Pripyat, Ukraine, Soviet Union, 1986 may not mean anything to many readers but perhaps the word Chernobyl means something. If not, it will upon reading this deeply engaging book about Valentina Kaplan and Oksana Savchenko, two middle school girls who find themselves suddenly thrown into the most horrific circumstances when the nuclear power plant—Chernobyl—blows up in their city.
It was a Saturday, a half day at school, when Valentina finds her father not at the breakfast table, and the sky is red. Urged to go to school, Valentina notices the neighborhood is filled with police officers, and while she is curious, no one dares to ask the police any questions. At school, she is confronted by Oksana, an outspoken anti-Semite, who challenges Valentina to a race to show how Jews are the weaker race. Valentina does not comply with the rules that suggest she should just let Oksana win and by doing so, keep her place in the social hierarchy. She outruns Oksana, and it is from this starting point that readers are introduced to the two “blackbird girls,” who must navigate an evacuation from their city without their parents and learn to live together with Valentina’s grandmother in Leningrad, whom Valentina had never met. Valentina’s mother kept Valentina from her grandmother because of her dangerous actions, and while Oksana would never willing live with Jews, she has no choice as her mother is sent to Minsk because of radiation exposure. Valentina’s mother gives up her train ticket to Oksana, an action that again causes great dissonance in Oksana’s thinking about Jews.
This is a fascinating narrative that addresses not only the explosion of Chernobyl, but the political and social realities of Soviet rule in the 1980s. As Valentina and Oksana come to trust each other, and Valentina’s grandmother, readers develop compassion for both girls as Oksana, herself, has secrets that must be addressed. Ultimately, this is a story of hope, of friendship, and of loyalty that is truly inspiring. Based on real events and a real person who was a child in Pripyat at the time of the explosion, this book is a great read for any young reader of history and for those who love to see how overcoming dire circumstances is truly possible. -Recommended by Holly Johnson, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, Ohio Continue reading