On April 26, 1986, in Pripyat, Ukraine, Soviet Union, 11-year-old Valentina Kaplan wonders where all the birds have gone. She notices unnaturally colored smoke churning up from the nuclear power station, Chernobyl, where her father is finishing his shift. News of the explosion of one of the power station’s reactors and panicked fears of radiation sickness spread through the neighborhood. Soon, Valentina and her neighbors, including her bullying classmate, Oksana Savchenko, are being evacuated, even as the Communist government pretends nothing is drastically wrong.
When Valentina and Oksana are sent to Leningrad to stay with Valentina’s estranged grandmother, Rita Grigorievna, the girls are forced to confront their discriminatory biases about each other. They must also reconcile their new reality with the lies their government and parents told them.
Living in close quarters with Valentina and Babulya—the Russian name for grandmother—Oksana can no longer hide the signs of abuse she suffered at the hands of her parents before the explosion. Valentina’s attitude toward Oksana changes as she feels compassion for her plight. At the same time, Oksana realizes the hateful things she was taught about Jewish people are not true.
In this riveting historical novel, author Anne Blankman skillfully weaves together in alternating perspectives the stories of Valentina and Oksana in 1986, and Rifka, the Jewish name of Valentina’s grandmother, in 1941 Ukraine. Blankman reveals the amazing power of friendship to catalyze change and renewal in people’s lives, bringing life and hope, inspiring courage and integrity, and reshaping worldviews and perspectives.
Though the book is recommended for ages 9 and older, it is better suited for mature readers ages 12 and older because it deals with the harsh and painful realities of abuse and war.
(Viking Books for Young Readers)