FICTION

The Blackbird Girls

Viking. Mar. 2020. 352p. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781984837356.
COPY ISBN
Gr 4-7–It is 1986 in Pripyat, Ukraine, and fifth grade classmates Valentina Kaplan and Oksana Savchenko are sworn enemies. At home, Oksana’s father physically abuses her and rails against Jewish people, and at school Oksana bullies Valentina, who is Jewish. But when a reactor explodes at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant where both girls’ fathers work, they find themselves thrown together in the tumultuous evacuation. With a dead father and a hospitalized mother, Oksana’s only chance of safety is to accompany her classmate to Valentina’s grandmother’s home in distant Leningrad. The warmth and compassion of Valentina and her grandmother shock Oksana, who begins to realize that everything her father told her about Jews was wrong—which means that maybe he was also wrong when he called Oksana weak and unlovable. In time, the two girls learn to trust each other with their respective secrets and develop a life-sustaining friendship. This story, told in Oksana’s and Valentina’s alternating perspectives, is interspersed with a third perspective from 1941, that of Rifka (a Jewish girl fleeing Kiev and the advancing German army on foot), who finds shelter and friendship in Uzbekistan. These tales ultimately intersect, presenting a deeply affecting testament to the power of unlikely friendship in the face of bias, tragedy, and distance. Each strand of the narrative is equally fast paced, gripping, and heartbreaking. Oksana experiences a nuanced evolution in her feelings toward her abusive father, from grief to anger to empowerment, while Valentina grapples with what Judaism—a faith she knows almost nothing about—means to her as she begins to practice in secret with her grandmother, and Rifka loses everything in the process of finding safety and a new family. A detailed author’s note provides further historical background and a recommended reading list.
VERDICT A stunning look at a historical event rarely written about for young people, elevated by strong pacing, emotional depth, and intense, moving friendships that readers will root for. A first purchase.

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