Apologies for the gap in posting, I had a number of posts scheduled for over the long weekend here in Alberta, but it seems that none of them posted! So, today I’m taking a look at Pearl Sydelle’s YA historical fiction novel Wordwings. Set in the Warsaw Ghetto during WWII this unique blend of fact and fictions offers new perspectives and a wonderful alternative to the established (and occasionally overdone) canon of YA Holocaust literature.
Author: Pearl Sydelle
Publisher: Guernica Editions
Expected Publication Date: October 1, 2017
Genre: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Teens & YA
Themes: Family, Holocaust, Warsaw Ghettos, WWII
Features: Selected Bibliography
My Rating: 3.5/ 5
In 1941, twelve-year-old Rivke Rosenfeld lives in the Warsaw Ghetto where she witnesses German soldiers slashing her grandfather’s beard from his face. Her anger compels her to secretly write her stories and her memories in the margins of a book of fairytales by Hans Christian Andersen. When Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum, historian and founder of the Underground Archive–a written compilation of Jewish life experiences in the Ghetto–hears Rivke tell one of her stories, he is so impressed that he asks her to contribute her diary to this Archive and Rivke agrees, imagining her words rising up from the ground on wings.
Set in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1941 and seen through the eyes of 12 year old Rivke, this book brings both hope and tears. Filled with folktales, fairytales, and interwoven with snippets of history Wordwings is a unique and interesting reading experience.
The concept behind this book is beautiful and interesting, but I walked away from it feeling as though I may have missed something. There is so much about this book that I loved – the folk tales, expertly crafted storytelling embedded throughout, the constant references to Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytales, and the flawless inclusion of actual historical figures. And yet, I found myself unable to connect with Rivke’s stories and character. This however, I will have to chalk entirely up to personal preference as I rarely enjoy a first person point of view, and generally don’t gravitate towards texts that are heavy on the use of ‘I’.
This is very much a stream of consciousness type of story, and I anticipate that many will feel that it falls flat or fails to develop other characters fully. Even I fell prey to such thoughts and I had to keep reminding myself that this is shaped to be a diary, and most 12 year old girls writing forbidden diaries in cold cellars in the middle of a war rarely take time to fully develop the backstories and perspectives of those they capture in their thoughts. I wondered, though, if this would be a problem for younger readers as the language and view point was very much geared at a middle grade audience. The same goes with my desire to have more detail about the treatment of those who lived in the Ghettos and specific actions. But, as this book is for younger readers, the details and depravity that typically accompany WWII stories need not apply as they may not be appropriate. Needless to say, reading this book as an adult was an exercise in letting go of preferences and actively trying to see the book through the eyes of the intended audience.
I was, however, constantly struck at how children can find magic and beauty in the most unexpected places. The power the story, the act of storytelling, and how these elements work in communities was a shining light throughout this novel. I was constantly reminded of the unusual ways in which children’s minds work, and their ability to tell tales that are bound to bring a smile to your face.
Would I recommend this book? Sure! While I struggled as an adult reader, I would love to hear how readers from the intended audience felt about it. Wordwings is touching, emotional, and offers a unique perspective that falls outside the norm. I can see it as the type of book that should be included to library YA collections, and also in school collections for those looking for something other that The Diary of Anne Frank but are shorter than The Book Thief.