Inspiring Young Readers
Firebird by Elizabeth Wein
The extraordinary sacrifice and bravery shown by both the Red Army and the ordinary citizens of the Soviet Union in the face of the Nazi invasion in 1941 is a story that, for my money, doesn’t get told often enough. The brave defence of Stalingrad and the turning back of Hitler’s onslaught was, I think, the real turning point in the war against Fascism and that’s a story worth telling to upcoming generations of children who are now steeped in anti-Russian propaganda.
It’s great therefore to read this exciting, engaging and thoughtful novel from Elizabeth Wein that not only takes its readers to the Eastern Front but does it by focussing on strong, independent women and their role in the embattled and hard-pressed Soviet air force. The book is guided by the publisher, Barrington Stoke, as suitable for teens with a reading age of 8 and above but, having said that, I was completely captured and enthralled and I haven’t seen my teens for a hell of a long time.
The story takes the form of a statement, or evidence, being given by the central character Anastasia – or Nastia as she is known – at her trial for treason. Quite why she’s on trial will become clear as the story unfolds but telling you upfront would be to give away too much of the plot.
Suffice it to say that, as the Soviet Union enters the Second World War, Nastia is a flying instructor who is keen to get involved in the fight against Fascism. With the onset of Operation Barbarossa - the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union - her chance seems to have come but she’s ordered, instead, to stay behind and continue her work training new flying recruits. Although she’s disappointed, it gives her a chance to get close to the extraordinary woman who commands her and who she calls ‘The Chief’ – and that’s a relationship that becomes absolutely central to the plot.
Needless to say, Nasia just can’t stay away from adventure and both her and the Chief inevitably end up fighting their air battles on the front line as the Germans advance towards Moscow. When all looks lost, Stalin issues the now famous command that anyone who takes one step backwards or gets captured by the enemy should be considered a traitor – and this has unforeseen consequences for Nastia.
Writing history in a way that’s both faithful to the past, interesting and likely to engage young readers is no mean feat and the fact that Wein is also able to weave in the story of the execution during the Russian revolution of Czar Nicholas II and his family is quite cleverly done. One of the stories about how the royal family hid their diamonds in their clothing becomes part of this story – but you’ll have to read the book to find out how.
I thoroughly enjoyed this story of bravery, friendship, loyalty and strong women who helped shape history. It’s a story that will captivate any young reader who has an interest in history and I’d also like to commend whoever designed the jacket for this book – it’s a real knockout.