Living in public-housing poverty with his obese alcoholic mother, 12-year-old Norwegian Bart Nuram is remarkably philosophical about his circumstances: "No matter how bad things seem, there's always someone who has it worse."
Bart--named for Bart Simpson so he, too, would be "a funny wise guy who'd get by in life"--walks the line between being mildly unpopular and being too weird. Despite the fact that most of Bart's neighbors are addicts or otherwise down-and-out, he finds "Ninety-nine percent" of them to be nice. Indeed, life in the "slum" isn't so bad, providing no one at school finds out. And he does have boys he hangs out with at recess, even if they're not really friends: "This is a circle for those who aren't in the in-crowd. As long as we stand in a circle talking, then we're not on the outside."
While he is learning boxing ("Not that I've got any plans to become a thug, but someone might try to pulp me"), and claims to collect photos of mass murderers ("It's not true, but it's the kind of thing that gets everyone to shut up"), Bart's true passion is singing. Opera singing, to be precise: "the kind of voice that makes glass shatter and fills your ears to bursting" and "[b]aritones that suck me in and make my ears sweat." When a popular and pretty girl named Ada seems genuinely interested in befriending him, Bart finds himself pressured by her into singing in the school talent show, even though his voice seems to work only when he's singing alone, in the bathroom.
Unfortunately, Bart's equanimity can't hold up to the trouble coming his way. His house of cards begins to topple when the pathologically indiscreet Ada gossips about Bart's home life, which nudges him across the line into bully-bait terrain... hence the book's title. Then, his mother collapses at a bar, slips into a coma and is hospitalized on his 13th birthday. One would think this would be an excellent time for Bart's obsession with finding the father he's never met, the elusive "John Jones," to pay off.
But heroes come in unlikely forms in this story. Deliberately unobtrusive Grandma knows more than she's let on about their dire straits, and is right there when her grandson needs her. And when Bart tries to teach himself how to ride a bike, only to have his neighbor Geir, a heartbreakingly kind, wise, "skin and bone" heroin addict, swoop in to guide him, more than just Geir's eyes will be glassy.
Arne Svingen is one of Norway's most prominent authors of children's and teen literature. With The Ballad of a Broken Nose, English-speaking readers will understand why. The book 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 for middle-schoolers (and older). Bart's dry wit, compassion, wry self-knowledge and unwavering loyalty to his mess of a mother make him one tremendously appealing protagonist. --Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor
Shelf Talker: In Norwegian author Arne Svingen's beguiling novel, immensely likable 12-year-old Bart struggles between being a secret opera singer and just another under-the-radar kid.