“You were white as milk this morning,” Valentina said to Dyadya Sergei.
“I’ve never tanned so quickly in my life,” he said, sounding pleased. “There must be something in the air.”
Reading these lines in a book set in the backdrop of the Chernobyl disaster was absolutely haunting. I didn’t know what to expect from The Blackbird Girls, but Anne Blankman wrote a stunning middle grade novel that brings readers through a whirlwind of emotion.
The story flips back and forth between two perspectives: Valentina Kaplan and Oksana Savchenko. Both are young girls living in Pripyat near the nuclear plant where their fathers work. They go to school together, but aren’t friends. Oksana has been taught by her father to avoid Valentina, because she’s Jewish. However, after the nuclear reactor explodes, the girls are forced to flee in secret together in order to save themselves from the nuclear fallout.
I had originally thought the story would focus more on what exactly happened during the Chernobyl disaster, but the author used the event more as a catalyst to set up a story about Valentina and Oksana. The book focuses on them, and how they go from enemies to close friends.
After losing their fathers, and being separated from their mothers, the girls only have each other. They’re thrown into a new city and a new school, and the only part of home they have left is each other. Oksana slowly realizes that everything her father told her about Valentina’s family was a lie, and the two girls become best friends. Of course, their friendship has a few bumps along the way, but nothing two strong girls can’t handle.
While female friendship was a strong theme throughout the book, there was another one that stood out for me (content warning): child abuse. I was surprised to see this narrative in a middle grade book, because it’s rarely explored, but was also happy to see it being discussed. It’s made very clear in the book that abuse is unacceptable, and anyone dealing with a similar situation should seek help. There are also resources listed in the back of the book for people to utilize if needed.
I will admit, this is a sad book. There are a lot of unfortunate things that happen to Valentina and Oksana, but they are incredibly resilient. I kept asking myself if this was really a book that would attract young readers, but then I remembered some of the books I read when I was around the targeted age group, such as Hana’s Suitcase by Karen Levine and Number the Stars by Lois Lowry.
If I could go back in time and recommend this book to eleven year old me, I would.
Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The Blackbird Girls by Anne Blankman comes out on March 10, 2020, and can be pre-ordered or purchased wherever books are sold.