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

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