Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Breaking Stalin's Nose, by Eugene Yelchin

Title:  Breaking Stalin's Nose
Author and Illustrator:  Eugene Yelchin
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
Year: 2011
Pages: 160
Genre:  Historical Fiction/Memoir
Theme:  Conformity, Right vs. Wrong, Freedom
Age Range: 3rd-5th Grade

Ten year old Sasha is the son of an intelligence officer in the Soviet Union.  He strives in all things to be a good communist so that he can join the Young Pioneers and make his father proud.  On the night before he is to join the Pioneers, his father is taken away by the Soviet secret police.  Convinced that there has been a mistake, Sasha goes to school the next day, sure that Stalin himself will hear of his father's arrest and release him.  But when he gets to school, it becomes clear that Sasha, who has always been the star pupil, is now blacklisted along with the children of other "traitors" to communism.  How can he become a Young Pioneer now?

This semi-autobiographical account of Yelchin's childhood in Soviet Russia brings to light for elementary age students a time period that they probably know little about.  As a child of the 70s and 80s, I was very aware that the Soviet Union was the "boogeyman under the bed" the enemy that the brave and free United States had to fight in order to save the world from their tyranny.  Children growing up today have a very different context-now it is the Islamic terrorist who is the nightmare in the closet, ready to jump out at us freedom-loving Americans whenever they can.  While the political landscape has changed, both the Soviet era and our present situation have one thing in common-fear of an "other" who wants to destroy our very way of life.

The book-longer than a short story, shorter than a novel-is fast paced, taking place over a day and a half in the life of Sasha and his classmates.  Yelchin describes the crowded living conditions, and the constant state of fear and paranoia that the Russian citizens lived in.  Jealousy over their larger rooms in the communal apartment leads one resident to turn-in Sasha's father for being a capitalist sympathizer.  Sasha's school resembles a brainwashing camp more than a place to learn reading, writing, and 'rithmetic.  The fear, jealousy, and paranoia have bled down to the children, who are quick to turn on each other whenever a student is chastised by the teacher, who is a caricature of a rabidly conforming communist.

Children will need to be given some background knowledge to completely understand the book, as there is very little exposition given for what the Soviet Union was, or for its role in global politics and the Cold War.  But regardless of the historical knowledge that students may be lacking, the feeling of being betrayed, of fearing for a parent's safety, and the inherent unfairness of Sasha's situation is palpable.  I think this book provides teachers a rich way to introduce concepts of conformity and freedom to elementary school students.

Teacher Resources:
Bookrags Summary and Study Guide
Breaking Stalin's Nose Discussion Guide
Kids' Wings Activities for Breaking Stalin's Nose

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Miss Brooks' Story Nook, by Barbara Bottner

Title:  Miss Brooks' Story Nook
Author:  Barbara Bottner
Illustrator: Michael Emberley
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Year: 2014
Pages: 40
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Themes: Reading, Imagination, Bullying
Age Range: Kindergarten through 3rd Grade

Summary: from Goodreads

Missy loves her librarian, Miss Brooks. And she loves to go to Miss Brooks’ before-school story time. But to get to Story Nook, she has to pass Billy Toomey’s house—and she does not love Billy Toomey.  Billy always tries to steal her hat and jeers, “I’m going to get you!” It’s vexing. Then one rainy (and hatless) day, Miss Brooks changes story hour to storytelling hour. She teaches the kids about characters and plot and action and satisfying conclusions and encourages them to make up their own tales. 
And that’s when Missy has a brainstorm. She sees a way to use her made-up story to deal with her real-life bully. 

Barbara Bottner is the author of some really high-quality books for primary grade readers, including Bootsie Barker Bites and Marsha Makes Me Sick.  She has a knack for writing fully rounded characters, mostly little girls, who are not just sugar and spice and everything nice.  Girls who have their flaws, but who learn and grow throughout Ms. Bottner's imaginative stories.

I found this book at a small bookstore in Lelan, Michigan, and was immediately enamored.  I think that part of the reason that I  love this charming picture book is because I was Missy when I was a child.  I loved stories, books, and teachers with a passion that bordered on reverence.  I was also the kid that was likely to get picked on in my rough-and-tumble blue collar neighborhood.  Of course, I am also Miss Brooks.  I see one of the major goals of my role as literacy coach at an elementary school as fostering a love of stories, both reading and writing them, in the students at my school.

The story of Missy and her annoying neighbor Billy is one that should resonate with lots of children. I appreciate that Missy finds a way to solve her Billy problem using her imagination to come up with a story that definitely makes him think twice about giving her a hard time again!  I think that we do a disservice to children when we don't acknowledge the agency they have over their relationships with peers.  While adults must obviously get involved when there is real physical danger to children or repeated patterns of abuse, we must also teach children how to navigate their own conflicts in a way that is assertive but not aggressive.

What makes this a good book for use in the classroom aside from the massage about bullying is the way that it guides young readers through the creative process behind story writing.  Miss Brooks continually asks Missy questions to guide her storytelling, and offers her suggestions about what readers want in a story, such as a satisfying ending.  Without getting too technical about the writing process, Missy learns that all it takes for a good story is an idea and her imagination.  The story also gives teachers a chance to teach their students the importance of writing for an audience.  Not every child in Missy's class appreciates the scarier parts of her story, but all along the way there is an acknowledgement that authors tell/write stories for readers to read-they are not squiggles on a page disconnected from context.  It is the interaction of the written word and the reader's interpretation where the magic happens!

Apparently this is actually the second book about Miss Brooks.  The first is Miss Brooks Loves Books (and I Don't), and I suspect, though I haven't seen a copy of the first book, that they would work as a pair to introduce both reading for pleasure and writing.

Teacher Resources
Barbara Bottner's Website
Miss Brooks' Story Nook Book Trailer

Sunday, September 7, 2014

One Came Home, by Amy Timberlake

Title:  One Came Home
Author: Amy Timberlake
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Year: 2013
Pages: 272
Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery
Themes:  Loyalty, Bravery
Age Range: 4th-8th Grade

Summary: from Goodreads
In the town of Placid, Wisconsin, in 1871, Georgie Burkhardt is known for two things: her uncanny aim with a rifle and her habit of speaking her mind plainly.
But when Georgie blurts out something she shouldn't, her older sister Agatha flees, running off with a pack of "pigeoners" trailing the passenger pigeon migration. And when the sheriff returns to town with an unidentifiable body—wearing Agatha's blue-green ball gown—everyone assumes the worst. Except Georgie. Refusing to believe the facts that are laid down (and coffined) before her, Georgie sets out on a journey to find her sister. She will track every last clue and shred of evidence to bring Agatha home. Yet even with resolute determination and her trusty Springfield single-shot, Georgie is not prepared for what she faces on the western frontier.


This is an odd little book.  I enjoyed it, both as a mystery story, and as the story of a strong young woman, but the subject matter seems a little mature for the intended audience.  While there is very little in the nature of graphic descriptions or violence, the fact is that the major impetus for most of the plot is the discovery of a decomposing body.  I think there are definitely readers in the targeted age range that are mature enough not to be put off or frightened by that, but the fact of it makes it a little more problematic for use as a while group or guided reading novel  Of course, a case could be made that there are many video games or movies that kids this age are exposed to that are more casually graphic about violence, but I'd probably stay away from it as required reading at the bottom of the range.

That said, there are many things that are really good about the book.  It was listed on many lists of he best children's fiction in 2013.  Georgie is a strong, sassy female characters, which I am always happy to see in books for kids.  Her loyalty to her sister known no bounds, and she is brave, even if impulsively so.  The historical context of the novel provides an interesting look at both passenger pigeons, which were hunted to extinction, and the small towns that were affected by their yearly migrations.  The mystery itself is pretty engaging, and there are elements of danger that make the story pretty exciting.  Overall, I think this is a good book to have as part of a classroom library.