Breaking Stalin's Nose

2012 Newbery Honor book, Breaking Stalin's Nose, by Eugene Yelchin is a welcome addition to what I expect out of historical literature for young adults. If I'm looking for great books about the Civil War, early-1900s race relations, the Holocaust, or the Civil Rights Movement, I have award winners like Elijah of Buxton, Number the Stars, The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had and One Crazy Summer, or dozens of others. But what about the Cold War?

In Breaking Stalin's Nose, ten-year-old Sasha lives in Cold War-era Soviet Union. The novel opens with a set of beliefs Sasha holds above all, "My dad is a hero and a Communist and, more than anything, I want to be like him. I can never be like Comrade Stalin, of course. He's our great Leader and Teacher."

From there, readers are plunged into a fog of Stalinist propaganda that permeates Sasha's life, in his cramped apartment, on the radio, and in school lessons. Sasha is a devoted Soviet with hopes of joining the ranks of the Young Pioneers, an elite youth nationalist group at school. But when Sasha's father, a member of the State Security, is taken from their komunalka in the middle of the night, leaving the boy an orphan, Sasha begins to discover the cost of a culture of fear, suspicion, and persecution as his status careens from elite to outcast.

The issues raised in Breaking Stalin's Nose are far deeper than a didactic 'Communism is bad and Capitalism is good', and the situations and choices the characters face are relevant beyond their immediate setting. This title would make a fantastic classroom or book group discussion selection.