“Words on fire” by Jennifer A. Nielsen

Words on fireRated 5 stars ***** ARC. To be published October 1, 2019. Scholastic Press. 322 p. (Includes an “Acknowledgements” section with more information about Lithuanian book carriers).

In 1893 Lithuania was ruled by Russia with an iron fist. The people were expected to turn their backs on their Lithuanian heritage and become obedient Russian citizens. To this end Cossack soldiers roamed towns and villages, ruthlessly arresting, killing, imprisoning, or sending to Siberia anyone found with books written in the Lithuanian language. Despite the law, thousands of book carriers risked their lives to smuggle banned books to their people in Lithuania.

The ban on books, as well as forbidding the Lithuanian language, its schools, and the passing on of its culture were ways for the Tsar to force the people to forget their past and to look towards a Russian future. Reading these smuggled books about their language and culture were ways to give people hope to remember their country as it was when it was free, and to fight against the yoke cast upon them by the Tsar.

Twelve-year-old Audra grew up in this world of oppression, forced to smuggle a book given to her by her mother when Cossacks arrested her parents. At first she hated what books had cost her family but, in time, came to realize the power of the written word. Together she and her friend Lukas travelled the dangerous paths of bringing knowledge to their people, one book at a time, as Cossacks come ever closer to arresting them.

I didn’t know anything about Lithuania’s battle to keep their culture alive through books before reading “Words on fire.” It’s an important part of not only their history, but everyone’s history, as it seems that whenever a conqueror wants to take over a country and demoralize their people they resort to burning/banning books. We need to remember that every book has a reason for being, and we should fight anyone who would want to take them away.

To apply Nielsen’s book to today, the American Library Association (ALA) has a yearly Banned Books Week, because there are still people in the year 2019 who want to keep words of knowledge away from those who need those words of encouragement or hope. We all need to take a stand against censorship, just as Audra, Lukas and thousands of other Lithuanian book carriers did during their silent fight against Russia. They didn’t let the Tsar stand in their way, and neither should we let these modern day oppressors win the fight to decide what people should or shouldn’t read.

Recommended for ages 11-18.

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