Monday, April 6, 2020

The Blackbird Girls

The Blackbird Girls by Anne Blankman. Grades 5-8. Viking, March 2020. 352 pages. Reviewed from galley provided by publisher. 


Oksana is a bully and Valentina is a Jew. They are not friends. In fact, they're more like enemies. But on the day that they wake up to an angry red sky, friends and enemies have to be put aside. Something has happened at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant where both their fathers work. At first the think it's just a fire, something that happens and can be quickly put out. But soon the whole town realizes that this is something much more serious. 

Valentina and Oksana are forced to evacuate the only home they've ever known and travel by themselves to Leningrad to stay with Valentina's grandmother. For Oksana, it's the first time she gets to know a Jewish family and she starts to realize that the things her father had told her about Jewish people were not true. For Valentina, it's the first time she gets to know Oksana and begins to learn about the abuse she's suffered at home and the reason behind her bullying. 

If you like a rich, engrossing historical novel with characters that feel real or if you, like me, are fascinated by the Chernobyl disaster, this is the book for you. 

My thoughts:

I loved this book so much. With characters that I really cared about and a fully engrossing 1980s Soviet setting, this was a book that drew me in and didn't let go. You'll see it compared as a readalike to The War That Saved My Life below and I do NOT say that lightly (it's one of my favorites). 

I went through a Chernobyl phase last year, devouring the adult nonfiction book Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham and the HBO docudrama Chernobyl, so I knew this was a book I was going to pick up. What I didn't know is that I would meet characters that felt real and had me rooting for them all the way through. The story is told in alternating perspectives and from the get go I knew I would sympathize with Valentina. Born into a Jewish family at a time when Judaism was forbidden, Valentina is the target of Oksana's racist bullying. But what I didn't expect is that I would grow to root for Oksana so hard. It becomes clear that there's a reason for her bullying behavior and that she's willing to change her mind. In fact, Oksana's character is one reason that I think The War That Saved My Life is such a good readalike. 

The Soviet setting was so well done, creating that air of mistrust and secrecy, the idea that any of your neighbors could turn you in for putting a toe out of line. I think it's written at an accessible and still engrossing level. Throughout the book, there's an alternate storyline of a young Jewish girl fleeing her home in Ukraine during WWII as Nazi soldiers grow closer and closer. Eventually, these timelines come together and you see how they're connected. 


The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (Dial, 2015). Both these books have unforgettable, strong female characters fleeing their homes for safety. While this novel is set in WWII England instead of Soviet Russia, both books share a rich, descriptive historical setting. 

Breaking Stalin's Nose by Eugene Yelchin (Henry Holt, 2011). Readers intrigued by the Cold War Soviet setting may also enjoy this book that shares a strong sense of place and time. Breaking Stalin's Nose is set earlier in the 20th century, but both books still share the unease and mistrust that permeated the Soviet era. 

Refugee by Alan Gratz (Scholastic, 2017). Readers who enjoy multiple narratives in a story and realistic historical fiction will enjoy both of these. Refugee ties together three stories of kids in different time periods fleeing their homes.