A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Anna and the Swallow Man, by first-time novelist Gavriel Savrit, is a tour de force of consciously literary style, deep thoughts, and startling insight. As the two title characters (she, a 7-year-old orphan as the story begins; he, a mysterious figure who speaks many languages, calls birds from the air, and kills with swift ruthlessness) wander through the cities, countryside, and battlefields of Poland in World War II, they're often in situations where there are no good options, but their bond stays strong. There's plenty of darkness, as the Nazis are killing Jews (such as the old man with whom Anna used to talk in Yiddish), intellectuals (such as Anna's professor father), and anyone else who gets in their way. The two witness atrocities and massacres and often strip the dead bodies of soldiers for food and clothing. Through it all, with terrible dilemmas, they stick to their codes of ethics and struggle to do the right thing. An evil character says "f--k" twice in a speech meant to shock.
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What's the story?
Anna leads a rich, if unusual, life: Her father is a linguistics professor at Poland's oldest university, and every day of the week they speak a different language. Then one day in November of 1939, when Anna is 7 years old, her father goes off to a meeting from which he never returns (the narrator tells us that along with the rest of the faculty, he's been taken by the Nazis, who are rounding up Polish intellectuals, to a concentration camp, where he will soon perish). As she's sitting in the street trying to decide what to do, a strange, well-dressed man catches her attention, especially when he speaks most of the languages her father did -- and also the language of birds, who answer his call. The two form an odd connection, and as World War II engulfs the region with terror and death, ANNA AND THE SWALLOW MAN do their best to stay out of its way.
Is it any good?
Gavriel Savit's stunning literary novel ponders deep mysteries, ethical dilemmas, death, and survival as a little girl grows up wandering a war-torn world with a mysterious stranger. The unusual, sometimes dreamlike narrative voice will resonate with serious readers, as will its tendency to ponder deep questions, from ethical choices in impossible situations to the role of language in shaping the world. A working actor, first-time author Savit writes confidently about how it feels to constantly change your reality as needed. These same qualities make Anna and the Swallow Man an unlikely fit for readers who prefer a more action-oriented style with issues and values clearly defined. But for those willing to engage with its world, it offers glimmers of enduring, unlikely good and beauty even in the darkest moments, as when the two title characters find a murdered friend's body in the woods:
"He put his lips together and called as he had done all those many, many lifetimes ago in Kraków, and sure enough, a bright blue-and-orange swallow flitted down to his finger. Gingerly the Swallow Man lifted the lapel of [the dead man's] jacket and nestled the bird inside the breast pocket, close to his stilled chest.
"'He'll stay there,' said the Swallow Man, as if to Anna. 'He'll protect [our friend] -- keep the crows off. He'll be all right.' And then again, 'He'll be all right.'
"Anna's mind conjured, suddenly, an image of a far-off time when there would be nothing left of [their friend] but a bearded skeleton, a time when the swallow would build himself a nest inside the broad ribs of [the man's] chest."
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the effects of war on children. What do you know about kids caught up in the world's conflicts today? Do you see any way to help them?
Why do you think stories about kids thrown into terrible circumstances and having to survive are so popular? Which other ones do you know?
What do you know about the history of Poland? Does this story make you want to learn more?
- Author: Gavriel Savit
- Genre: Historical Fiction
- Topics: Adventures, Friendship, Great Girl Role Models, History
- Book type: Fiction
- Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
- Publication date: January 26, 2016
- Publisher's recommended age(s): 12 - 18
- Number of pages: 240
- Available on: Nook, Audiobook (unabridged), Hardback, iBooks, Kindle
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