Poland 1941, mother and daughter are hiding in a barn, silenced and afraid… The Yellow Bird Sings by Jennifer Rosner is filled with heartbreak, hope and music.

The Yellow Bird Sings

My Review:

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!

The Yellow Bird Sings will be available in 2020.  Pre-order your copy today!

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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.

girls at convent school in Poland

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.

Poland in winter

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

Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat

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.

Goodreads Summary

Jennifer Rosner

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:

If A Tree Falls by Jennifer Rosner

If A Tree Falls

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.

The Yellow Bird Sings

If A Tree Falls

The Mitten String

Gossip and Passion are Alive; In West Mills by De’Shawn Charles Winslow takes us to 1940s North Carolina

In West Mills by De'Shawn Charles Winslow

My Review:

I loved the heartfelt debut, In West Mills by De’Shawn Charles Winslow. In this charming story about an African American family in North Carolina spanning from the 1940s – 1987, and the difficult struggles and complexities of love, we meet Knot.  She has an unconventional lifestyle, always reveling in her freedom, as she lives alone, reads books and drinks a lot and whenever she pleases.  When Knot gets herself into a bit of trouble, she reaches out to her neighbor and friend, Otis Lee for help. Otis Lee is loyal and trustworthy and steps up for his friend, but there are deeply hidden family secrets he is unaware of that have unknowingly altered his life and are making an impact on the ones he loves.

The troubled past and longtime friendships weave this small town community together through the generations and De’Shawn Charles Winslow captures our attention with his vivid voice and memorable characters.  From out of wedlock pregnancies to disowned family members, Winslow depicts this big-hearted, southern community as gossip-filled and passionate, with tension and hurt along with love and support.  I loved this story and highly recommend the heart warming and heart breaking In West Mills. 

Recommendation:

If you enjoyed this African American North Carolina community, check out No One Is Coming To Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts.

Goodreads Summary

Author De'Shawn Charles Winslow

About the Author:

De’Shawn Charles Winslow’s recent book is In West Mills. He was born and raised in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, and in 2003 moved to Brooklyn, New York. He is a 2017 graduate of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and holds a BFA in creative writing and an MA in English literature from Brooklyn College. He has received scholarships from the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. De’Shawn lives in East Harlem.

The Danger 1940’s Food Tasters Faced is highlighted in At the Wolf’s Table by Rosella Postorino (includes video interview)

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My Review:

According to Google, “coming together and sharing a meal is the most communal and binding thing in almost every place in the world”.  Eating together, and eating at all is usually considered a good thing, but after reading Rosella Postorino’s latest novel you may just change your mind!

Based on truth, At the Wolf’s Table is about a group of German women in 1943 who are recruited by the Nazis to taste Hitler’s food before each meal to ensure it to be poison-free.  As food becomes scarce and people are going hungry, these women are shuttled to the “Wolf’s Lair” in the morning to have full breakfasts and early lunches under the scrutiny of armed Nazi soldiers, then returned home and brought back at the end of the day for full dinners.  After forcing themselves to fully consume each course they wait for illness to kick in, eating to stay alive and at the same time fearing death.

Newly married and all alone, Rosa has lost both her parents, her husband Gregor has gone off to war and she has moved to the country to live with her in laws outside of Berlin.  She has been recruited as a food taster for Hitler where she “would participate in the liturgy of the lunchroom together with other young German women- an army of worshippers prepared to receive on (our) tongues a Communion that wouldn’t redeem us.”  Rosa tries to make friends with the other tasters but relationships between the women are strained; some of them are Nazi supporters, some are not, and some are hiding something; Jewish roots, affairs, pregnancy, rape, abortion…nobody is sure who to trust.  Rosa’s husband is declared missing, and as her loneliness intensifies, she develops a risky relationship with one of the soldiers.  Will her husband ever be found?  Will she escape the perils of war?

At The Wolf’s Lair provides a unique setting that highlights secrets, betrayals and sorrow amidst the constant fear in everyday life during World War ll. I enjoyed this story and recommend it!

Here is an article about one of the real food tasters from WWll…

http://m.spiegel.de/international/germany/hitler-food-taster-margot-woelk-speaks-about-her-memories-a-892097.html

And a video interview…

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=MNcZyBqJCzk

Goodreads Summary

Unknown-6.jpegAbout the Author:

Rosella Postorino is an internationally bestselling author and an editor. She speaks fluent English, Italian, French, and German. At the Wolf’s Table is her first novel to be translated into English.

The Subway Girls by Susie Orman Schnall

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My Review:

It is not often where I pick up a book that has everything I’m looking for at that moment and The Subways Girls by Susie Orman Schnall delivered.  I started out in my early 20s in NYC at an ad agency so this book was a real treat for me as I was immediately drawn in and wanting to read more.  The urge to google and learn something new is always a good sign when I am reading a book, and the Miss Subways ad campaign sparked my interest.  Well developed, relatable characters that had me rooting for them and invested in them so much to pull at my heart strings and cause me to shed some tears, two separate and equally intriguing stories that perfectly connect, and just enough information or a cliffhanger at the end of each chapter to spur me made this a winner for me.

In her novel, Susie Orman Schnall explores some of the challenges women faced in the 1940s and some that still exist today.  In 1949 Charlotte wants to graduate college and work in advertising, yet the ad agencies only seems to have women working in the typing pool.  She has an opportunity to be in ad campaign that essentially is a beauty contest where the winner’s photo will be up in the subway cars, a lovely and successful boyfriend who wants to marry her and start a family, but her desire is to be educated and become a working woman, not a beauty queen or a wife and mother.  Her father demands she drop out of school, work at the family business and not participate in the Miss Subways contest.  After being rejected from all the jobs she applied to, feeling rebellious and going against her father’s wishes, and initially not being in favor of becoming an object of beauty, she decides to apply for Miss Subways anyway – with nothing to lose, she thinks it could help her father’s business by getting some publicity should she win.  Her supportive boyfriend stands by her, although some of his decisions reflect questionable judgement.  (No spoilers!)

Seventy years later, successful ad executive Olivia has to come up with an advertising idea for the MTA.  She has a complicated relationship with her boss, who has power over her financially and emotionally.  Her male coworker is not a fan of women and has no problem stealing her ideas and presenting them as his own.   Feeling despair, alone and her job on the line, Olivia has to make some decisions. Her strength and perseverance, despite the odds being against her, lead her to research the old Miss Subways campaign.   Through heartbreak, a new love and a surprising connection right next door, Olivia’s future begins to look bright.

Striking a balance for women is often challenging; a constant juggling between works and family….wanting it all.  Happiness is fluid and different things may be more important at different times.  I found myself rooting for both Charlotte and Olivia, a champion for the women, no matter what they wanted in order to be happy – the job, the beauty contest, the attention from the guy, the winning campaign…I thoroughly enjoyed this book!

To learn more about The Subway Girls read this fascinating Harper’s Bazaar article written by the author.

Goodreads Summary

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About the Author:

I am the author of the novels THE SUBWAY GIRLS, THE BALANCE PROJECT, and ON GRACE. I grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. My writing has appeared in publications including The New York Times, The Huffington Post, POPSUGAR, Writer’s Digest, and Glamour. In addition, I have spoken extensively on work-life balance and I’m the founder of The Balance Project interview series. I live in Purchase, NY, with my husband and our three sons. For more about me, please visit www.susieschnall.com or follow me at:

Instagram: @SusieOrmanSchnall
Facebook: SusieOrmanSchnall
Twitter: @SusieSchnall