Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Sneak Peeks with K.E. Weeks: Breaking Stalin’s Nose

This feature is presented by guest blogger, K.E.Weeks.
Visually, Breaking Stalin's Noseby Eugene Yelchin is wonderful ($10.87; Henry Holt and Co.; September 27, 2011). Pencil drawings every few pages bring to life Russia’s people under Stalin’s reign in this chunky-shaped book. The story, too, is accurate and interesting, so it’s no wonder that it is a Newbery Honor book. The author is from Russia and lived many of the elements described therein. The historical novel focuses on the life of ten-year-old Sasha Zaichik, a boy on the verge of joining the Young Pioneers, the communist youth group. But, just as his long-awaited admission arrives, his father, who works for the State Secret Police, is arrested. Sasha’s eager admiration and loyalty to Stalin and communism begins to change as he is left alone to deal with the aftermath.

With all of these positive qualities, it is regrettable that the story is fatally flawed: it is not age appropriate for its target audience. The novel is simply too subtle and mature for the average elementary-aged student. It certainly is too difficult to understand for a nine-year-old, the youngest age for which the book claims to be intended.

Spoiler Alert! [Skip to next paragraph to avoid spoilers.] First, when Sasha’s father is taken away, Sasha is kicked out of his home by the neighbors who accused his father of conspiracy. Then, when he goes to his aunt’s house, he is rejected and abandoned, left to sleep on newspapers in the cellar. While this may have been the case for many children, this utter, immediate abandonment by every adult in this child’s world is simply too raw for a nine-year-old reader. Second, strangely, Sasha hallucinates that he is talking to Stalin’s nose while the nose drinks and smokes. Most elementary-aged students, who are not too far off from reading about talking pigs and spiders in Charlotte’s Web, would think this was part of the “real” story and not in Sasha’s head, which would be completely confusing, if not utterly bizarre. Thirdly, Sasha’s father has told him that his American-born mother died in the hospital, but in the latter part of the book, there are innuendos that his communist-devout father turned her in and she was executed. Elementary-aged students will not be able to discern this is what has happened from the few throwaway comments. Lastly, and perhaps worst of all, the story focuses on the ways in which children and adults are manipulated by the state, encouraged to tattle on their friends and relations. While this is accurate for a communist regime, it is incomprehensible for the average fourth or fifth grader. Even sixth graders would have trouble understanding the intricacies of who is guilty or not guilty.

Breaking Stalin’s Nose might be a good read-aloud for a parent who is willing and prepared to discuss the unsettling elements and explain the harsh realities of a totalitarian regime, but I would not give it to a child under thirteen to read on his own. Sadly, while the content may be appropriate for a thirteen year old, most teens will reject it because of its “picture book” qualities. It is one of those books that claims to be — and initially looks like — a “children’s book,” but is actually a story for adults, dressed in a picture-book wrapping. Thus, I give the book three stars (out of five) for its failure to meet the understanding of its target audience.

Disclaimer: The purpose of this review is to guide parents into selecting appropriate, significant, high-quality literature for their teens and tweens. I have no connection with the author or publisher of this book. I am a home educator of two children, 12 and 14, with a Master of Art degree in American Literature and a keen interest in young adult fiction and nonfiction.

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