“To many, Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. (Winston Churchill)”

The Winter Olympics will be in Sochi, Russia, in February 2014. The world’s largest country, Russia spans two continents and eleven time zones. Part of the Soviet Union for nearly 70 years, it has had its own political, legal, and economic systems since 1991. These titles will help young people better understand its history and culture.

Web links to additional information and activities about Russia and the Winter Olympics follow these reviews.

Contributor: Peg Glisson


The Apothecary

Maile Meloy

This entertaining and informative novel ventures into the infrequently explored Cold War era. Janie’s parents, both television writers, are forced to leave Los Angeles to escape the hysteria of the Red Scare. The family heads to London where the post-war, cold-water flat does not include enough heat or blankets, so they head off to the apothecary for hot-water bottles. Mr. Burrows, the apothecary, makes Janie a special homesickness remedy, which unfortunately does not also address her frustration in attending a very traditional school, wearing a dull uniform, being mocked by posh girls, having to learn Latin, and practicing her “duck-and-cover” drills. It is during one of the drills that Janie notices Benjamin, Mr. Burrows’s son, and finds him crush-worthy. The kidnapping of his father leads them on a great escapade filled with shape-changing, invisibility, and a resourceful new friend, Pip. This atmospheric first effort in the young adult arena by this author touches on the big issues in an adventure filled with imagination, fun, and first love. The tale is told with perspicacity after a slow start. It is good, strong historical fiction spiced with intrigue, magical realism, mystery, suspense, and science. The plot and pacing are a bit uneven at points, but the spies and historical twist give it a lot of flavor. The illustrations are fluid and delightful. This is a great pleasure read for ages ten and up and may even encourage readers to pursue more period information. 2011, Putnam/Penguin, Ages 11 to 18, $16.99.


ISBN: 9780399256271


Scott Westerfeld

Illustrated by Keith Thompson

Scott Westerfeld has outdone himself in this fresh new sequel. Deryn, a girl disguised as a boy fighting in the British Air Service, has fallen in love with Alek, an Austrian prince and a former enemy who is unaware of her true identity. Together aboard the airship “Levithian,” they are nervously awaiting and preparing for the attack of the Germans. Beautiful, intricate illustrations bring light to the text and highlight the small details in the novel. Delightfully rich and descriptive adjectives add depth to the novel. Each protagonist has a multi-faceted, well-developed personality. Readers will recognize familiar countries and battles from World War I that they learned about in history class, but with an exciting new twist. Although some unfamiliar slang may confuse readers, most familiar landmarks are slightly renamed in a creative and original way that makes them still largely recognizable. This book will be a delightful addition to the adventurous teen’s shelf. 2011, Simon Pulse/Simon and Schuster, Ages 15 up, $18.99.

REVIEWER: Haley Maness (Children’s Literature).

ISBN: 9781416971757

Between Shades of Gray

Ruth Sepetys

In 1941, 15-year-old Lina’s world is forever shattered overnight. She finds herself arrested with her family by Soviet soldiers, separated from her father, and forced into a cramped cattle car with other “undesirables.” In a harrowing journey across Russia and ultimately Siberia, she witnesses and endures horrors that verge on the unthinkable. Forced into slave labor, deprived of human amenities ranging from healthcare to solid food other than stale bread, Lina and her family seem to be in an utterly hopeless situation. Yet, through strength of faith and love, they find hope in the smallest of occasions and mercies. Between Shades of Gray is valuable for its historical accuracy and its detail regarding the relatively little-known campaign of deportation and terror that befell many states annexed into the Soviet Union. This multilayered story is accessible, suspenseful, and powerful, delivering startling terrors and redemptive love in equal turns. 2011, Philomel, Ages young adult, $17.99.

REVIEWER: Simon Gooch (The ALAN Review).

ISBN: 9780399254123

Breaking Stalin’s Nose

Eugene Yelchin

10-year old-Sasha is proud of his Communist father. He believes that Comrade Stalin is the greatest leader and teacher of all time. Sasha lives in a communal apartment with his father and 48 other people. The night before the Pioneers rally at which Sasha will officially become a young Communist, his father is taken away. Sasha is confused. Why would Stalin allow his father to be taken? Sasha decides to get answers for himself and sets out on a quest which takes him to his aunt’s home, his school and ultimately to Lubyanka, a prison. As the search for his father continues, Sasha begins to doubt everything he once believed: the comforts of his home, the nature of his father’s work, and Stalin’s leadership. Set during the heart of Stalin’s reign in the Soviet Union, the author brings the scenes, the language and the beliefs of Communism to readers as only one who has lived it could do. The main character is thoughtful, spunky and courageous, and the book’s illustrations will captivate readers. This is a well-written and accessible work of historical fiction for young readers. 2011, Henry Holt, Ages 9 to 12, $15.99.

REVIEWER: Jody Little (Children’s Literature).

ISBN: 9780805092165

Candy Bomber: The Story of the Berlin Airlift’s “Chocolate Pilot”

Michael O. Tunnell

The Berlin Airlift began in 1948 to bring food and supplies into Russian-blockaded Berlin, Germany. One of the American pilots, Gail Halvorsen, was touring Berlin when he came upon a group of children gathered on the other side of a wire fence watching the planes land. They shared their concerns with Halvorsen, not only for their much needed food but also for freedom from Soviet rule. He was inspired to drop gum and candy. Concerned that the Air Force would not allow him to carry out his plan, he did it secretly. Soon, however, his popularity as the Candy Bomber spread. The candy drop became a symbol of hope for these young Berliners. Tunnell brings the reader up to date on Halvorsen who has met with the now grown-up children, their children and grandchildren. Halvorsen has continued to fly other humanitarian missions in the 1990s and the early 2000s. His uplifting story and unassuming demeanor emphasize how one small act of kindness can have a ripple effect. An historical note provides context. Tunnell interviewed Halvorsen for this book. Those interviews and the books and websites listed in the Selected References provided the quotes. Black and white photographs from the time of the airlift and those of present day, along with letters and drawings from grateful children provide a sense of how meaningful his candy drops were. There is an author’s note and a Prologue written by Halvorsen. A fascinating story in many ways, this is a fine introduction to the beginning of the Cold War for middle school and high school students. 2010, Charlesbridge, Ages 10 to 14, $18.95.

REVIEWER: Sharon Salluzzo (Children’s Literature).

ISBN: 9781580893367

Cultural Traditions in Russia

Molly Aloian

This is a non-narrative, nonfiction book about the cultural traditions in Russia. The book is clearly laid out with a contents page at the beginning and a glossary and index at the end. Each two-page spread introduces another cultural aspect of Russia that includes “Did You Know?” fact spotlights as well as photographs to show the reader what the tradition actually looks like. The photographs are a highlight for this text because they allow the reader to see the places and experience the culture even though they are not able to be there. Sometimes the photographs are side pictures to support the text and other times the pictures are the background and the text is overlaid upon it. The text of each two-page spread has a larger font that will not overwhelm young readers. Specific words are bolded in the text and in the back of the book there is a glossary with definitions for those specific words. This book is great for parents or teachers who want to encourage international development, as well as being able to read non-narrative, nonfiction next. Children will enjoy being able to look at one cultural tradition at a time and to pick and choose which one sounds interesting to them without having to read more than they can handle. 2012, Crabtree, Ages 8 to 12, $8.95.

REVIEWER: Beth-Anne White (Children’s Literature).

ISBN: 9780778775881

The Explosionist

Jenny Davidson

Ever wonder what the world would be like if Napoleon had won at Waterloo? One possibility is that Europe would have united except for the Hanseatic League of Scotland/England (one country), Denmark, Sweden, and Russia. In 1938, the League could have been facing a war against the rest of Europe. Scotland might have had fuel-cell technology and a program to adapt young women’s brains so they could unemotionally serve important citizens, and Nobel possibly could have become a major munitions producer. Such are the circumstances in which Sophie, a fifteen-year-old boarding school student, finds herself. Sophie becomes embroiled in a convoluted series of events that include bombings, murder, and workings of the “institute for young women.” Spiritualism is a major factor in the story and Sophie’s discovery that she is a medium adds to the suspense. Working with her friend Mikael, Sophie seeks to understand how what appear to be unrelated events and happenings are actually parts of an evolving future. Readers can expect a sequel based on the story’s open ending. The characters come through as very human and quite believable. The book is well written and well crafted. The weaving and subtle twisting of historical characters and events is done with great skill. Students liking mysteries and alternative histories will quickly read this one cover to cover. 2008, HarperTeen, Ages 15 to 18, $17.99.

REVIEWER: Susan Allen (VOYA).

ISBN: 9780061239755


Saviour Pirotta

In this version of the classic Russian folktale, the bird with feathers of fire is stealing the golden apples from King Vaslav’s tree. The king offers a reward for catching him. After Prince Dmitri and Prince Vasili fail, young Prince Ivan, considered foolish, grabs the bird but is left with only a feather. Again the king offers a reward for the capture. And again the two older princes give up and Ivan proceeds. With the help of Gray Wolf, he successfully completes three difficult quests. The last concerns the rescue of Princess Helen. The two fall in love, for a happy ending for them and the firebird. Impressionistic acrylic painting sometimes fill double pages with a romantic aura made more so by areas of gold and copper foil. The visual legend is enhanced by images that offer suggestion rather than explication. As portrayed on the back of the jacket, which differs from the cover, the princess is depicted with just a few lines, while the bird is fully feathered, with shimmering golden highlights. Both are set on a black background amid plant forms and the apples. Until the striking final scene of fiery redness symbolizing the bird’s freedom, the scenes are mainly set in black with the characters emerging into action. A note fills in background of the firebird story, noting the hundredth anniversary of the Russian ballet. 2010, Templar Books, Ages 5 to 9, $18.99.

REVIEWER: Ken Marantz and Sylvia Marantz (Children’s Literature).

ISBN: 9780763650766

Life: An Exploded Diagram

Mal Peet

Generations of Clem’s family have experienced disaster. Taking place almost exclusively in England, we watch Clem’s life unfold as well as stories from his family’s past. We learn about the lives of his parents and grandparents, all affected by war and hardship. Clem’s life takes a wild turn when he meets Frankie, the daughter of a wealthy landowner. Suddenly, all his thoughts are of her, and he happily lets them consume him. However, like the rest of family, there is something beyond his control that threatens to undo everything he’s worked toward: The Cuban Missile Crisis. Fictionalized dialogue involving President John F. Kennedy and Russia’s Nikita Khrushchev has generous portions of the book that serves as a countdown to a life-altering moment for Clem. A message about how war stretches through time and countries damaging more than the intended victims. This is a turbulent, raw, novel that is gritty and ties together world history, war, and family dynamics. Its darkness and underlying didactic tones will intrigue thinkers and philosophers. 2011, Candlewick, Ages 15 up, $17.99.

REVIEWER: Renee Farrah Vess (Children’s Literature).

ISBN: 9780763652272


Nelson Yomtov

Russia: Enchantment of the World is a very well written, well organized, well researched, and highly informative book about Russia and the former Soviet Union. Author Yomtov begins with a brief history of the country’s government and wars, a subject matter that will quench an immediate thirst from the readers showing them they’ve found the right book, and then he treats the history more thoroughly in later chapters, from the first Eastern Slavs who became known as the Rus to the most recent re-election of Vladimir Putin and beyond. In other chapters, readers will learn about the landscape and geography, including human and animal uses of the land and water supplies; the many ethnicities, cultures, and religious groups spread across the land; their economic situation, both past and present; and Russia’s contributions to Western literature, music, dance, and other visual arts. While there are many boxes of supplemental information to the general text, all are highly informative, responding to many potential questions the regular text might arouse in the readers. Additionally, with only a few exceptions, the supplemental boxes don’t interrupt page breaks, making it easy to read them alongside the regular text and move on unconfused and without a need to flip back and forth between pages. Additionally, the book offers many full color, quality photographs, paintings, maps, and other useful information. A good index, credit page, and timeline are all provided in the back matter. Part of the “Enchantment of the World” series. 2013, Children’s Press, Ages 9 up, $40.00.

REVIEWER: Heidi Quist (Children’s Literature).

ISBN: 9780531275450

Russia: The Culture

Greg Nickles

This title, one of three about Russia, is part of the Bobby Kalman Land, Peoples, and Cultures Series that are available for over 36 countries. Russia: the Culture describes how the culture has changed through the ages and with influences from the East Slavs, Mongols, Czars and Soviets. Religion and religious and secular holidays are explained. Art, including folk art, and modern and Byzantine styles of architecture, along with music, ballet and folk dance, and well known figures in literature are featured. A description of the Cyrillic alphabet is given before finishing with the tale of Baba Yaga. As with all the books in this series, the text is balanced with bold headings and informative, captioned photographs. A table of contents, index and glossary are found in all books. Rev. Ed Category: Non-Fiction Grades K-6. Thematic Links: Russia; Social Studies; Multiculturalism. Resource Links Rating: G (Good, great at times, generally useful 2008, Crabtree, Ages 9 to 13, $20.76.

REVIEWER: Moira Kirkpatrick (Resource Links).

ISBN: 9780778793045

Saving Zasha

Randi G. Barrow

In her first book for children, adult author Barrow brings readers a gentle and suspenseful story straight from the heart of a dog-lover. Just after WWII ends, 13-year-old Mikhail finds a beautiful German shepherd named Zasha and her owner, Petr, in the woods near his small Russian town. Shortly after, Petr dies and Mikhail and his family (except for his father, who has not yet returned from the war) are determined to keep the beloved dog hidden from those seeking to capture or kill the dog because of the breed’s association with Germany: Katia, a nosy schoolmate and the daughter of the newspaper editor investigating Petr’s death; Dimitri, a breeder who hopes to create a Russian superdog; and a pair of conniving dog thieves. Mikhail’s sense of humor, concern for his family, and love of Zasha are all readily apparent in his narration, which smoothly incorporates background information for readers unfamiliar with 20th-century Russian life and history. If occasionally precious, Barrow’s novel is quick reading yet weighty, and captures the prejudices and aftereffects of war. 2011, Scholastic, Ages 9 to13, $16.99.

REVIEWER: Publishers Weekly (Publishers Weekly).

ISBN: 9780545206327

Soldier Bear
Bibi Dumon Tak

illustrated by Philip Hopman ; translated by Laura Watkinson.

During World War II, a Polish supply unit serving in Iran encountered a young boy who asked if they would trade food and money for what he was carrying in a squirming burlap bag. They opened the bag to reveal a bear cub, and the soldiers readily agreed to the trade. They named the little bear Voytek and took him into their unit as a mascot. Voytek traveled with them everywhere they went, quickly winning over even the most hardened officers with his amusing antics. He was even officially sworn into the Polish Army as a private. As he grew, the bear not only entertained the soldiers by getting into mischief, he also lifted their spirits and raised morale in the midst of war’s harsh realities. With a pitch-perfect storytelling voice, this short, poignant novel remarkably recreates a time and a place, and is all the more unusual because it’s based on something that actually happened. Black-and-white photographs accompany an author’s note at the end, showing us the real Voytek and some of the men with whom he served. 2011, Eerdmans, Ages 7-10, $13.00.

REVIEWER: CCBC (Cooperative Children’s Book Center Choices).

ISBN: 9780802853752

Spotlight on Russia

Bobbie Kalman

Russia is the largest country in the world, spanning two continents, and its customs and people are numerous and very diverse. Part of the “Spotlight on My World” series, this title offers a brief overview of the county and its customs, wildlife, cities and people. The text is lavishly illustrated with photographs and there are also maps and an interesting little decorative banner along the top of each page containing thumbnail pictures from the larger photographs throughout the book. Young readers will get a short introduction to some of the highlights of Russian life and culture such as the Bolshoi Ballet and the Hermitage Museum. A basic discussion of the political history of the country and the region helps young social studies students understand the complexity of the cultural heritage and the government. There is a glossary and an index and while a list of other places to look for information would have been nice, beginning readers will not miss it. 2010, Ages 5 to 8, $26.60.

REVIEWER: Ellen Welty (Children’s Literature).

ISBN: 9780778734604

The Winter War

William Durbin

In the fall of 1939, the Soviet Union invaded Finland, a conflict that came to be known as the Winter War. Although Marko’s leg has been crippled by polio, he is eager to help defend Finland from the attackers, and he is proud to be chosen as a ski messenger for a military command group. This group hides out in the woods waging guerilla warfare on the Soviets. They are pounded by artillery guns and greatly outnumbered, but bravely hold the line. Their best ally is the bitter cold–as low as minus 56 degrees. Marko cheerfully helps the medics, chops woods, and digs trenches as well as running messages, accompanied by his always-sad fellow messenger Karl, who hides a surprising secret. In the end, the Finns must cede land to the Soviets, but while Marko loses his home village, he has helped to save his country. Durbin shines light on a little-known but hard-fought struggle and convincingly, viscerally, describes the battles, life on the front lines, and the terrible cold. An afterword provides more details of the conflict and the toll it took. A sure winner for fans of war stories. Category: Hardcover Fiction. KLIATT Codes: JS*. 2008, Wendy Lamb, Ages 12 to 18Ages 12 to 18, $15.99.

RREVIEWER: Paula Rohrlick (KLIATT Review).

ISBN: 9780385746526

Updated 01/01/14

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