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Friday, July 26, 2013

Historical Fiction Review: BREAKING STALIN'S NOSE by Eugene Yelchin



BREAKING STALIN’S NOSE by Eugene Yelchin
















1.  BIBLIOGRAPHY
Yelchin, Eugene. 2011. BREAKING STALIN’S NOSE. New York, NY: Henry Holt. ISBN: 978-0805092165

2.  PLOT SUMMARY 
All ten-year old Sasha Zaichik wants to be is a “Young Pioneer” and serve Comrade Stalin, the Communist Party, and Communism just like his dad.  Growing up in the Soviet Union is all Sasha has ever known, and after the abrupt death of his mother, he is even more devoted to his father who works for the State Security.  But, when Sasha’s father is suddenly arrested and an accident happens at school, he questions everything he thought about the Communist regime and if being a Young Pioneer is worth the sacrifice.

 3. CRITICAL ANALYSIS 
Yelchin highlights the cruel and dark times of the Soviet Union during Joseph Stalin’s reign sometime between 1923 and 1953, through the eyes of ten-year old Sasha Zaichik. Told over the course of a two-day period, it shows how life for children during these times can change so quickly.  One minute they are living with their families in a communal home and the next they are orphans.  The story shows how Russia’s people lived under a harsh government regime that used fear, suspicion, and power to control its citizens. If you are even suspected of spying for the enemy you are immediately found guilty and sent to Lubyanka prison.  If you are innocent it wouldn’t matter because “Everybody confesses at Lubyanka. We know how to make people talk.” Sasha’s father is taken on the first day, but Sasha has confidence in Comrade Stalin and is certain his father will be found innocent and released in time to come to the “Pioneers rally” the next day at school.

Sasha lives in a communal apartment with one bathroom that he shares with 48 other people, which is common in a communist country where nobody has more than anyone else and where everyone is poor except high government officials.  After his father’s arrest he is literally kicked out by the family of the man that turned in his dad. You immediately dislike Stukachov and his greedy family who doesn’t care that Sasha is all alone and will be picked up the next morning to be taken to an orphanage.  They are just happy for the larger living space.  Not even his aunt and her family can take Sasha in because they would be sent to prison for harboring the son of an enemy. 

The next day at school, Yelchin shows the ugly side of the school system that will turn their backs on their own students and teachers to save themselves.  When Sasha accidentally breaks the nose off a statue of Stalin he literally fears for his life because he knows a harsh punishment will await him if he is found out, and his hope of becoming a Young Pioneer will be ruined.  Children whose parents have been executed or sent to prison are treated harshly by everyone at Sasha’s school, especially the teacher Nina Petrovna.  She humiliates and accuses her own students and lets her bias show without hesitation, as shown when she said, “You should know, children, that Sobakin’s father was executed as an enemy of the people.”

This book is great to share with older students 9 and up to compare and contrast Communism and Capitalism, as well as to discuss the privileges of living in a free society.  The large print and sketched illustrations throughout the story will captivate and sustain readers.  The plot will intrigue and absorb the reader until the very end.  Yelchin provides an author’s note that provides information on his background and more facts about Russia during the Stalin Regime.


4. REVIEW EXCERPT(S)
2012 NEWBERY HONOR AWARD

2012 MITTEN AWARD WINNER

HORN BOOK starred review: “…this brief novel gets at the heart of a society that asks its citizens, even its children, to report on relatives and friends. Appropriately menacing illustrations by first-time novelist Yelchin add a sinister tone.”

SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: "Yelchin skillfully combines narrative with dramatic black-and-white illustrations to tell the story of life in the Soviet Union under Stalin.”


 5. CONNECTIONS
* This book is great to share with younger readers regarding children growing up in a communist country.  It’s a wonderful book to compare and contrast Communism and Capitalism.  The tragic loss of family that many children had to endure during the Stalin Regime is something to consider for more sensitive readers.

*Other historical fiction books about children suffering from Communism:
Compestine, Ying Chang. REVOLUTION IS NOT A DINNER PARTY. ISBN: 978-0312581497
Durbin, William. THE DARKEST EVENING. ISBN: 978-0439373074
Marsden, Carolyn. MY OWN REVOLUTION. ISBN: 978-0763653958
Yue, Guo and Clare Farrow. LITTLE LEAP FORWARD: A BOY IN BEIJING. Ill. Helen Cann. ISBN: 978-1846861147


Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Historical Fiction Book Review: DEAD END IN NORVELT by Jack Gantos



DEAD END IN NORVELT by Jack Gantos


















1.  BIBLIOGRAPHY
Gantos, Jack. 2011. DEAD END IN NORVELT. Harrisburg, VA: RR Donnelley & Sons. ISBN: 0689847319

2.  PLOT SUMMARY 
Twelve-year old Jack Gantos is grounded for the summer.  He lives in a small town in Norvelt, Pennsylvania where his boring summer turns into a crazy two-month period of writing obituaries for an old neighbor, learning to drive a car, constantly making his parents crazy, and finding himself right in the middle of a murder mystery that has shaken the town to its very roots.

3. CRITICAL ANALYSIS 
Gantos takes the reader back to the 1960’s and to a place where he personally grew up.  The town of Norvelt is like many small towns back in this era.  People helped other people because it was the right thing to do, yet the ability for a better future was a common problem, and is still to this day.  For many, moving to a bigger city was the only way to have a better life, even if it meant leaving home for good.  But, to Jack’s father, Norvlet was a “dead end” town that was slowly dying.  And like many people during the 1960s, times were hard and having more money was a constant ambition.  As Jack’s dad so eloquently put it, “Someday I want to live a life where I won’t be bullied by my wallet.”  The people of Norvelt are quite colorful in their personalities.  Miss Volkner, Jack’s elderly neighbor that has severe arthritis is unable to use her hands anymore, so she heats them up on the stove by covering them in hot wax until it’s literally melting off.  She also knows a lot of the history of Norvelt as she was one of the original settlers of the town.  The reader is given a mini-history lesson through Miss Norvelt’s obituaries, such as when she talks about the elderly women of the town being widows at a young age because their husbands died from Black Lung disease due to working in the coal mines.  Mr. Spizz, the self-appointed gutter-patrol and policeman, is a cranky old man who is justly named the “town irritant” by Miss Volker.  He is a constant thorn-in-your- side to most of the community and he couldn’t care less.  Jack himself is a likable character that many boys his age can relate to.  And, as much as Jack tries not to get into trouble it seems to find him wherever he goes. He also has a “little problem” of having nose bleeds when he gets nervous or scared, which seems to happen a lot in this story.   

Gantos brings the life and times of the 1960s back to life along with some hilarious and heartfelt moments that make this book a fun, surprising, and an educational read. Boys will especially enjoy this historical fiction book with Jack's interest in World War II memorabilia, his run-ins with the dead, and hilarious dialogue.  This book is great to share with young readers ages 10 and up who are being introduced to US history and love a funny and intriguing story.

4. REVIEW EXCERPT(S)
2012 NEWBERY AWARD WINNER FOR BEST CONTRIBUTION TO CHILDREN’S LIT.

SCOTT O’DELL AWARD WINNER FOR HISTORICAL FICTION

SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: “A fast-paced and witty read.”

THE HORN BOOK starred review: “There’s more than laugh-out-loud gothic comedy here. This is a richly layered semi-autobiographical tale, an ode to a time and place, to history and the power of reading.”

BOOKLIST: “Gantos, as always, delivers bushels of food for thought and plenty of outright guffaws.”

 5. CONNECTIONS
* This book is great to share with younger readers to share a lesson on U.S. history.

*Collect other books written by Jack Gantos: HEADS OR TAILS: STORIES FROM THE SIXTH GRADE, JOEY PIGZA SWALLOWED THE KEY, JOEY PIGZA LOSES CONTROL, HOLE IN MY LIFFE, I AM NOT JOEY PIGZA, JACK’S NEW POWER: STORIES FROM A CARIBBEAN YEAR, JACK’S BLACK BOOK, JACK ADRIFT: FOURTH GRADE WITHOUT A CLUE and JACK ON THE TRACKS: FOUR SEASONS OF FIFTH GRADE.

*Other U.S. historical fiction books with young children as the main character:
Bell, William. ALMA: A NOVEL. ISBN: 978-0770429409
Bornstein, Ruth L. BUTTERFLIES AND LIZARDS, BERYL AND ME. ISBN: 978-0761451181
Reynolds, Cynthia F. ACROSS THE REACH. ISBN: 978-1587265181