Children and adults alike thrive off of routine and tradition. Predictable days are the easiest, while days with surprise disruptions tend to be more difficult. Change in routine is often a challenging transition, especially for children. In her autobiographical book A Year Without Mom, Dasha Tolstikova chronicles change on many levels. She writes of change in Russia during the last years of the Soviet Union, change in a young girl’s social life as her friends grow apart, and change in the same girl’s life when her mother leaves for America to study journalism. These changes are difficult, and Tolstikova’s beautiful illustrations and insightful voice provide true insight into what it is like when your traditional world crumbles around you.
Dasha is 12 years old in 1990. She lives in Russia with her mom and grandparents, has two best friends, and excels in school and art class. Her world is turned on its head, however, when her mother moves to America for a year to pursue a Master’s degree in journalism. Before her mother leaves, Dasha sits with her family in the living room: “It’s tradition – before a trip everyone sits down quietly and silently wishes the traveler well. Then the oldest or the youngest person gets up and the trip begins.” As they wait for the elevator, Dasha and her mother hold hands. Dasha thinks about her mom’s hands and then suddenly bites her finger.
For the young child reading this book, the finger biting is a sensible action. Dasha is sad and angry about her mother leaving, and perhaps does not know how to best handle these emotions, so she acts out. The book is filled with several other relatable scenarios. Dasha meets an older boy who she finds intimidating, yet immediately falls head over heels for him. Any reader who has loved from afar can appreciate the heartbreak when Dasha sees him kissing another girl. Similarly, readers can relate to Dasha missing her mother and feeling abandoned and lonely. The middle school audience of this book will especially appreciate the pages on Dasha’s changing friendships as her and her friends grow older.
Tolstikova describes the change happening in Dasha’s life in a very relatable way. The book is framed as Dasha’s diary, so the reader has access to her inner monologue and observations. This makes the political change described in the book easier for a reader unversed in history to understand. For example, when Gorbachev is removed from power in the USSR, Dasha explains,
one morning we wake up and Gorbachev, the president of Russia, is taken prisoner by some bad people and there are tanks rolling down the streets of Moscow…No one knows what to do. We are in the country and the telephone service is spotty. All the grown-ups wander around with worried looks on their faces. They barely look at each other.
Soon, “Good guy Yeltsin, who we learned about at school last year, comes to the rescue and new life begins in earnest.”
While it is hard, Dasha adapts to her new life and new traditions. Just as she becomes comfortable and settled, however, her mother returns with the news that Dasha will be joining her in America for the next year! Dasha rejects this news; hasn’t she already done enough to accommodate her mother? She has no choice in the matter, however, and soon goes to America to begin a new, new life. Dasha is nervous about life in a new country that she does not like. The book ends on a hopeful note, however, as Dasha and the reader come to realize that change and new traditions can be good things after all.
-Allia Calkins, 2016