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Out With Kids: Inspirational value of banned books is focus of free Whatcom Reads author talk

Noted children’s writer and illustrator Eugene Yelchin, a Soviet “nonconformist” painter who immigrated to the United States toward the end of the Cold War, offers two free presentations next week.

Yelchin is author of the 2012 Newbery Honor book “Breaking Stalin’s Nose,” a moving story for middle readers about a boy growing up during the Stalinist era, torn between loyalty to his country and the grim reality of life in a totalitarian society. He followed it with “Arcady’s Goal” in 2014, the tale of a boy whose parents are enemies of the state but whose soccer skills could mean personal redemption.

He will describe his childhood in two free WhatcomReadsKids presentations that are open to the public. He will also be talking to students at local schools.

“I don’t have any answers in my book, but there’s always a choice: How to be true to yourself and see yourself through your own eyes. That’s enormous at that young age,” Yelchin said by phone last week from his home near Los Angeles.

Although Yelchin has painted and written picture books — including “Won Ton, A Cat Tale Told in Haiku” — he’s currently aiming for middle readers because “that’s when they are forming their sense of self. I’m provoking kids to ask questions of adults. There are no answers in the books — just questions.

“I don’t go into detail (in the books), but what I am trying to do is possess (readers) in a way that they feel responsible for their actions in the world. As such, I really know the danger of conformism and where it can take you.”

Yelchin grew up in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in the 1950s and ’60s as the country was recovering from the devastation of World War II. His parents — a ballerina and a soccer-playing soldier — were Ukrainian Jewish emigres and they lived in a dreary communal apartment block. After school, he began painting and building sets for children’s theater, but became disillusioned by the constant censorship and applied for a visa to the U.S.

He got lucky, capitalizing on a lack of bureaucratic oversight during the transition of power after Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s death in late 1982. He arrived in Boston, and did illustrations for The Boston Globe before moving West to study film.

Among his most widely known commercial work is in characters for the animated movie “Rango,” and the polar Bears for Coca-Cola.

“I was determined to be successful, but in a normal way. Go to work, go home, watch TV. Without the fear that it was going to be taken away from me,” Yelchin said.