Review / Genius Under the Table

20211015ma_3661Book: Genius Under the Table (2021)
Author: Eugene Yelchin
Genre: MG, Historical (1970s)

Opening lines from the book …
The first time I saw real American tourists, they hopped out of a tourist bus in Red Square in Moscow and cut in front of us in line. “Nice manners!” my mother shouted. “We’ve been freezing our butts off for hours and they just breeze in like that?”


1) The title is a reference to Yevgeny’s place to sleep… and yes, since the whole family sleeps in the same room, that means his place is under the big table! He uses the privacy of this space to work on his drawings. I love that! The kid in me definitely wants to sleep under the table too!

2) I love this author’s depiction of life in the Soviet Union in the 1970s. I felt for young Yevgeny over the idea that to succeed in Soviet society, he must discover his great talent. His brother is a talented figure skater. (Super fun scene where he uses Yevgeny for weight-lifting when he moves over to pairs figure skating.) And there’s the back story about the mom and her own talent. She wants Yevgeny to be a great ballet dancer like Baryshnikov. (Let’s just say, Yevgeny has a different talent than ballet.)

3) The Dad! I loved him so much! The best line is when he talks about genius under the table. (The only thing that really makes me sad about the dad is that he still does not quite see the problem with communism, even if he realizes that Stalin is not as flawless as the State would have them think.)

4) There’s a scene that made me cry… it was so heartbreaking. And I will leave it at that.

5) I thought the connection with Baryshnikov (the ballet dancer) was great. It works really well into Yevgeny’s own story and adds that tidbit of historical happening to this story that I love so much. I definitely did a bit of research on Baryshnikov after reading this book!


This book is so powerful. And wonderful. (I may be a bit prejudiced as I love reading books about the Soviet Union since my own grandmother spent her childhood there.) I loved the peek into Soviet life in the 1970s. I’d also recommend this author’s Breaking Stalin’s Nose, which was a Newbery Honor book.

(P.S. Thank you to Rosi Hollinbeck for this book! I won it as a giveaway. Thank you, thank you, thank you!)


Have you read this book? What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Note: I’m posting this for Greg Pattridge’s Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday

Review / Blackbird Girls

20210808ma_2823Book: Blackbird Girls (2020)
Author: Anne Blankman
Genre: MG, Historical (1986/1941)

Opening lines from the book …
Valentina wondered where the birds had gone. They weren’t waiting on the sill when she went to the sitting room window that morning.


1) This book is set in the Soviet Union and goes back and forth between 1986 and 1941. Of course, at one point, the characters in each time period merge. I really enjoyed seeing that happen. I know quite a bit about life in the Soviet Union as my grandmother grew up there. The parts set in 1986 were less known to me, but I found them equally as interesting.

2) This book is about Chernobyl. (Can’t you tell from that cover?) I’m fascinated by this topic, although this is the first book I’ve read about the disaster that occurred in 1986. The opening chapters deal with what happened. I was riveted! The author did a wonderful job in pulling us in, especially with regards to all the lies that were being told (or not told) in the wake of the nuclear disaster. The Soviet Union was a place where fear reigned. From the whisper-campaign of neighbors against neighbors to the ever-present threat of the secret police, I felt this story got that right. 

3) I love how the two main characters, Valentina and Oksana, are not at all friends at the beginning of this story. It sets us up for some wonderful conflict between the two. I love the uneasy-alliances trope in books. The book also flashbacks to 1941 where we meet Rifka. She’s Jewish and must escape the arrival of the Nazi army as it invades the Soviet Union. Of course, at one point all three of them come together.

4) The title was quite interesting. I was interested to see how it developed. It has to do with how the two girls end up standing up for one another.

5) I loved the author’s note at the end of the book explaining how this is story is based in part on a friend’s experiences. I usually like authors’ notes, and this one did not disappoint!


There are not so many books about the Soviet Union. Because of my grandmother, I definitely am drawn to them. But I think this is history that we need to know, whether or not we have a connection.



Have you read this book? What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Note: I’m posting this for Greg Pattridge’s Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday

Review / A Boy is Not a Bird

20210321ma_0807Book: A Boy is Not a Bird (2019)
Author: Edeet Ravel
Genre: MG, Historical [Soviet Union – 1940s]

Basic plot: Natt and his friend Max are the “two musketeers.” But war comes to his village, and so do the Russians. Suddenly, Natt’s no longer going to Hebrew classes and then his father is arrested. When his mother goes away, suddenly Natt is in the interrogator’s chair. He starts to wonder if Stalin really is the friend of children.

Opening lines from the book …
My best friend Max and I are playing a game called Life and Death on the High Seas. Max came up with both the game and the name. He gets all the good ideas. I’m more of a go-along type of guy.


1) I loved the friendship between Max and Natt. I think I was particularly drawn to Max because, while Natt buys into the lies being taught at school, Max seems to know something is a little odd about it. I love how Max comes up with various “illnesses” to get out of going to school!

2) I did like how the teachers are not necessarily “evil” in this book. Comrade Martha and Comrade Minsky are shown more in a complex light, especially Comrade Minsky (who we learn *slight spoiler* is also Jewish). While Comrade Martha pushes the Russian and Soviet agenda, she doesn’t vilify Natt, even after his father is arrested. She actually gives him Soviet prizes. I found this interesting and made me think she, like others, is just caught in Soviet web and just tries to do her best to survive.

3) I loved the theme of negative numbers which Comrade Minsky introduces during math class. I loved how it plays into the plot as Natt loses things, one by one… his dad, his house, etc. The book is even separated into sections labeled ‘Minus a House’ and ‘Minus a Town.’

4) I also enjoyed Mr. Elias, Natt’s Hebrew teacher. Later in the story, Natt becomes very close to his little daughter, Shainie (who seems about three or four years old). At one point, they are separated, and the little girls reaction shows how much she adores her big kid friend. I like how the author manages to incorporate her into the very end of the story.

5) The author’s note at the end of the book explains the true story behind this book.


1) At times, I was confused by Natt’s age. There are spots where he seems to be twelve (I think that’s his age in the story), but there were other times when he seemed much, much younger. He seemed very naive, especially compared with Max. Since this book is based on true events, it’s possible that this is part of the real “Natt,” but I do think kids these days will have a hard time connecting with him at times.

2) The book also ended a tad abruptly. It seems like there is a lot more to Natt’s story. And in the author’s note, she does mention that it’s supposed to be a trilogy. That’s fine, but I did want just a little more at the end of this one.


I think this story is such an important one. I love historical fiction, and I do have soft spot (if you can call it that) for stories about the Soviet Union since that is part of my heritage. I would recommend this to anybody who’s interested in history. I look forward to reading the next two books to find out what happens to Natt!


Have you read this book? What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Note: I’m posting this for Greg Pattridge’s Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday

#MGTakesOnThursday / Breaking Stalin’s Nose

breaking stalins noseBook: Breaking Stalin’s Nose (2011)
Author: Eugene Yelchin
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
Genre: MG, Historical Fiction

Rating: 5 stars

This book in three words…

Family, Brainwashing, Truth

Favourite Sentence from Page 11…

“Everyone in the kitchen stops talking when my dad comes in. They look like they are afraid, but I know they are just respectful.”

(Yes, technically, I chose two sentences, but I felt that you needed both to get the gist of the situation. Also, please note that Sasha’s dad is one of the secret police. So, yes, the people in the kitchen are terrified of him!)

My thoughts on this book…

I absolutely LOVE this book! The setting is the Soviet Union in the 1930s, and I find a lot of people don’t really know much about this time period in history. In my case, I grew up with these stories about the Soviet Union since my grandmother lived there. She lived through Stalin’s man-made famine in 1932-33 (the Holodomor, if you’re interested in knowing more.) It’s so important that we understand the ways a society can go wrong… that communism and socialism are not the answer.

In the story, young Sasha believes all the lies that have been handed to him in school and by his own dad. He can hardly wait to become a young pioneer to help bring in the great utopian future! So, when his dad is arrested, he thinks it’s all a mistake. Comrade Stalin will be able to set things right! Little by little, Sasha begins to see that things are not quite the way he’s been told. And yes, Stalin’s nose plays a very important part…

Very powerful book. It won a Newbery Honor in 2012.

This post is part of a challenge to celebrate middle-grade books. For more information, go to:

How to take part…

  • Post a picture of the front cover of a middle-grade book which you have read and would recommend to others with details of the author, illustrator and publisher.
  • Open the book to page 11 and share your favourite sentence.
  • Write three words to describe the book.
  • Either share why you would recommend this book, or link to your review.


Review: Arcady’s Goal

archadys-goalBook: Arcady’s Goal (2014)
Author: Eugene Yelchin
Genre: MG, Historical
Rating: 3 Stars

Basic plot: Arcady lives in an orphanage where his only hope lies in soccer and being the best. When Arcady is adopted by Ivan Ivanych, his new “father” starts coaching him and a bunch of other children for his soccer team… that is until the other fathers kick Ivan Ivanych off the team. Ivan Ivanych takes Arcady to get a letter to try out for the Red Army youth team. The problem lies in the fact that Arcady’s parents were declared “enemies of the state.”  Now it’s up to them to find a way to make Arcady’s goal…


1) Arcady is so hopeful in this! Always seeing the bright side of things. Which is interesting since the setting is the Soviet Union. Arcady could have been bitter about his parents being taken away, but he isn’t. As a trusting kid, he just accepts this happened and focuses on soccer.

2) Yelchin does a good job showing the confusion and betrayals that was the era of the Soviet Union. Arcady’s encounters a lot of things that should make him question what’s happening in his home country.

3) The story was a little slow in places. But it picked up for me with the re-introduction of a boy (Freckles) from Arcady’s soccer team. It was around this time that some of the other elements hinted at also became clearer.

4) I liked the little twist with Fireball, the guy in charge of getting Arcady a letter to try out for the Red Army youth team.

5) I do like the hopefulness that this story gives us. There’s was not a lot of hope in the Soviet Union during this time. But I like how this ending, although it is ambiguous, doesn’t end in despair.

6) One of my favourite lines is when Arcady asks (*SPOILER) Ivan Ivanych’s real name (End Spoiler). I thought that was a nice touch. Even if his new dad doesn’t give him the answer.


1) I didn’t like this book as much as Breaking Stalin’s Nose. (That book was a masterpiece! Which is why it got a Newbery Honor.) Maybe it was the slowness of this book? I’m not sure. I wasn’t as drawn to Arcady as I was to Sasha.


My rating is 3 Stars (out of 5) – Kids who enjoy soccer will like this book. I like that the setting is the Soviet Union and applaud Yelchin for bringing to life a time period in history that isn’t often written about.


Have you read this book? What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Note: I’m posting this for Greg Pattridge’s Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday

Review: The Impossible Journey

impossiblejourneyBook: The Impossible Journey (2004)
Author: Gloria Whelan
Genre: MG, Historical (Soviet Union 1934)
Rating: 4 Stars

Basic plot:  Marya and Georgi want nothing more than to be reunited with their parents who have been taken during one of Stalin’s purges. The two determined children set out on an impossible journey across Russia towards a remote village in Siberia with the slight hope that they will find their mother there. (A companion book to Angel on the Square.)


1) I read Angel on the Square a long time ago. (Hint: It’s about Marya’s and Georgi’s mother.) I didn’t know this book existed until now! I like that it’s not a direct “sequel”, but that it does give us another peek into the lives of the characters from the first book. (Note: You can also read this book without having read Angel.)

2) The sibling relationship between Marya and Georgi is both realistic and sweet. He’s the typical younger brother who frustrates Marya. And yet she can’t leave him behind!

3) I love the look at the different families in this book. The book is about two children seeking to reunite their own split-apart family. Then there’s the neighbor family (with the bear) who initially take them in…. The doctor’s family on the train… And the “big family” of the Samoyeds (nomadic tribe).

4) The history of the time period of this book has always fascinated me. I thought Whelan did a good job in depicting the hardships of living under Stalin. One of my favourite parts was when Marya meets the Government Man and is forced to sing the praises of Stalin. (And how Georgi almost sabotages her plan!)

5) I really enjoyed learning about the Samoyeds (nomads who lived in Russia/Siberia at this time). I liked the interaction they had with the children, especially with regards to Georgi’s snow globe. I really liked how Marya and Georgi are not only helped by them, but also end up helping them in return.


1) I found it hard to understand Marya’s impulsive nature, especially with regard to showing off her mother’s locket. (I suppose you could argue that it’s still only 1934 and she doesn’t yet know the danger of such items. The height of Stalin’s purges doesn’t happen until 1938.) Not a major criticism as the episode does show how school was a place where information was gleaned about parents.

2) In the very end, there is (what I’d consider) an unnecessary death. Certainly it’s realistic, but it didn’t seem to be absolutely necessary to the book.


My rating is 4 Stars (out of 5) – This book gives a good sense of this oppressive time period in history. I’d definitely recommend for anybody who likes history as well as those who like plucky-children-who-take-impossible-journeys stories.


Have you read this book? What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Note: I’m posting this for Greg Pattridge’s Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday

Books About Brainwashing

I find that books about brainwashing are hard to read. The type of book where the main character firmly believes that some horrible truth is actually good.

And yet, I find I’m drawn to these books.

I grew up on the stories of my own grandmother who lived in the Soviet Union. Her father and grandfather died in Stalin’s purges in the late 1930s. My grandmother made it out. And even though she was intrigued by the thought of one day going back to visit the places of her childhood, she never would actually go back. Out of fear that they would keep her there.

So, I’m fascinated by how children particularly are taught to blindly follow an ideology, without any sort of questioning. Usually it’s the first parts of these books, then, that are hard to read… because the child is so trusting. But then, as the book continues, the cracks begin to show. The child begins to see and hear things that don’t quite mesh with what they’ve been taught.

The children start to see that, maybe, there’s another way of life.

Below is a list of three Middle Grade books that deal with children who have been brainwashed. Interestingly, they are based in three distinct settings. But they all have some very common elements to them.

Breaking Stalin Nose // by Eugene Yelchin

breaking stalins noseSetting: Communist Russia under Stalin (late 1940s)

Young Zaichik is on the eve of realizing his dream of becoming a Young Pioneer. Of wearing the red scarf for Comrade Stalin himself. Of making his father (a top party member) proud to have such a son who is dedicated to the Great Communist Cause. But then, there’s a “mistake”, and his father is arrested in a night raid. However Zaichik is confident that Comrade Stalin will soon put things right. What follows is a day at school… a day that involves an accident, accusations, assemblies, and… a nose. Stalin’s nose.

A Favourite Quote from the Book

In an earlier scene, Zaichik is eating a carrot…

I take small bites of the carrot to make it last; the carrot is delicious…

When hunger gnaws inside my belly, I tell myself that a future Pioneer has to repress cravings for such unimportant matters as food. Communism is just over the horizon; soon there will be plenty of food for everyone. But still, it’s good to have something tasty to eat now and then. I wonder what it’s like in the capitalist countries. I wouldn’t be surprised if children there had never even tasted a carrot.

Breaking Stalin Nose, Chapter 3

Red Scarf Girl // by Ji-li Jiang

Red-Scarf-Girl.jpgSetting: Communist China under Mao (1960s)

Ji-li is 12 years old when the Cultural Revolution hits China in 1966. She’s a staunch supporter of Chairman Mao. What she doesn’t know is that her family has a “black” past. Her dead grandfather was… horrors!… a landlord. Her father is taken to confess, and the family is constantly under the threat of persecution from the Red Guard. But through it all, Ji-li remains loyal to Chairman Mao and her greatest desire is to help move China forward in the great Communist experiment.

A Favourite Quote from the Book

In this scene, Ji-li and her friends watch as two men are struggling to remove a sign from a local grocery store. The reason? The store is called the Great Prosperity Market. But that name is considered to be “Four Olds”…

Our beloved Chairman Mao had started the Cultural Revolution in May. Every day since then on the radio we heard about the need to end the evil and pernicious influences of the “Four Olds”: old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits…

The Great Prosperity Market sign is finally toppled to the ground.

Everyone cheered. People rushed forward to stamp on what remained of the sign. An Yi and I had found a few classmates in the crowd, and we all embraced, jumped, and shouted. Although what we had smashed was no more than a piece of wood, we felt we had won a victory in a real battle.

Red Scarf Girl, “Destroy the Four Olds”

The Giver // by Lois Lowry

giverSetting: Some “Utopian” Future

Jonas lives in a utopian Community, one that dictates the lives of each of its citizens. Jonas turns twelve, and receives his life assignment. He is to be the New Receiver of Memories. He is introduced to the Giver and starts his apprenticeship. And this is when Jonas begins to realize that there are truths hiding in this perfect world… where sameness is celebrated to the point where these people can’t even see colour. Jonas, like everybody else, does not question the ways of the community… at least not until his eyes are opened by his time with the Giver.

A Favourite Quote from the Book

In this scene, the Giver has just given Jonas his favourite memory… A scene of a family around a Christmas tree. A family that includes “grandparents”, a concept that is foreign to Jonas. (There are no grandparents in the Community.) The Giver then explains to Jonas that the emotion in the memory was the feeling of love.

Jonas nodded. “I liked the feeling of love,” he confessed. He glanced nervously at the speaker on the wall, reassuring himself that no one was listening. “I wish we still had that,” he whispered. “Of course,” he added quickly, “I do understand that it wouldn’t work very well. And that it’s much better to be organized the way we are now. I can see that it was a dangerous way to live.

The Giver, Chapter 16

Have you read these books? Do you like to read these types of books? Are there any other titles you could add to these three?

Photo Challenge #13 / Happiness


“Easter Egg” / Theme: Happiness

A little about this photo…

Here’s a little story my grandmother would always tell me about Easter Eggs and her brother (my great-uncle).

My grandmother’s family lived in the Soviet Union when she was a girl in the 1930s. (She was part of an ethnic group called the Germans from Russia.) Since communism is atheistic, it was severely frowned upon to celebrate ANY religious holiday, Easter included. And when I say severely frowned upon, these were the days after the Holodomor, the great starvation winter (1932-33) that Stalin used to force “persuade” the people to accept the communist way of life. (And yes, my grandmother’s family lived through that.)

Okay. Back to the story about the Easter Eggs. Every Easter, their mother would hard-boil eggs. (Well, except that year back in 1933, I suppose.) And my great-uncle would always take a egg or two to school. (This would have been 1935-ish, when he was about 12 years old.)

Of course, he would always get in trouble. “Don’t bring those eggs to school, Emil!” his mother would tell him. So did his grandparents. And his younger sister (my grandmother). Even his father, although the father’s job on the commune farms kept him away from home most of the time. Emil’s teacher even came to visit the home to tell his mother, “Stop sending those eggs to school with your son!”

But there was nothing they could do. My great-uncle was a stubborn kid and he would do what he would do! Fortunately, nothing bad did happen to him because of the Easter Eggs.

Now, thinking back on this little tidbit of a story, I have a few questions. 1) Did this happen more than one year? (The more I think about it, I think it probably only happened for one (maybe two?) year. Stalin’s Great Purges were from 1936-1938. Their grandfather was taken in 1938. Their father was taken in 1941, but only because he was deemed necessary as one of the mechanics that kept all the commune farms running. And 2) Were the eggs dyed? Unfortunately, I never thought to ask these questions while my grandmother was alive.

On a side note: My Uncle Emil was known for doing things “his way”. Despite his propensity to thumb his nose occasionally at the authorities, it was probably that stubbornness that ended up saving him from the gulag… But that’s another story.

Side note #2: I am fully aware of the irony of the theme of this photography prompt (“Happiness”) juxtaposed against a story that discusses people being starved and taken away to the gulag. It’s perhaps the German-Russian heritage in me? (Soviet-era jokes tend to have a bit of a macabre edge to them.)

So… that is the little story of my great-uncle and the Easter Eggs. And with that, I wish you a very happy and blessed Easter!

THIS WEEKLY PHOTO CHALLENGE is posted every Saturday. Please join me in posting your own photos with #2018picoftheweek