A powerful, gripping and moving story. This book is written for reluctant and dyslexic teens but is equally enjoyable for anyone who enjoys a cracking good read.
Nastia Nabokova feels like she’s been waiting all her life for “the future war” and the opportunity to serve her country. When the Second World War breaks out, Nastia and her friends are, therefore, determined to use their skills as pilots to serve and defend their glorious homeland. As the only girl, Nastia is separated from her friends and it’s over a year before she’s allowed to join the battle in the sky. In that time, however, Nastia begins to change and starts to suspect a long-held secret. A secret that will ultimately cause her to land her plane behind enemy lines and risk being shot as a traitor.
Firebird is part of the Barrington Stoke’s ‘super-readable’ series: it’s aimed at teens in terms of interest but has a reading age of just 8 years. This means the language is kept simple and the length of the book short (just 131 pages). However, I quickly forgot this was a story designed for a particular audience because it is such a cracking good read. Written in first person, Nastia’s voice remains authentic and entirely believable throughout the story and it’s easy to identify with her hopes and fears.
Having briefly studied Russian history as part of my degree, I found the description of the siege of Leningrad particularly poignant – the starvation and suffering becoming much more real to me than it ever did from those dry textbooks. Although firmly a work of fiction, the story is firmly grounded in historical fact. Indeed, the short author’s note at the back of the book provides a fascinating insight into how fact merges into fiction. Many of the individual incidents within the story are based on real life (although they obviously didn’t all happen to the same individual or at the same time) and at least some of the characters – such as Marina Raskova – are genuine historical figures.
Much of the story is a straightforward account of Nastia’s experiences from the moment she signs up to the time she finally takes the air as a fully-fledged Soviet fighter pilot. The short book is split into five sections and by Part Five I was wondering how the story could possibly be wrapped up in the remaining pages. I had, however, underestimated the astonishing storytelling of the author, Elizabeth Wein. This book has the most unexpected twist that effectively and impressively brings the book to its conclusion. What makes this particularly impressive is that every element of the revelation in the conclusion is carefully set up in advance but so subtlety that you simply don’t notice at the time. Bravo!
If you’re looking for another wonderful teen story for dyslexic readers, I’d strongly recommend The Liar’s Handbook by Keren David, also from Barrington Stoke. Alternatively, if you enjoy historical fiction and want to read a longer book, you can’t go wrong with The Goose Road by Rowena House for teen readers, or Flight by Vanessa Harbour for middle grade. Myself, I’m planning to read Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.
Date: August 2018
Publisher: Barrington Stoke
Author’s Website: Elizabeth Wein