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Words on Fire

Book review by
Andrea Beach, Common Sense Media
Words on Fire Book Poster Image
Tale of late-1800s Lithuania has big ideas but lacks punch.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Lots about Lithuanian culture in the late 1800s and Lithuania's relationship with Russia at that time. Shows how the Russian government tried to suppress Lithuanian culture and force people to be Russians instead. A few words and phrases in Lithuanian and Russian. Shows how books and literature preserve language, culture, and religion.

Positive Messages

Language, literature, and the knowledge that books contain give people power over their own lives by giving them the freedom to think, believe, and dream. It's important to preserve and understand the past so that you can understand your own culture and know how to guide it from the present into the future. Taking away language and history destroys a people by destroying its culture. When you choose what's easy and safe instead of what's right, you become a part of the evil in the world.

Positive Role Models & Representations

At first Audra, 12, isn't interested in the larger world around her or the people and events in it. She just wants to stay quiet and peaceful on the farm with her mom and dad. She can't read or write and doesn't believe that books are anything of value. In fact, she even resents the knowledge that books represent. But she eventually learns why books, reading, and writing are important and fights to preserve her Lithuanian heritage in the face of the Russian occupiers. She also learns that she has to speak out against unjust laws and cruelty. Lukas is strongly committed to the cause of preserving Lithuanian culture and spreading ideas through books. He's loyal and smart, and knows that even he can learn from someone inexperienced like Audra. There's a cruel villain who changes. Other adults are helpful, patient, and caring.

Violence & Scariness

Occupying soldiers enforce laws that suppress the local people, their culture, and their language. They break down doors, hit people with rifle butts, whip them, drown them, and burn houses, villages, and books. There's no gore and very few direct descriptions of violence, mostly the sound of gunshots or of someone being hit. One brief description of being beaten on the back with a stick mentions blood but doesn't describe it. One attempted drowning is briefly described and unsuccessful. An important character dies. Parental separation and fear of loss is a strong theme. Lots of scariness and dread from trying to avoid or escape from the occupying soldiers, being chased, being tied up, and taken to jail.

Language

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Jennifer A. Nielsen's Words on Fire is a historical novel about Lithuania in the late 1800s, when Russia invaded and tried to suppress the people and their cultural identity by banning Lithuanian books and making Russian the official language. Punishment for having books in Lithuanian was harsh, and there are brief but not gory descriptions of beatings, whippings, drownings, and burning books and homes. An important character dies. A cruel villain changes sides. Strongest themes and messages are about the importance of books and stories as ways of preserving heritage and keeping ideas and dreams alive. Parental separation is also a prominent theme. Also explored is the way writing and telling stories not only communicates ideas and preserves the past but also empowers the writer or teller of the stories.

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What's the story?

WORDS ON FIRE tells the story of 12-year-old Audra, living peacefully and quietly on her parents' farm in Lithuania in the late 1800s. She knows that Russian Cossack soldiers have taken over Lithuania, but she figures everything will be fine if she minds her own business and stays out of town. Until the day a squad of Cossacks come to the farm, arrest her parents, and burn their house down. As her mother is urging Audra to flee, she gives her a package with instructions to deliver it to a village 20 kilometers away. Audra barely manages to escape by fleeing into the woods. Audra sets out to make the delivery, little imagining that it would become the first of many, and that she'll face much greater dangers as she goes. Most surprising of all, the girl who can't even read or write learns why books are worth facing terrible danger and enduring hardship and sacrifice.

Is it any good?

Unfortunately, author Jennifer A. Nielsen doesn't bring much fire to her words in this unusual story with a lot to teach about the importance of books and literature. The plot is steady, but neither it nor main character Audra have much spark or punch to them because Nielsen doesn't take advantage of the important moments to really show Audra's changing understanding and appreciation of books. Instead, she mostly just keeps repeating that books are important because they keep culture, history, language, and ideas alive. This makes it hard for the reader to have a real emotional connection with her.

But there's enough of a story here, in an unusual time and place, to hold the interest of kids who enjoy historical fiction, and cleverly introduces some literary concepts like symbolism through the story-within-the-story of the girl, the snake, and the bear. The supporting characters are also solid but not quite as colorful as it seems like they could be, and they're a little hard to get to know, too. There's some violence, scariness, and dread, but it's vague and lacks intensity. It's full of important ideas and concepts about freedom, culture, history, and more, but just doesn't quite drive much of it home in a truly compelling way.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the role of books in Words on Fire. Why are they important? How do they become important to Audra?

  • Did you know much about Lithuania before you read this book? Do you know where it is? See if you can find it on a map. What countries is it near?

  • Why does learning about what happened a long time ago in a faraway place matter? Can we learn anything about ourselves from this story? What about current events? Is anything like this type of suppression happening in the world right now?

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