Brawerman students learn from Newbery Award winner

Does understanding our past enable us to move forward more freely? This question was among those posed by Eugene Yelchin, a Russian-born author/illustrator of books for children, in a recent discussion with students during his visit to Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Brawerman Elementary School in West Los Angeles.

Yelchin’s own experience growing up in the former Soviet Union informs his latest book, “Breaking Stalin’s Nose,” which won the 2012 Newbery Honor Award. The book tells of a boy who idolizes Stalin and the Communist Party, but when his father, a high-ranking state security official, is arrested, the boy begins to question everything he trusted. Yelchin, like his main character, had a father who was a devoted communist, and Yelchin also lived in an overcrowded communal apartment and dreamt of becoming a Young Soviet Pioneer. And like his hero, he also had to make a difficult personal choice. Yelchin’s choice was whether to leave the country of his birth.

After coming to the United States at 27, Yelchin went on to illustrate books such as “The Rooster Prince of Breslov,” which won a 2010 National Jewish Book Award, and “Won Ton: A Cat Tale Told in Haiku,” a 2012 American Library Association Notable Book.

“Breaking Stalin’s Nose,” which Yelchin wrote and illustrated, allows children to see the challenges of growing up under totalitarian rule, and speaking of his youth in the Soviet Union, Yelchin described to the students how his family and friends “would celebrate Jewish holidays behind closed doors. Religion was discouraged. There was one synagogue in Leningrad [now St. Petersburg] that was highly monitored by secret police. If you were seen inside, you could lose your job and your family could suffer.”

— Lisa Niver Rajna, Contributing Writer