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'Arcady's Goal' is a beautiful story of soccer, love, and Stalin

Eugene Yelchin, author of 'Breaking Stalin's Nose,' offers a wonderful companion novel for middle-grade readers.

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Arcady’s Goal
By Eugene Yelchin
Henry Holt
240 pp.

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Inspired by a rare surviving 1945 photograph of the author’s own father in the Red Army Soccer Club, Arcady’s Goal, Eugene Yelchin’s haunting companion to his Newbery Honor novel, "Breaking Stalin’s Nose," is a celebration of life and love. 

The resourceful and determined imperfect hero of this new middle-grade novel (ages 9-12) teaches readers much more than a history lesson about Soviet Russia’s totalitarian state. What may seem like a quiet story told in sparse language, illustrated with perfect pencil and charcoal art by the author, "Arcady's Goal" is a triumph of storytelling. Soccer players and young history buffs may be drawn to the book by its topic. Once there, everyone who thumbs through the pages will appreciate the heart of this remarkable novel.

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On a bleak soccer field where nobody plays by the rules, 12-year-old Arcady swaps goals for bread rations. His skills have made him a standout at the orphanage for children whose parents are enemies of Soviet Russia. The wisecracking, cruel director, aptly named Butterball by his wards, taunts Arcady and sets him up with difficult challenges. In these nearly hopeless surroundings, Arcady doesn’t dare to dream big. But perhaps there is a way to escape the fence surrounding the yard, with its stakes “sharpened to knifepoints.”

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While the boy’s pals watch and bullies challenge Arcady, Butterball offers the visiting government inspectors food and entertainment, in the form of soccer. What Arcady doesn’t expect is that one co-called inspector, Ivan Ivanych, is actually there to adopt him and take him home. Both the visitor and the boy have lost their families. Although their reasons to connect may differ, the two leave the orphanage together. Arcady hasn’t been inside a “regular home since I was in diapers.” He has never slept in a bed of his own. Of course, he’s suspicious, but now the boy has a place to call his own. The journey adoptive father and so take together, to discover what love really is, makes this deceptively simple story a delight.

An author’s note expands on the personal and historic reasons Yelchin wrote Arcady’s Goal and briefly explains post-World War II Russia and Stalinism. To have this bit of history recounted so personally – with humor and truth and perfect details – is a gift to young readers.