My Russian tour

I’ve been taking an accidental course in Russian history. I started with The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming. It’s all about the last tsar of Russia and his family, muddling their way through a quickly changing political world. The book is wonderfully written, sort of a sweeping family saga except tragically true.

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The Family Romanov served as the perfect appetizer for the what turned out to be the main course: Symphony for the City of the Dead, by M.T. Anderson. This is another (supposed) children’s book about Russian politics and history, all carefully woven around the life story of composer Dmitri Shostakovich.

Shostakovich was first loved by the Russian people, then targeted by the government and treated as a pariah, then loved once again. He survived the siege of Leningrad during World War II. The symphony he wrote while starving in his beloved city became an international symbol of hope and humanity.

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The book was fascinating. My only issue is… it’s about a billion pages long. And it’s about Russian history. Are kids really going to read it? I devoured every possible book as a kid, but I can’t see my 13-year-old self choosing this one. And my daughter, avid reader that she is, didn’t make it through the more palatable Family Romanov.

What makes a non-fiction book a kid’s non-fiction book? That’s what I’ve been wondering, in between marvelling at the machinations of Russian politics. The prose in Symphony for the City of the Dead is clear and compelling… but shouldn’t that be a mark of good adult non-fiction as well? Anderson doesn’t assume the reader has prior knowledge of history, geography, or politics, and he offers plenty of background information… but wouldn’t more adults read Russian history if that were the case in all non-fiction books?

I have no real answers to these questions, except to say that both kids and adults should be choosing more non-fiction and these books are a wonderful place to start (for adults) and an impressive challenge (for younger readers).

I’m off to continue my Russian education with Stalin’s Daughter by Rosemary Sullivan. I’ll let you know how I do with my transition to actual grown-up biography.

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