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The Ballad of a Broken Nose Hardcover – June 14, 2016
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From School Library Journal
Gr 5–7—Twelve-year-old Bart is pretty resigned about his life. He lives in Norwegian public housing with his alcoholic mother and doesn't know anything about his father other than his name, John Jones, and that he is American. At school, Bart tries to maintain a level of invisibility. He has a small circle of acquaintances to talk to at recess, but Ada is the only one who really talks to him, and their conversations are usually centered on Ada copying Bart's math homework. The class talent show is approaching, and Bart lets it slip to Ada that he sings opera, and she in turn lets their classroom teacher know. Imagine his surprise when Ada shows up unannounced at his apartment one day. Bart is horrified that she has had to crunch over needles and avoid junkies just to get to his door. He is also dismayed that she is going to see his mother, who is quite overweight, missing a tooth, and responsible for the state of their apartment. Bart knows that Ada cannot keep a secret, and soon his everyday reality is revealed to his classmates. Bart must work on overcoming his fears, not only about singing but about the state of his life with his mother. The strength of this title is that it will encourage readers to look at their own lives and see the good despite the bad. Unfortunately, there are also some ideas that come across as insensitive or offensive. One of Bart's friends tells him that his mom will not let him listen to rap music, because "she doesn't want me to move to the ghetto and walk around with a gun." When describing his mom, Bart calls her a "beached whale. Superfatso. Very overweight. Back end of a bus." Later, his mother ends up in the hospital, and she is going to have an unnamed operation to make her "better. And thinner." These insensitivities are never circled back to, discussed, or questioned by any of the characters. Most middle grade students will require deeper context and conversation during and after reading to fully digest and comprehend the various layers and themes in this work. VERDICT The content and heavy nature of this story make it hard to place with an audience. That, combined with the offensive fat-shaming language and other unpacked prejudices, makes this title a tough sell; not recommended.—Stacy Dillon, LREI, New York City
"With deftness and subtlety, Svingen shows a boy hanging onto optimism in the face of adversity and asserting his identity when he’s long relied on obscuring himself fin the background." (Publishers Weekly)
"Bart's depth and the beauty he finds in his world are winning and moving. Lovely and profound. " (Kirkus)
"An absorbing, well-paced story with a heartening conclusion." (Booklist)
* "The novel is like a many-layered slice of cake: in every bite there's a mix of flavors, textures and mystery ingredients, adding up to a delicious read." (Shelf Awareness, STARRED REVIEW)
"An uplifting coming-of-age story." (The Wall Street Journal)
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Top customer reviews
Bart's experiences (living an impoverished urban life with an alcoholic mother, no father, and no financial or food security) may be set in Norway, but play out throughout this country. The same is true of his school relationships, his feelings of isolation and ever-present low-level threats. What's more, his inner voice (not the opera one), his decency, relationships, emotions, and resilience are universal, or nearly so. If/when readers with no connection to his experiences read this book I feel certain they will fall eagerly into Bart's life and story. I won't ever forget Bart, having met him in these pages, and I urge everyone else to meet him, too.
This is an ideal read aloud for older elementary/middle school in content, language, and countless other ways.
Many obstacles stand in Bart's way, but he fights through them. He has paralyzing stage fright that makes his voice crack when he sings in front of an audience (even a solo performance for his grandmother), and he hasn't figured out how to punch yet and takes a pounding whenever he fights, which leads to his eponymous BROKEN NOSE. Bart has an opportunity to live his operatic dream at his end-of-year talent show at school, but he must stand up to his fears and find enough courage to step into the spotlight.
THE BALLAD OF A BROKEN NOSE is a fun read and contains lessons about keeping problems in perspective and keeping an eye on the prize no matter how tough things get that would be useful for young readers. However, it must be stated that this novel's portrayal of impoverished life is quite problematic. Bart's biggest source of embarrassment in his life --- more than his odd taste in music or undeveloped social skills --- is the fact that he lives in public housing. The building he lives in is described as a horror: needles in the hallway, garbage everywhere, fights in the staircase, people behaving like animals. Every character we meet in his public housing apartment building, including Bart's mother, has an addiction. Bart remarks that most of the people in his building are high all the time, and the closest thing to a positive statement Svingen writes about these characters is that only about ten percent of them are dangerous. Bart says that he feels like he was raised by wolves, never seeing how humans properly conduct themselves. He comments that it is fine to live in public housing, as long as the other kids at school never hear about it.
If you are going to give this book to your son or daughter to read or are going to teach it in a literature class, there must be an explanation provided to the young readers that not all life in public housing is this way. A majority of public housing tenants live ordinary, healthy lifestyles and living in such a building is nothing to be ashamed of at all. I could imagine it being a very uncomfortable scenario if a student who lives in public housing were to discuss this novel with fellow students who do not. Some of the meaning in Svingen's words may not have transferred seamlessly in the translation from Norwegian to English, leading to a very negative and unfair stereotype of public housing tenants being communicated in this novel. Bart's story is a motivational one and Svingen's writing is very fun and easy to read, but an adult needs to have a conversation with younger readers to dispel the stereotype that is presented here.
Reviewed by Rob Bentlyewski