Recommended by: Kathryn Loughran, school library media specialist, Cornwall Central Teacher's Association
Suitable for: Grade 8 and up
Why I chose it: Since most students shy away from historical fiction, I like to find novels teens can relate to. This story is written in first-person narrative through the eyes of 15-year-old Lina.
In the beginning, she is just like any other teen. She loves to draw and giggle at boys with her girlfriends. Then her father gets arrested and, not much later, the Soviet secret police show up at their door. Dressed in a nightgown and coat, Lina, her mother and her younger brother are herded into a train car with 46 other people bound for the harsh conditions of Siberia. It is a painful narration that speaks of unrelenting hunger, constant fear of violence and brutal suffering.
Yet, there is resiliency and inspiration when Lina draws pictures she hopes will reach her father in another prison camp, as she builds a friendship and then a romance with a boy who is a fellow captive.
How teachers can use this book: This novel would be an asset to any social studies/ELA curriculum that covers World War II and the Holocaust. As written in the author's note, "It is estimated that Josef Stalin killed more than 20 million people during his reign of terror. The Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia lost more than a third of their populations during the Soviet annihilation." During this time, the Baltic States simply disappeared from maps, not returning again until 1990.
The story of the Lithuanians deported to Siberian work camps to essentially starve to death is a topic often unexplored in World War II lessons. This story needs telling and will stay with the reader long after the discussion moves on.
About the author: Born and raised in Michigan, Ruta Sepetys is the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee. She wants to give a voice to the hundreds of thousands of people who lost their lives during Stalin's cleansing of the Baltic region.
For more information, visit www.rutasepetys.com.