Breaking Stalin's Nose
Breaking Stalin's Nose, by Eugene Yelchin
This was such an unusual book! My mom brought it along on our road trip and read it aloud as we drove. It recently won a Newbery Honor.
Sasha lives in the USSR in about 1950, under Stalin. He is a true believer in the Communist dream; he loves and admires Stalin and feels lucky to be a Soviet. Most of all, he admires his dad, who is a Communist hero sweeping the land clean of spies--a KGB agent. All his life, Sasha has looked forward to the day he would become a Young Pioneer, but on that day, his life is shattered. As he starts to understand what has happened to him, he also begins to realize that maybe he doesn't live in such a paradise as he thought.
This is such a well-written story. It's not long, and it has many pencil illustrations that evoke Sasha's feelings. It contains layers of difficult issues--you don't normally see many historical fiction stories for children like this, and it's probably the gentlest introduction to this era that you'll find. Sasha has so many illusions that are obvious to the reader, and it's poignant to see them broken. The story also shows how difficult it is to act decently under a totalitarian government; every adult character is corrupted somehow or other by life under Stalinism, and Sasha is pressured to give in too. The ending is very well-done, but I can't give it away.
A fourth-grader could read it easily, but would not understand all the necessary background information, which makes it a very good read-aloud for the middle grades. (My mom, who knows these things, was of the opinion that few children would pick this book up, but it would make an excellent classroom read-aloud.) A parent or teacher will need to do a lot of explaining. Brush up a bit on your Soviet history and read it to your kid.
Eugene Yelchin has a fascinating website dedicated to Breaking Stalin's Nose, with lots of background information on the characters and setting of the book. Be sure to take a good look around!