For this week’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday I whipped through the Newbery Honor Book BREAKING STALIN’S NOSE by Eugene Yelchin.
Sasha Zaichik has known the laws of the Soviet Young Pioneers since the age of six:
- The Young Pioneer is devoted to Comrade Stalin, the Communist Party, and Communism.
- A Young Pioneer is a reliable comrade and always acts according to conscience.
- A Young Pioneer has a right to criticize shortcomings.
But now that it is finally time to join the Young Pioneers, the day Sasha has awaited for so long, everything seems to go awry. He breaks a classmate’s glasses with a snowball. He accidentally damages a bust of Stalin in the school hallway. And worst of all, his father, the best Communist he knows, was arrested just last night.
This moving story of a ten-year-old boy’s world shattering is masterful in its simplicity, powerful in its message, and heartbreaking in its plausibility.
A few weeks ago I reviewed MY OWN REVOLUTION, another Soviet Communism exposé, that one about Czechoslovakia . Then last week I read BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY which concerned the fate of Lithuanians “transported” to Siberia by Stalin. So BREAKING STALIN’S NOSE rounds out my tour of the former USSR and the states under its hammer and sickle, so to speak.
Now I’m mad. It’s 2012. I’ve been reading books for children and teens since 1972. Why are these the first three kids books I’ve read about life under the Soviet regime? I personally know several people who escaped eastern bloc countries during the regime – people who have been living and working in the west for decades. Why are we just hearing their stories now?
It is not about dark subject matter, that I know. We’ve had detailed and graphic accounts of the Holocaust and the Nazi regime at least since I was a child. Not to mention the fictional dystopias that have been all the rage for years with their totalitarian governments, arbitrary arrests and systematic oppression. Sound familiar?
Let me change tack for a moment. A few years ago I was teaching a 20th Century history course to some mainland Chinese students in Vancouver. We did a unit on WWII and the Holocaust. We visited the Jewish Museum. We watched a documentary. At the end of the unit one of my students put his hand up and I called on him. He stood, as they do and spoke in halting English “You know that Mao did this also?” he said.
I nodded somberly. “Well, yes, I have heard that,” I said. “I don’t know much about it”.
“He killed millions of people,” the young man said. He wasn’t emotional about it. He was almost bemused. I think perhaps he was wondering why I had made such a big deal of the Holocaust, since it was, by body count anyway, less significant than Mao’s “Great Leap Forward”.
Sometimes the worldview of these mainlanders would break my heart a bit. This was the same kid who after a unit about the suffrage movement asked, slightly petulantly: “What’s the big deal about voting anyway?” He was not outraged by Mao’s holocaust or his own disenfranchisement. He hadn’t yet twigged that there is another world out here, another way to live.
So what I’m wondering now is when one of these kids that I teach, one that choses to stay in Canada will tell their story or their parents’ story to a Canadian born child who will grow up to write a kids’ book on the horrors of living under Chinese Communism.
Are you twitching, cringing? Many of my readers are dyed in the wool lefties like me. Some of my friends parents took sabbaticals in China or Poland, so enamored were they with their promised utopias. For some of us it is hard for us to believe that communism, this great Marxist ideal, could have gone so horribly wrong. We don’t want to believe it. My own mother sings the praises of Cuba. The place people escape on half inflated inner tubes. Over some of the most treacherous seas in the world. To be a minority in Florida. “Everyone gets education and medical care in Cuba,” my mother told me. “Also the case in many prisons,” I replied.
Kim Phuc, remember her? Here’s her picture, to remind you. She defected from Vietnam to Canada in 1992. I guess she really wanted to be free. I’ve read her biography. Her story would make a fantastic young adult book about Vietnam after the war. It would NOT be flattering about the regime that exploited her as a propaganda symbol.
There are a lot of gaps in the young people’s publishing world. We know that. There are not enough characters or writers of color for example. There are not a lot of books about non-Anglo cultures at all, black, brown or white. And there is very little about life outside the democratic bubble of “western civilization”.
Is this because publishers/agents and even writers are afraid to point fingers and say “this sucks”? Have we been too skeptical about reports on the horrors of communist and/or totalitarian regimes? Do we not want to “judge”? Are we afraid of indoctrinating young readers with truth so off-putting as to seem one sided?
Maybe this is beginning to change. I hope so.
Well, anyway, though BREAKING STALIN’S NOSE is a powerful book, it has a surprisingly small scale for such a big subject matter. Not only is it a short book, but it all takes place in the span of less than 24 hours, and much of it takes place in the very confused mind of its young protagonist and narrator. But it packs a considerable punch narratively, so much so that I’m not sure many of its intended audience would be able to fully comprehend it with the kind of casual read that young readers typically do. Contrary to my usual stance, I think book might be best appreciated in the classroom, with the guidance of a good teacher.
BREAKING STALIN’S NOSE IS just over 15,000 words with an age level of grade 4-5.
For this week’s I Can’t Wait to read I’m going with PRINCE PUGGLY OF SPUD AND THE KINGDOM OF SPIFF another novel in verse from the brilliant author of ZORGAMAZOO, Robert Paul Weston.
Prince Puggly of Spud and the Kingdom of Spiff is, logically enough, about Puggly, the newly crowned prince of the very muddy, very unfashionable Kingdom of Spud.
Puggly is surprised to receive an invite to the lavish Centenary Ball in the oh-so-chic Kingdom of Spiff. As everyone knows, Spiffians are known for the poshest clothes and the fluffiest wigs, so it’s no surprise when Prince Puggly’s grand entrance ends in humiliation.
However, Puggly discovers an unlikely ally in Francesca, the bookish Princess of Spiff and together the two friends set out to teach the Spiffs an absurd lesson in style.
Rumor has it that Penguin will be sending me an ARC so I’m pretty excited! It comes out February 2013.
For more Middle Grade reviews and and recommendations, visit Shannon Messenger’s Blog.