“There’s no place for the likes of you in our class,” Sasha Zaichik’s teacher tells him, and that seems to be the motto of the whole Stalinist nation.
Yelchin’s debut novel does a superb job of depicting the tyranny of the group, whether residents of a communal apartment, kids on the playground, students in the classroom or government officials. It’s the readiness of the group to create outsiders—bad ones, “unreliables,” “wreckers”—by instilling fear in everyone that chills. Not many books for such a young audience address the Stalinist era, when, between 1923 and 1953, leaving a legacy of fear for future generations. Joseph Stalin’s State Security was responsible for exiling, executing or imprisoning 20 million people. Sasha is 10 years old and is devoted to Stalin, even writing adoring letters to Comrade Stalin expressing his eagerness at becoming a Young Pioneer. But his mother has died mysteriously, his father has been imprisoned and Sasha finds he has important moral choices to make. Yelchin’s graphite illustrations are an effective complement to his prose, which unfurls in Sasha’s steady, first-person voice, and together they tell an important tale.
A story just as relevant in our world, “where innocent people face persecution and death for making a choice about what they believe to be right,” as that of Yelchin’s childhood. (author’s note) (Historical fiction. 9-12)