WOW Dozen: A Dozen Ukrainian Books

By Kathy G. Short, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ and Kathleen Crawford-McKinney, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI

Although we are constantly bombarded with images of the war in Ukraine, many people know little about this country, its culture, or its long history of conflict with Russia/Soviet Union. This set of books reflects a range of perspectives on Ukrainian culture and history, many authored and illustrated by Ukrainians or people with Ukrainian heritage. The stories involve significant historical events, such as Stalin’s mass starvation of Ukrainian people in 1932, the Nazi occupation in 1941-1943, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, and the 2022 siege of Mariupol by Russian forces. Pairing these books with recent news articles connects this history to current events. The strength of Ukrainian people, especially the Jewish population, in the midst of suffering is thus a frequent theme, but the set does include several humorous folktales. Continue reading

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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.

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Novels that Present the Journey

By Holly Johnson, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH

Cover of Santiago's Road Home, depicting a young boy, and little girl, and a young woman on a yellow road leading into the distance away from houses in the foreground.
This week, I would like to talk about several novels in WOW Currents for 2020 that present a journey. Santiago’s Road Home by Alexandra Diaz, Butterfly Yellow by Thanhha Lai, Beast Rider by Tony Johnston, The Blackbird Girls by Anne Blankman, and Under the Broken Sky by Mariko Nagai. All are amazing stories of young people who make a journey for a variety of reasons. Continue reading

WOW Recommends: Book of the Month

WOW Recommends: The Blackbird Girls

Cover of the Blackbird Girls depicting two girls in black dresses carrying brown backpacks looking out to a red-hued city with a cloud of black smoke rising into the red sky.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