The Blackbird Girls

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Modern Age

The Blackbird Girls
Author: Blankman, Anne
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Time Period: Modern Age
Time Frame: 1986
Geographic Area: Europe
Country: Ukraine, Russia, Uzbekistan
Topics: Chernobyl Disaster, Communism, Soviet Union
Genre: Fiction
Reading Age: Upper Middle Grade
Format: Chapter Book
Published: 2020

Content Warning
child abuse, death, genocide

World History > Modern Age > Cold War


Like Ruta Sepetys for middle grade, Anne Blankman pens a poignant and timeless story of friendship that twines together moments in underexplored history.

On a spring morning, neighbors Valentina Kaplan and Oksana Savchenko wake up to an angry red sky. A reactor at the nuclear power plant where their fathers work--Chernobyl--has exploded. Before they know it, the two girls, who've always been enemies, find themselves on a train bound for Leningrad to stay with Valentina's estranged grandmother, Rita Grigorievna. In their new lives in Leningrad, they begin to learn what it means to trust another person. Oksana must face the lies her parents told her all her life. Valentina must keep her grandmother's secret, one that could put all their lives in danger. And both of them discover something they've wished for: a best friend. But how far would you go to save your best friend's life? Would you risk your own?

Told in alternating perspectives among three girls--Valentina and Oksana in 1986 and Rifka in 1941--this story shows that hatred, intolerance, and oppression are no match for the power of true friendship.

Emily's Review

I am always looking for middle-grade fiction about history topics that don't get a lot of air time. This is definitely one of those books. This is a story about the Chernobyl Nuclear disaster, told from the perspective of two girls whose fathers both worked in the plant. Valentina is a Jew and is ostracized because of it. Her family is very careful to not stand out, to not do anything that might draw attention. Oksana has been raised to hate Jews and frequently bullies Valentina at school. She is desperate to win her father's approval. When the nuclear plant explodes, the girls are thrown together and forced to leave the city on their own to escape the dangers of radiation poisoning.

This is a story about friendship, about learning that things you were taught your whole life were lies, and about overcoming challenges and tragedy. These girls go through so much over the course of the story, but in the end, you are left with the hope that things will get better.

There is also a side story set during World War II about a Jewish girl fleeing the invading Germans that is harrowing to read about.

I absolutely loved this story. I'm always fascinated with Russian history, particularly Jews living in Russia. Reading about life in the Soviet Union is always eye-opening. I adored the two girls and their friendship and relationship with Valentina's grandmother. I found the parts about being Jewish in the Soviet Union fascinating as well. This was an unputdownable book for me, and I can't wait to pass it on to my kids!

Because of the difficult topics included, I'd recommend this book for ages 12 and up.

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