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Words on Fire by Jennifer Nielsen – Book Review

  • Title: Words on Fire
  • Author: Jennifer Nielsen
  • Publisher: Scholastic Press
  • Release Date: October 1, 2019

RATING: 3 STARS

It is 1893 in Lithuania, a time when the Russian Empire controls the country. It is also a dangerous time, especially for anyone who still preserves and protects Lithuanian culture. Unbeknownst to Audra, her parents help smuggle books to keep memories of their homeland alive. However, book smuggling is illegal, and those caught in the act face imprisonment or even worse. When Russian Cossack soldiers come to take Audra’s parents away, she is forced to flee and ends up on an unexpected path that changes her life forever. Audra encounters danger at every turn, but she also tries to maintain a freshly found sense of purpose and hope. Faced with difficult choices and even more difficult consequences, Audra must decide what is right, not only for her and her family but also for her country.

The novel, Words on Fire by Jennifer Nielsen, entices readers through its setting. The focus on a less studied period and place within the Russian Empire intrigue, and although the nuances of Lithuania’s struggles may be foreign to readers, the novel’s themes, such as the power of books and family, still ring true today. The level of sophistication of Audra’s monologues compared to her alleged background creates a discord that undermines the broader narrative. The author uses the monologues to give lessons instead of allowing the characters’ experiences to teach lessons. Audra is a captivating and strong character. Despite moments of pontification, though, the novel’s pacing does create exciting moments of suspense, which will keep readers on their toes and turning pages.

Middle school students interested in historical fiction will find Words on Fire rich and fascinating. It might also spark their interest in the Russian Empire. The novel can also serve as a springboard for a cross-curricular ELA and History unit on the time period. The novel’s components generally provide all the material a teacher would need for an in-depth literary analysis. However, its long monologues detract from the natural authenticity of its characters and the struggles they endure, limiting its utility to facilitate more interpretative or provocative engagement with the text.

Classroom Applications

  • Cross-curricular Study – Teach the novel in conjunction with a nonfiction study of the Russian Empire or history of Lithuania and the Baltic States.
  • Book Club or Book Exchange – Share the novel with students that enjoy reading historical fiction.

Nonfiction Connections: The list below outlines topics that will enrich your students’ understanding of the novel.

  • Russian Empire
  • History of Lithuania
  • Lithuanian Book Smugglers

Book Companions: The following are great books to pair with Words on Fire. In parenthesis are the specific aspects students could explore when synthesizing across the texts.

  • The Book Thief  by Markus Zusak (Character Connections, Themes)
  • The Story That Cannot Be Told by J. Kasper Kramer (Character Connections, Themes)
  • A Night Divided by Jennifer Nielson (Character Connections, Themes)

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