MTYT: The Blackbird Girls

Marilyn Carpenter, Eastern Washington University, Spokane, WA, Holly Johnson, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH and Jean Schroeder, The IDEA School, Tucson, AZ

This week Marilyn and Holly are joined by Jean Schroeder to discuss The Blackbird Girls by Anne Blankman, and how one act of kindness creates a ripple effect that deeply changes the lives of two young girls.


HOLLY: Chernobyl, 1986. For those who know their history, this is a place and an incident that got the attention of the whole world. In The Blackbird Girls, readers are taken on a personal journey of two young girls who live in Pripyat, Ukraine when the nuclear plant Chernobyl exploded, leaking radiation and ultimately killing both of their fathers. Readers experience the denial of the police in Pripyat, the effects of radiation on the body, and the evacuation citizens needed to take so as to limit their radiation poisoning. Valentina Kaplan is Jewish, and a target of anti-Semite attitudes and behaviors by some of the other girls in her school. One of those girls is Oksana Savchenko, whose father makes no attempt to hide his contempt for Jews and teaches Oksana to share his sentiments. When the girls and their mothers are to be evacuated, Oksana’s mother is deemed to have overexposure to radiation and is sent to a hospital without Oksana. Valentina’s mother agrees to take care of Oksana, much to Oksana’s distain and fear, but without anyone to take care of her, she remains with Valentina and her mother. But when it comes time to evacuate, all three cannot get tickets on the train. The government tries to keep the explosion secret so the station isn’t allowed to sell tickets to all those who want to leave Pripyat. Making a last-minute decision, Valentina’s mother puts the two girls on the train to Leningrad to stay with Valentina’s grandmother, a woman she has never met. Valentina learns about her grandmother and comes to embrace much of her value system. And as Oksana waits for her mother, she, too, has her story of change to tell.

There is so much more to this novel, and I loved reading every bit of it. The story of the girls, the grandmother’s story, the story of the incident, Oksana’s own story, the story of being Jewish in places that don’t embrace them as citizens, and the story of practicing one’s religion in secret are all so worthy of being heard, and of thinking about more deeply. Then, of course, are the kindnesses extended throughout the narrative. There is so much to love about this book. Would you agree, Marilyn and Jean?

MARIYLN: I agree that there is much to love about the book and to recommend it. I learned a great deal about the Chernobyl disaster in reading this book. I had not read in depth about it before, and only had watched a PBS special about the current state of the area around where the disaster occurred. So, I was very interested in description of the disaster and how it affected the citizens that lived in the area. I first read the Author’s Note at the back of the book and was glad that she gave specific information about the how the disaster occurred and the aftermath. Reading that account helped me concentrate on the characters and their response to the events in the story.

Valentina’s mother is very kind to her daughter when she tells her the truth about their situation because of the disaster. It was kind to be direct with her daughter and to not lie to her. The Mama says, “We’ve all received radiation. I won’t lie to you and pretend I know what this means for our futures. I don’t know if we’ll become ill, too. I do know, though, that whatever happens, I’ll do anything to keep you safe.” It would have been easier for Mama to lie to her daughter, but it was also very kind to be truthful from the start. Oksana’s mother isn’t able to be forthright with her daughter. She doesn’t offer truth or kindness to her daughter because she is consumed with her own health challenges. Valentina’s mother steps in when Oksana and her mother are separated because the mother has high levels of radiation and Oksana does not. Valentina’s mother takes Oksana with them to escape from the radiation.

My favorite part of this story is when the two girls come to Leningrad which is now known as Saint Petersburg, to stay with Valentina’s grandmother. Her many kindnesses to the girls often come as she allows them to enjoy the beauty of her city. When the girls first arrive, she takes them outside the train station to savor the beauty of one of the main streets of that remarkable city. The grandmother says, “…I wanted your first sight of Leningrad to be of the most famous street in the city.” The grandmother is also kind in the many ways she provides for the girls and cares for their welfare. After a difficult night when Oksana’s wound, caused by abuse from her father, is cared for by a Doctor, the grandmother buys the girls ice cream and gives them money to “explore Leningrad and have an adventure.” After the trauma of the disaster, that kindness helps lift their spirits. The grandmother lives in a tiny apartment and works in a grocery as well as sewing clothes at night for neighbors to make extra money. Her generosity with the girls is a tremendous act of kindness. There are many other instances of kindness in the story. Which ones stood out to you two?

JEAN: I also found this book riveting. I am so appreciative of the author being able to bring out the little joys that make life so positive even in those dark times. I was struck by Valentina’s mother trying to warn all the neighbors of the truth and impending danger they were in while the government was downplaying it. None believed her yet her conscience would not allow her not to warn them. Later in the story, the undercover black market played a role in everyone’s life and was a danger to those who were “buyers” or “sellers” or those who were suspected of an association. Yet it was the local facilitator, presented as dangerous and someone to be avoided, who came through for Oksana and giving her an opportunity at a happier existence. With every exchange he made he put himself at risk of being arrested, but he willingly offered his kindness to Oksana. I was also taken by the assumed kindness of the policeman when out of seemingly nowhere they were offered a larger apartment. The policeman on viewing their home had said, “It doesn’t seem right. The widow and orphan of a hero of the state being stuck in one tiny room.” Valentina’s grandmother replied, “I’m afraid it is all I could offer them. I have been on a housing list since 1968, but you know how it is.” Within a week her “number” miraculously came up. While many of the acts of kindness throughout this story are unexpected, I found these two particularly amazing and totally unexpected as the family was just glad to have a roof overhead and food on the table. Marilyn, I also agree with your idea of truth as kindness even when it is difficult to digest.

HOLLY: My favorite acts of kindness were probably when Valentina’s mother gives her own train ticket to Oksana so the two youngsters will be able to get away from toxic environment of Pripyat. It was pretty devastating for both girls, for different reasons, but by that one act of kindness, a whole series of other small kindnesses were able to occur. I also liked when Oksana chooses to become a blackbird girl and the kindness it took to take her in. I seriously loved this book, and think it is a map of compassion that can make a huge difference in readers’ lives. Wouldn’t you both agree about those changes, all because of one act of kindness?

MARILYN: The two girls in the story start out as enemies because Oksana has always bullied Valentina when they were in school together. Oksana’s father was hateful towards Jews like Valentina and her family. So Oksana in the beginning of their time together is very uncomfortable being with a Jewish family like Valentina’s. Slowly Oksana realizes that her father was wrong. The author, Blankman, does a superb job in writing about how Oksana’s ideas and feelings change. I almost cheered when Oksana defends Valentina from an aggressive bully at their new school in Leningrad. There are many layers to this story. It is not just about a disaster. There is much more to savor and enjoy about how the two girls and their families make a new life after the disaster. This book would be a great choice to read aloud to middle school students. I hope teachers will have a map of Russia and Ukraine close by to refer to often.

JEAN: For some acts of kindness there is definitely a ripple effect a paying-it-forward phenomena. For Valentina’s grandmother, kindness was a way of life, a value so deep in her heart she passed it on to all who were fortunate enough to know her. Her own daughter, Galina, lives a life of kindness having been under it’s spell as she grew up. Holly, you mentioned in the review of Small Mercies how kindness and social responsibility seem connected. I truly feel that passing on kindness as a way of life and passing it along through one’s decisions and actions is an example of social responsibility. I will also continue to think about this. I found this story moving and was taken by the idea of connection and many different ways of looking at that idea. How the families stayed connected in times of trauma; being apprised of what was really happening via the illegal radio station; the connections between individuals despite barriers of time and distance; connections that are recovered. So many. And there are things that today’s children can directly connect with – bullying, abuse, random acts of kindness. This book could resonate with many of our students.

Title: The Blackbird Girls
Author: Anne Blankman
ISBN: 9781984837356
Publisher: Viking Books for Young Readers
PubDate: March 10, 2020

Throughout December 2020, Marilyn Carpenter, Holly Johnson, and Jean Schroeder discuss how kindness shines through dire and horrendous circumstances. Check back each Wednesday to follow the conversation!

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