The Blackbird Girls

by Anne Blankman (Author)

Reading Level: 4th − 5th Grade

Like Ruta Sepetys for middle grade, Anne Blankman pens a poignant and timeless story of friendship that twines together moments in underexplored history.

On a spring morning, neighbors Valentina Kaplan and Oksana Savchenko wake up to an angry red sky. A reactor at the nuclear power plant where their fathers work--Chernobyl--has exploded. Before they know it, the two girls, who've always been enemies, find themselves on a train bound for Leningrad to stay with Valentina's estranged grandmother, Rita Grigorievna. In their new lives in Leningrad, they begin to learn what it means to trust another person. Oksana must face the lies her parents told her all her life. Valentina must keep her grandmother's secret, one that could put all their lives in danger. And both of them discover something they've wished for: a best friend. But how far would you go to save your best friend's life? Would you risk your own?

Told in alternating perspectives among three girls--Valentina and Oksana in 1986 and Rifka in 1941--this story shows that hatred, intolerance, and oppression are no match for the power of true friendship.

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Publishers Weekly

In April 1986, in the village of Pripyat, Ukraine, two fifth-grade nemeses are thrown together following the nearby Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion, which kills both of their fathers, one immediately, one through radiation poisoning. During evacuation, Oksana, who has been taught that "all Jews are liars," protests in alarm when Valentina's mother assumes responsibility for her. Valentina, meanwhile, resents the unwelcome accompaniment of her school adversary. After traveling to Leningrad, they board with Valentina's formerly estranged grandmother, who secretly practices Judaism. Alternating between each girl's perspective, the narrative also includes occasional interludes about Rivka, a 12-year-old girl who flees Ukraine in 1941, running from the German army that has slaughtered her family. Gradually, Oksana and Valentina develop a bond that mirrors Rivka's friendship with a Muslim girl who saved her life during WWII. Blankman (Traitor Angels) conveys Russia's entrenched anti-Semitism, as well as the constant vigilance required of citizens living in a police state, through the children's eyes, as they observe adults' fear of being overheard or spied on, and field constant reminders not to criticize authority. This engrossing work of historical fiction captures Chernobyl's devastating impact on land and people while upholding the power of kindness to overcome prejudice and withstand oppression. Ages 9-12. (Mar.)

Copyright 2020 Publishers Weekly, LLC Used with permission.

School Library Journal

Starred Review

Gr 4-7--It is 1986 in Pripyat, Ukraine, and fifth grade classmates Valentina Kaplan and Oksana Savchenko are sworn enemies. At home, Oksana's father physically abuses her and rails against Jewish people, and at school Oksana bullies Valentina, who is Jewish. But when a reactor explodes at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant where both girls' fathers work, they find themselves thrown together in the tumultuous evacuation. With a dead father and a hospitalized mother, Oksana's only chance of safety is to accompany her classmate to Valentina's grandmother's home in distant Leningrad. The warmth and compassion of Valentina and her grandmother shock Oksana, who begins to realize that everything her father told her about Jews was wrong--which means that maybe he was also wrong when he called Oksana weak and unlovable. In time, the two girls learn to trust each other with their respective secrets and develop a life-sustaining friendship. This story, told in Oksana's and Valentina's alternating perspectives, is interspersed with a third perspective from 1941, that of Rifka (a Jewish girl fleeing Kiev and the advancing German army on foot), who finds shelter and friendship in Uzbekistan. These tales ultimately intersect, presenting a deeply affecting testament to the power of unlikely friendship in the face of bias, tragedy, and distance. Each strand of the narrative is equally fast paced, gripping, and heartbreaking. Oksana experiences a nuanced evolution in her feelings toward her abusive father, from grief to anger to empowerment, while Valentina grapples with what Judaism--a faith she knows almost nothing about--means to her as she begins to practice in secret with her grandmother, and Rifka loses everything in the process of finding safety and a new family. A detailed author's note provides further historical background and a recommended reading list. VERDICT A stunning look at a historical event rarely written about for young people, elevated by strong pacing, emotional depth, and intense, moving friendships that readers will root for. A first purchase.--Elizabeth Giles, Lubuto Library Partners, Zambia

Copyright 2020 School Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

Review quotes

Raves for The Blackbird Girls

A gripping adventure and a beautiful tribute to the power of friendship in the face of troubling times.—Margaret Peterson Haddix, New York Times bestselling author

A powerful and beautifully written story that explores the losses and growing friendship of two girls whose lives and beliefs are forever changed after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. It's truly an unforgettable work that left me breathless.—Patricia Reilly Giff, Newbery Honor author of Lily's Crossing and Pictures of Hollis Woods

This unique novel by Anne Blankman brings powerful moments in history into sharp (and tear-inducing) focus...Not to be missed.—Jane Yolen, author of The Devil's Arithmetic, Briar Rose, and Mapping the Bones

As soon as Oksana and Valentina emerged from the colored smoke, I needed to know their fate. The girls' adventure feels so real that the reader is immediately caught up in their plight. Bravery hauls them through sticky corruption, stony prejudice, a web of lies, and a lot of danger. A thrilling story!—Geraldine McCaughrean, Carnegie Medal and Printz Award winner

* Blankman spins a stunningly complex tale out of simple words. - Kirkus, starred review

* This title weaves a beautiful, bittersweet tale of courage, resilience, and how love can ultimately overcome ingrained hatred and prejudice. - School Library Connection, starred review

* A deeply affecting testament to the power of unlikely friendship in the face of bias, tragedy, and distance. - School and Library Journal, starred review

* Flashbacks from Rifka's life during World War II deepen Blankman's exploration of the transformative power of friendship across time. Rich with historical details.—BookPage, starred review

"[A] well-executed historical novel." - Booklist
Anne Blankman
Anne Blankman has loved to write stories for as long as she can remember. She grew up in Niskayuna, New York, where she met a classmate who had survived Chernobyl and who eventually inspired Anne to write The Blackbird Girls. They are still friends to this day. Currently, Anne lives in Richmond, Virginia with her husband, Mike, her daughter, Kirsten, and two rescue cats. For several years, she worked as a children's librarian but now she writes full-time. When she isn't writing, Anne likes to spend time with her family, read, travel, knit, and go for long runs. She loves hearing from readers, and you can visit her at or @AnneBlankman.
Lexile Measure
Guided Reading Level
Viking Books for Young Readers
Publication date
March 20, 2020
BISAC categories
JUV014000 - Juvenile Fiction | Girls & Women
JUV016040 - Juvenile Fiction | Historical | Europe
Library of Congress categories
Historical fiction
Family secrets
Chernobyl Nuclear Accident, Chornobyl, Ukrain

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