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Book Review

Publisher's Note:

New York Times bestselling author Jennifer A. Nielsen transports readers to a corner of history with this inspiring story of a girl who discovers the strength of her people united in resisting oppression. Danger is never far from Audra's family farm in Lithuania. She always avoids the occupying Russian Cossack soldiers, who insist that everyone must become Russian -- they have banned Lithuanian…

Words on Fire

by Jennifer A. Nielsen

Overall Book Review:

As Audra’s life is turned upside down, she bravely joins the secret and dangerous effort to keep Lithuanian culture alive in Jennifer A. Nielsen’s latest historical fiction, Words on Fire. This novel, set in 1893 Lithuania, captures a little-known aspect of history as a small country fighting to keep its culture and heritage alive when Russia wants to wipe it clean. Key to keeping it alive are the book smugglers, a group of people that bring in books from Prussia, distribute them and hide them. Audra unwittingly becomes a part of this movement when her parents are arrested. Eventually she is faced with the decision of what is most important:  her own personal dream or using her talents to help a nation survive.

Words on Fire is an amazing story of resistance, determination, and learning to follow your heart. Audra is initially forced onto the path of self-discovery, but soon learns to make the best of it and hone her talents while becoming a strong force for the good of their cause. The friends she makes along the way are also examples of bravery and how choosing what is right can make a difference. And while this novel is Audra’s story, it also has the underlying theme of the importance the written word is to sustaining a culture. “The words wouldn’t lead to our independence–words are our independence. If we surrendered our books to them, we’d surrender our minds, leaving us hollowed-out puppets, ready to be controlled.” (p 149) This message is one that can apply to readers today as well.

Jennifer Nielsen tells this important piece of history with this important message in a masterful way, that touches the reader and pulls them in. She also does it in a way that portrays the horrific things they had to go through without making it graphic. The emotions are there without the detailed images, which makes this a perfect book for younger middle grade as well. Words on Fire is a novel that will surely evoke discussions about what is right verses wrong, about the importance of books, and what one could do to preserve their culture. 

This book was sent to Compass Book Ratings for review by Scholastic

Content Analysis:

Profanity/Language:  None 

Violence/Gore:  Mention of how soldiers might whip or arrest someone for speaking in Lithuanian; Soldiers tie up someone’s arms behind their back; Soldiers set fire to a house and barn; Mention of people just disappearing because they angered the Russian occupiers; Mention of a governor with the nickname “Hangman” because of his ruthless ways; Mention of parents being sent to Siberia to suffer; Account of a character being whipped on his back with a tree branch; Secondhand account of a group of people being hung; Soldiers burn down a barn; Character is knocked to the ground by a soldier; Soldiers ransack houses and then burn several down; Character is grabbed by soldier and she kicks him in order to escape; Soldiers hit a man on the back and knock him to his knees; Girl burns arm reaching into a fire to save something; Soldiers told to shoot anyone that causes problems; Gun is pointed at a character; Character detained and forced into a wagon; Character wonders if she will be tortured; Mention of soldiers being told to shoot anyone running away from them; Story of an uprising from the past told that resulted in so many deaths that people couldn’t find their loved ones; Mention of the possibility of soldiers wanting to hold a public hanging; Character tied up and kidnapped; Secondhand account of character being grabbed and dragged by a soldier; Secondhand account of man being dragged into the street and being whipped; Character sees someone get shot; Soldiers threaten to shoot into a group of people; Soldiers set fire to a church with people still inside; Soldier tries to drown a character; Soldier points gun at a character; Secondhand account of man being shot; Secondhand account of people being beaten resulting in some injuries and few deaths (no details given).

Sex/Nudity:  Boy and girl hold hands (2); Bride and groom kiss.

Mature Subject Matter:

Death; Imprisonment; Harsh treatment by occupiers; Censorship.

Alcohol / Drug Use:


Overall Book Rating

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About the Reviewer

I remember as a young girl sneaking out of my bedroom to read by the hall light my parents left on, just so I could finish an exciting book. I’ve always loved books and reading is somewhat of a passion for me–something I’m passing on to my kids. I have four children and I have a hard time making them turn out the light when they say, “But I just got to the good part”.