Breaking Stalin's Nose by Eugene Yelchin was the "dark horse" of this year's Newbery medal and honor books -- and I think it's my favorite of the three.
Sasha Zaichik is the son of a Communist hero, and he wants to be just like his father. The night before Sasha is to join the Young Pioneers (the USSR's youth movement; kind of like a cross between the Boy Scouts and the Hitler Youth), Sasha writes an adoring letter to Stalin, professing his allegiance to the Communist cause. Just hours later, Sasha's father is arrested and taken away. Sasha is bewildered, but sure it is a mistake that will soon be rectified -- after all, Stalin himself once commended Sasha's father's service. As Sasha attends school the next day, his teacher and classmates continue to treat him like the son of a hero, as they have always done . . . until word of his father's arrest gets out. Suddenly, Sasha is an outcast. From his new position in the back of the classroom, he suddenly starts to see all sorts of things that he had been missing before. Will Sasha still be able to join the Young Pioneers? Will he even want to do so?
This is a great, thought-provoking read. I mean to go back and reread it some time in the next few days, in fact. It's deceptively brief -- I finished it in a few hours -- but it's the sort of book that sticks with you for days after you read it. I'm still not sure what a child Sasha's age (one who doesn't have any memory of the Iron Curtain or the Cold War, and who doesn't have a clear understanding, perhaps, of who Stalin is and what he did during his regime) would make of this book, but I'm pretty sure that, like Sasha, they would soon start to see the evils inherent in the system.
I highly recommend this little book!
(Review copy borrowed through my library system.)