Themes of resilience may resonate with young readers.
On a beautiful April morning in 1986, two schoolgirls in the Soviet town of Pripyat looked up from their schoolyard to see billowing smoke coming from the Chernobyl nuclear plant where both their fathers worked.
This is the opening chapter of The Blackbird Girls, (March 2020, Viking), a newly released young reader’s historical novel by Anne Blankman.
The book’s focus is not so much on the world’s worst nuclear disaster, but the evolution of a friendship between two girls who have been told by parents, and society, not to trust and befriend one another.
Valentina, a Jewish girl, and Oksana, her blonde, blue-eyed non-Jewish classmate, are raised in a Soviet society where teachers instruct them that nuclear power is the safest energy source on Earth and the Motherland will always take care of them.
Oksana learns from her father that Jews are rich and stingy and swindle others out of job promotions. Valentina is taught not to get every answer right on a test because it would draw suspicions upon her and her Jewish family.
When Oksana is torn from her parents during the evacuation of Pripyat, her well-being rests in the hands of Valentina’s family — a Jewish family she has been taught to hate.
The story follows the girls, as they journey across the Soviet Union to Leningrad. There, they live under the care of Valentina’s grandmother, in a communal apartment complex where residents share a kitchen, phone, bathrooms and a common TV/game room. Soon, the girls learn to trust and befriend each other as they share not only a grandmother and common living spaces but emotions such as grief, separation from parents and a fearful knowledge they may never return to life as they knew it.
During these times of uncertainty and social distancing, it may seem an odd choice to distract young readers with a historical fiction novel about the world’s worst nuclear disaster. But the themes of resilience, cooperation and friendship, and the unbreakable mother-daughter bonds woven throughout, may be just the book that young readers need to show the resilience of humanity and how people make it to the other side in even the darkest times.
The Blackbird Girls also addresses what it was like for Jews to live under the Soviet Union and the permeation of anti-Semitism in Soviet society. It offers a lesson for contemporary times, where children reading the book discover the best way to overcome prejudice and bigotry is through learning about others through friendship.
The Blackbird Girls is available online, on Audible and wherever books are sold.