Emotional, heartbreaking and hopeful, The Yellow Bird Sings touches the music of your soul. It is 1941 Poland; Roza and Shira, mother and daughter are Jews, hidden in a barn by farmers. Henryk, the husband, ensures their safety while violating Roza in the night, and his wife Krystyna, provides extra food for Shira; she believes all children deserve an equal chance. Roza and Shira, silenced and afraid, lay quietly in the barn’s hay for more than 15 months. After their family was violently taken from them, they have no choice but to go into hiding. They revisit their cherished memories, whisper stories, use their imagination, and create music in their heads to soothe themselves and pass the time.
When the Germans announce plans to use the farmer’s barn for storage, mother and daughter must find a new safe space right away. They are encouraged to separate so Shira can go to a convent to have lessons and be with other children, allowing her a better chance of surviving. Filled with sadness, regret and fear, Roza is on her own and heads to the forest.
The Yellow Bird Sings will rip your heart out as you feel the emotional and physical struggles of both mother and daughter; at first stifled, secluded and living in silence with the burden and horrific fear of the unknown, with only what is inside their minds and their hearts to comfort and sustain them as they live day by day in hiding. And then separated, longing to be together, doing everything possible to survive.
Author Jennifer Rosner tells an extraordinary story with beautiful use of language; her words and phrases are visual and powerful….
“Words to Zosia (Sofia) are like glass beads around her neck. If one were to break loose, they would all clatter to the floor and scatter, shatter the quiet that kept her and her mother alive, entwined beneath hay.”
When referring to understanding loss; “What is whole does not comprehend what is torn until it, too, is in shreds.”
When seeing other mothers with their children, “Something breaks loose inside Roza and skitters down the stairs of her heart.”
We follow Roza and Shira on their separate journeys, holding out hope that they will be reunited after the war. With a blanket from the past, a magic yellow bird, cherished memories in their minds and soulful music in their hearts, The Yellow Bird Sings delivers a powerful story of Roza and Shira’s incredible survival, their unbreakable connection, their will to be heard, and the celebration of music that, through the generations, links us to each other. Emotional, heartbreaking and hopeful, I could not put this book down and highly recommend it!
Q & A with Jennifer Rosner
I loved your debut historical fiction novel, The Yellow Bird Sings. The story was powerful and your characters were filled with so much pain and love at the same time. The deep emotion it conveyed, the evocative, visual language you utilized and the heartfelt music that was described made me feel like I was experiencing the written word more fully and completely.
Thank you so much! This means a lot to me:)
Q: As a young child, Shira seems to have a special musical aptitude. What inspired you to use music in such a big way in your novel?
A: Music has had great connective power in my life; I sang as a child, and later trained to become an opera singer. My singing forged a rare connection between my mother and me; also, my father played violin daily, and his music connected us to each other, and also to Judaism.
In my novel, music is a connective tissue linking mother and daughter, together and apart, and expressing a bond that endures even in the most brutal of circumstances. Beauty, in music and in other forms, is a lifeline, conveying hope.
Q: Shira has a special relationship with her violin teacher. Who inspired this character?
A: Several mentors in my musical, academic, and writing life have been deeply supportive and generous. In developing the teacher’s character, and their relationship, it felt important for Shira to feel a profound connection to the person who coached her and supported her musical genius.
Q: Shira conjures a magic yellow bird, which she cups in her hands and also muffles to keep quiet. Shira’s mother then tells a nightly story of a girl and her bird, who avert threats and find safety. What is the significance of Shira’s bird?
A: While Shira must be silent, her yellow bird sings out the music she hears in her head and in other ways enacts the childhood she cannot. Her bird brings security as well as expression. The magic of Shira’s bird is that it admits her powerful imagination (and her mother’s) into their horror-filled situation. I believe that much survival occurred because people kept alive their imaginations (their artistry, their poetry, etc) and stayed aware of what beauty they could find in their circumstances.
Q: Can you share with us why you were interested in writing about a mom having to keep her child silent?
A: The seed for this story came years ago when I was at a book event for my memoir about deafness. (If A Tree Falls: A Family’s Quest to Hear and Be Heard) . My daughters were born deaf. With hearing technology (cochlear implants and hearing aids), they were learning to listen and talk and I was describing our efforts as we encouraged them to vocalize. After the book talk, a woman from the audience came up to me. She told me about her childhood experience, hiding in an attic with her mother during WW2. She had to stay entirely silent. I tried to imagine what it must have been like for her, and also her mother. While I so wanted our daughters to speak, this mother had to keep her young child from making any sound at all. From this seed, my novel grew.
Q: You do a beautiful job keeping the reader engaged, giving just enough in each chapter to motivate us to tackle the next. Once the story splits into two when Rosa and Shira go their separate ways, did you write the book in the order that we read it, or did you write one character’s story and then the other’s?
A: In later drafts, I wrote the chapters mostly in the order they appear. However, earlier in the process, I wrote out long swaths of each character’s story trajectory, to understand where they were going and how their stories might dovetail. There was a lot of cutting and reworking!
Q: What kind of research did you do for the book? How long did it take to write?
A: While I was writing the book, I interviewed several “hidden children”— adults who, as children during the war, were secreted in attics, barns, and the woods. I also traveled to the settings of my novel. In Poland I visited areas of countryside with barns much like the one I’ve written about; I visited a convent where Jewish children were hidden; and I went to a swath of deep forest where a Partisan/family camp was formed.
I consulted with experts on Holocaust history and convent life. I talked to a tracker to learn how my character could traverse the forest without leaving a trace. A Polish translator, also a mushroom forager, advised me on which mushrooms my character might find in the woods! And I consulted with a musicologist and a master class violinist, as I sought to discover how a prodigy like Shira would practice; how she would progress, what she would play. It took years to conceive of and to write this novel, and many many drafts.
Q: When Shira plays Kaddish on her violin, my thoughts went to the Mourner’s Kaddish and my heart breaks for her and the loss of her mother. Music invokes so much emotion, personal to each of us. How did you choose the musical pieces you refer to in the book?
A: Yes, Ravel’s Kaddish is haunting and evocative, and I chose it for Shira to play as a mourning piece for her mother.
Generally speaking, I listened to a LOT of music before choosing pieces; I waned to make sure each one contributed to the story, and that it would fit Shira’s circumstance and her level of play. As I mentioned, I consulted with musical experts.
Q: It amazed me how long Roza and others lasted living in the forest in Poland. We are always looking for a parking spot closest to where we are headed so we don’t have to walk an extra step, and these people walked miles and miles, with little food and shelter, and lived outside in the elements for weeks, months and years! How did you learn about the resistance camps and why did you choose to set your story in Poland?
A: I learned about the Jewish Partisans years ago from a friend who is a documentary filmmaker. (Julia Mintz is a producer/director/writer and her film is The Jewish Partisans.) When it came to researching my novel, I went to an area of Polish forest—in winter—to understand what it would be like for my character! I read innumerable accounts of people hiding in wooded camps, as families and as Partisans. We can’t overestimate the ingenuity, strength, and perseverance they brought to their survival.
Q: You have received praise for the cover of your book; can you tell us about it?
A: The brilliant art director at Flatiron developed the cover. He based it on a torn photograph, signaling that something is torn in the story. (The Picador UK cover, wildly different, is also wonderful; it suggest elements of an enchanted garden floating out from a barn window.)
Q: What have you read lately that you recommend?
A: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong — it is astonishing.
Other books I’ve recently read and loved:
Lila by Marilynne Robinson
The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
Q: Are you going on book tour and where can we expect to see you?
A: Yes, I will be scheduling events, starting with a book launch on my publication date, March 3, 2020. I will keep an events list running on my website (www.jennifer-rosner.com) and would be happy to receive invitations to read, to attend book clubs, etc!
Q: Are you working on a new book yet?
A: I have just begun a new novel – but it’s too preliminary to describe! Stay tuned.
About the Author:
Jennifer Rosner is the author of the novel The Yellow Bird Sings and the memoir If A Tree Falls: A Family’s Quest to Hear and Be Heard. Her children’s book, The Mitten String, is a Sydney Taylor Book Award Notable. Jennifer’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Massachusetts Review, The Forward, Good Housekeeping, and elsewhere. She lives in western Massachusetts with her family.
And There’s More…!
Don’t miss Jennifer Rosner’s memoir:
Jennifer Rosner’s revelatory memoir explores family, silence, and what it means to be heard. When her daughters are born deaf, Rosner is stunned. Then, she discovers a hidden history of deafness in her family, going back generations to the Jewish enclaves of Eastern Europe. Traveling back in time, she imagines her silent relatives, who showed surprising creativity in dealing with a world that preferred to ignore them.
Rosner shares her journey into the modern world of deafness, and the controversial decisions she and her husband have made about hearing aids, cochlear implants and sign language. An imaginative odyssey, punctuated by memories of going unheard, Rosner’s story of her daughters’ deafness is at heart a story of whether she – a mother with perfect hearing – will hear her children.
If a Tree Falls is a poignant meditation on life’s most unpredictable moments, as well as the delights and triumphs hidden within them.
To order Jennifer Rosner’s novel, memoir and/or children’s book, click below.