Truth-Telling, Trauma Fiction, and the Challenge of Critical Engagement: A Reading of Breaking Stalin’s Nose and A Winter’s Day in 1939

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The Great Terror of 1936–1938 and mass deportations of “enemies of the people” between the 1930s and the 1950s are among signature atrocities committed by Stalinist Russia. Claiming the lives of several million Soviet citizens and foreign nationals, these executions and deportations were a silenced topic until the collapse of the Soviet Union. When they emerged in twenty first century children’s literature, stories of Soviet terror and deportations became a subgenre of trauma fiction—a large category predicated on mourning authentic historical traumas and appreciated for its truth-telling value. Recent criticism, however, has pointed at the limits of truth-telling genres in engaging audiences. In A Literature of Questions Joe Sutliff Sanders argued that nonfiction is more productive when texts share authority with their readers and invite critical engagement. What form can that engagement take in trauma genres? How can it be generative of dialogue or new knowledge? This essay offers a reading of Eugene Yelchin’s (Breaking Stalin’s Nose, Henry Holt, New York, 2011) and Melinda Szymanik’s (A Winter’s Day in 1939, Scholastic, Auckland, 2013) to argue that truth-telling need not be antithetical to critical engagement. The argument is that even texts whose authority derives from representations of historical atrocities can communicate their truths in a way that invites readers to interrogate the process by which historical knowledge is generated, articulated and remains meaningful in the present.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)519-533
Number of pages15
JournalChildren's Literature in Education
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2020

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019, Springer Nature B.V.


  • A winter’s day in 1939
  • Breaking stalin’s nose
  • Critical engagement
  • Eugene Yelchin
  • Melinda Szymanik
  • Trauma fiction
  • Truth-telling


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