm not sure it works as a stand-alone book for this age.  I think it suffers in comparison to a book like Words in the Dust, which did such a masterful job of conveying an alien world that most middle schoolers know nothing about, but feel they understand after completing the book.  I don't think middle schoolers feel that way about Stalin's USSR after reading this book.  So, personally, I don't think I would have given this book a Newbery Honor award.

But I do honor Yelchin for trying to write a book on such a difficult topic for this age, but one that definitely needs more visibility.  And I do think it is a marvelous novel to read in conjunction with studying this period.  With some historical knowledge, it can help students understand what that time must have felt like for kids their age, without it becoming too depressing or overwhelming for this stage of development.

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