Sniffing Out A Great Read — Middle Grade Chapter Book Review: Breaking Stalin’s Nose

Once in a blue moon, I read a book that takes my breath away. I read (in one sitting) one such children’s historical fiction recently – Breaking Stalin’s Nose by Eugene Yelchin. I first knew Yelchin as a talented illustrator, so was glad to see his drawings illuminate his story here.

In this simple chapter book, a depth of insight is revealed, not only about Russia in the early to mid 1900’s, but insight into all fear-driven societies. And we should never be so arrogant as to think it can’t happen to our own, should the perfect blend of circumstances allow it. And to this end, “Stalin’s Nose” keeps us on our toes.

Yelchin’s work, drawing from his own childhood in Russia, is not only interesting, it’s important. The book did not win a Newbery Honor for no reason. It’s an excellent read for any child around 10, the age of the protagonist, Sasha Zaichik. But even more, it is a must read for all ages, with each generation understanding a different layer of truth.

To pack in so much wisdom about the human psyche into a short 151 pages, for kids no less, is nothing less than brilliant. Upon first glance, the title seems almost funny and too light to include the horrific “Stalin.” Yet it is the perfect balance of an innocent, well-meaning hero facing his realization of a hovering monster, his own society.

Usually, when I read a book, I am pretty pleased when I’m thoroughly entertained. But in this case, I was also swept away, left with a feeling of “what just happened here?” Yelchin made me ponder and probe well after my first reading. I think I’d like to read it again and hear your thoughts on it as well.

Published by Henry Holt and Company

Angel at School: Part 3

In parts 1 and 2 (Aug. 21 and Sept. 5 respectively) Freddy upgrades his name to Fred on the first day of his fifth grade year. The plan is for his last year in elementary school to be his best. But when he meets an unexpected helper and situations don’t go his way, can it still be the best year yet?

A week later, Omar confronted his friend, standing in a bush looking lost. “Freddy, I mean Fred, you better stop that. People are talking.” He held up a poster with “Fred for President” in blue, vandalized with a black sharpie, “crazy bacon-scented plant lover” inserted with a carrot after Fred’s name.

“I didn’t write that part in black.”

“Of course you didn’t, dork.”

“Let me explain… I, um, lost something… or, um, someone. And they said they’d help me with the election.”

“Yeah, you need help. But you ain’t gonna find it in that bush.”

Hanging upside down from a tree branch, Fred’s angel called out, “Get out of there; and get ready for your speech. You’re up in 10 minutes.”

“Where have you been? You said you’d help me!”

Omar jumped, “Whoa, what’s that?”

Fred’s angel landed upright in front of Omar and turned cordial. “Hello. My name is Derf, that’s ‘Fred’ backwards. I’m Fred’s angel. Now, if you’ll excuse us; we’re late.”

Derf began to coach Fred, “Just give your speech. I have it all under control. By the way, did you like what I wrote on your poster?”

“What? People think I’m crazy. And it’s all your fault”

Omar trailed behind, “What’s going on?”

Fred’s teacher, Mrs. Wandawho stepped right on top of Derf. As he disappeared, she scooted Fred onto the stage. Lights blinded him; silence numbed his ears. Fred even thought he heard crickets.

“Uhhhh…”

A heckler (that sounded oddly like his angel) interrupted the quiet, “What did the plants tell you to say?” The auditorium erupted in laughter.

Fred was not about to lose control. “Hey! Uhhhh, vote for me because… because I’m a plant whisperer. I have a green thumb; and I can make our campus beautiful.”

The crowd went silent again. Then from the same corner as the heckler, a gum ball flew through the air, missing Fred’s head by an inch. And then another was hurled at him from the other side. Before Fred knew it, the gum balls that were handed out by another candidate were being pelted at him. He was being booed off the stage.

Fred caught one in his mouth and chomped it down in size. The gum ball attack ceased as a collective gasp held the auditorium’s breath. Then one was thrown gently at his head and he caught it with his mouth, chomping that one. Then another. And another.

Soon it became a game of “catch the gum ball.” The mocking laughter turned into a fun cheering one. Kids started to count the number of gum balls entering Fred’s mouth. “sixteen, seventeen, eighteen…” Then the kids chanted “guru, guru, guru…” He was being pronounced “guru of gum.”

In the following week, Fred discovered that being “crazy” was a good thing in the musical theatre world. Though Fred wasn’t the lead, he had fun appearing and disappearing into smoke that surrounded a lamp. He even received personal pointers from Derf, “I know, it’s so cool to reappear, standing like this.”

And Fred was genuinely happy for Omar. “Congratulations for getting the lead.”

“Dude, don’t rub it in. You know I don’t want to even pretend to kiss Telly. Just my luck that she’s the princess.”

As Fred, the new class president, chewed on bacon that the cafeteria started selling, thanks to him, he walked through his handiwork: a beautiful campus with gardens of flowers, shrubs, and trees. And occasionally, he would hear a friendly echo through the trees, “This is your year so don’t you fear!”

Writing Journal: Got Critique Group?

Recently I met with three talented children’s book writers. We read each other’s works aloud, made comments and suggestions, while encouraging what worked — all over three intense days. I was the newbie trying to find my strongest voice between YA, MG, and picture books. Having the input and support of peers was invaluable (more on that later).

As a novice in the world of writing for youth, one thing I’ve learned thus far: writing quality fiction is far harder than it appears. Like in many fields, the pros make it look easy. It’s not.

And having a journalism background is good and bad. Yes, I can meet deadlines, put words together in an informative even entertaining way, and edit a little better than some. But I also have to break some common journalistic writing habits. I can’t give everything away at the beginning (crushing my inverted pyramid) and be overly descriptive (telling). I must trust the reader to follow the action and discover what they must, along the way (show). Easier said than done. I’m still trying to figure this out!

Having other sets of eyes, those who are honing their own children’s fiction writing craft, has helped me take a step further in improving my own storytelling. Experiencing feedback from a trusted critique group and giving it, gave me a vision for what I need to do in the following months.

So, E.J., Julia, and Jennifer, THANK YOU! (And you’re all so fun, too. I miss you already!) I wish we were closer to continue what we started. But at least a taste of what we had whet my appetite to want more. My goal in the next few months will be to find a local group that is going through the challenges and joys I face, as we do what we love: write for children.

Angel at School: Part 2

In part 1 (from Aug. 21): Freddy upgrades his name to Fred on the first day of his fifth grade year. His last year in elementary will be his best because he plans to rule the school as president, as lead in the school play, and as “Guru of Gum,” collecting the most gum comics in recent history. But when situations don’t go his way, can it still be the best year yet? The first of a string of unexpected glitches occurs in part 1: a small being crosses his path, uttering a phrase he doesn’t understand. “This is your year so don’t you fear…”

A rustling in the bushes next to the drinking fountain made Fred do a double take. “So that’s where the little guy disappeared into. Maybe he’s playing a trick on me?” He knew kindergarteners were small and sometimes behaved oddly, but this one seemed a bit ridiculous. “Hey little dude, come outta there. Where’s your mommy?”

“F-R-E-D!” came a small voice from the shrubs. Fred leaned in but couldn’t find a trace of anyone. He tried coaxing him out again. “Hey, buddy. How do you know my name? You must be smart. And what were you saying about this being my year so don’t fear? That’s kind of a weird thing to say. Please come out. I won’t hurt you.”

“I’m not a kid.”

Playing along, Fred continued, “That’s right. You’re not a kid. You’re a big boy. And big boys talk face to face.”

“I’m not a big boy either. I’m your angel friend.”

“You’re my what?”

“Remember when you were 4? We were friends. But when your dad had enough of your “imaginary friend,” he convinced you to grow up and I disappeared. Remember?”

“Uhhhh, I think I’m gonna be late. I better be going.” Fred rushed off to his new class. The words “angel friend” and “imaginary friend” kept turning in his mind. “Nah, that’s crazy. It can’t be. I’m not going crazy!”

“Of course you’re crazy, Freddy boy!” Omar jolted Fred into reality. “You had like 20 kickball home runs last year! Dude, that’s crazy! Just own it. Just say it, ‘I’m crazy good.’ Say it, Freddy!”

“It’s Fred.”

“Oh yeah, dude. ‘Fred,’ whatever. You’re crazy!”

Fred chuckled at Omar’s obsessive fascination with kickball skills. “Okay already. I’m craaaazy in kickball!”

And nodding in satisfaction, Omar said, “That’s right. Just own it, man.”

At recess, Fred could not get his mind off the “angel friend” who wasn’t imaginary. So he went back to the bush where he had his last conversation with the hidden boy. “Psssst. Little dude. Where are you?”

“Why you talking to a shrub?” The little boy was suddenly behind Fred. He jumped with a start and noticed, in fact, that the little boy was not a boy at all, but a little man creature with squinty eyes, hunched up shoulders, white hair, and an orange shirt with a grinning face upon it.

“You’re my angel friend?” Fred questioned cautiously.

“At your service! You’ve hit the jackpot. Only one in 175, 000 can see their angel after the age of 5.”

“Why me? …Why you?”

“All us angels talk about who needs us most, who’d be most accepting of us, who’d get the most from our services… And with you being a good guy and having lost your house over the summer, we thought you were a pretty good candidate.”

Then Fred’s angel looked offended, “And why me? You want an exchange already?”

“No. I just didn’t expect you to… to… look like this.”

“Oh, I get it. You’re expecting wings, a white gown, and maybe a halo over my head, right?”

“I can tell now; you are my imaginary friend! That’s so cool! Only, you’ve changed clothes.”

“Yeah, the big guy loosened up the rules since I last saw you. We can choose our own fashion now.”

“Wow, and you chose that shirt, huh?” Fred marveled at his old friend.

“Okay, enough about my excellent fashion sense… This is your year so don’t you fear!”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean: I’m like the writing on the wall, your own personal guide, your genie in bottle — only, I don’t grant wishes, I can’t produce money, and I don’t live in a bottle. I’ve always been around to help you; but now I get to use a little of my magic to make things go your way. That is… if you let me.”

“How do I know I can trust you?”

“Try me! Did I fail you when you were younger?”

Fred couldn’t remember a time when his “angel” sent him in the wrong direction. But it was so long ago and he couldn’t be sure of a lot of things.

“Alright, let’s try this. Your first task is to help me with winning the election. It’s next week.”

“Great! I love elections. They’re such character builders. Oops, gotta go.”

Telly appeared out of nowhere. “What about the election? And who are you talking to? You’re weird.”

“You know, I can say the same about you, too.” Fred walked toward the kickball field, throwing his hands in the air in frustration. His angel was gone, again.

Looking into the sky, Fred whispered, “How am I supposed to contact you? Can anyone else see you or hear you? What’s your name? God, are you playing a practical joke on me?”

Part 3 of 3 to be continued in 2 weeks.