Anna and the Swallow Man by Gavriel Savit

I enjoy reading stories about war for children and young adults.  It’s these stories that show you the possibilities of hope among horrific events.  The characters in these stories are still shaped by the events around them and through their story we witness the atrocities and the injustices, but there is also a twinkle of hope.  In the case of Anna and the Swallow Man this hope comes in the form of the mysterious Swallow Man who finds Anna when she needs him.

9780552575270-1-edition.default.original-1Kraków, 1939, is no place to grow up. There are a million marching soldiers and a thousand barking dogs. And Anna Lania is just seven years old when the Germans take her father and suddenly, she’s alone.

Then she meets the Swallow Man. He is a mystery, strange and tall. And like Anna’s missing father, he has a gift for languages: Polish, Russian, German, Yiddish, even Bird. When he summons a bright, beautiful swallow down to his hand to stop her from crying, Anna is entranced.

Over the course of their travels together, Anna and the Swallow Man will dodge bombs, tame soldiers, and even, despite their better judgement, make a friend. But in a world gone mad, everything can prove dangerous.

Anna and the Swallow Man is the beautifully-written debut novel of Gavriel Savit. I got completely wrapped up in the story of Anna and the mysterious Swallow Man that takes her under his wing.  Like Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief and John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Anna and the Swallow Man is a unique story set in a time of war.
We follow young Anna as she is left alone in Kraków when her father disappears.  He told her that he would be gone for a few hours but never returns.  When she meets a  mysterious stranger, who she calls the Swallow Man, Anna is intrigued by him and follows him.  Anna and the Swallow Man walk across Poland for many years, crossing borders and enemy lines, meeting Bears and Wolves, becoming many different people and trying to be as inconspicuous as possible.  The Swallow Man teaches Anna many lessons that are important to remember at this dangerous time, including ‘To be found is to be gone forever,’ and ‘One can’t be found as long as one keeps moving.’
The Swallow Man is an incredibly intriguing character.  Neither Anna nor the reader really knows who he is or where he has come from. You don’t know what his agenda is.  He never seems to reveal his true self as it would be dangerous if he did.  He has many skills which help him to blend in and survive, such as a knowledge of many languages and how to kill a man if needed.  I had to keep reading to discover who the Swallow Man was, and even at the end of the story you still don’t really know.
Gavriel’s writing style is very lyrical, with some stunning descriptions that blew me away.  He conjures up very clear images in your mind which really put you in the characters’ shoes.  These are just a couple of examples:
‘Where last night she had shaken her body so hard with sobbing that she’d thought she would fly apart, now Anna treasured her tears, as if they were a butterfly of deep blue at flight in the small, sunlit jar of her chest.’
‘This is a rare and unforgettable thing: the texture of a foot-fall on the chest of a dead man resting on top of others twenty deep – the slight give and rebound beneath the pressure of your boot.’
Even though I became completely wrapped up in the story I was left feeling slightly disappointed at the end of the book.  There were so many questions left unanswered and I don’t feel that you are given closure.  I feel like there were some big clues that I missed to the mystery of the story.  It’s not often that I feel lost at the end of a book.  If anyone can explain it to me I’ll feel much better.
However, I still recommend you read Anna and the Swallow Man.  Even though it left me wanting, I feel my life is a little richer from reading Gavriel Savit’s lyrical story.

A Winter’s Day in 1939 by Melinda Szymanik

When I was a teenager I went through stages of reading nothing but war stories.  I was fascinated by them because I couldn’t believe how people, especially children, could survive such a horrific event.  These stories put me in the shoes of teenagers in another time, taught me empathy and taught me a lot about the survival instinct of humans.  The thing that always gets me with war stories is that you know these horrible things happened, but you struggle to accept that anyone can be that cruel.   In her latest book, A Winter’s Day in 1939, Melinda Szymanik introduces us to a Polish family who do everything they can to stay together and stay alive.

Taken from their home, forced to leave their country, put to work in labour camps, frozen and starved, Adam and his family doubt that they will ever make it out alive. Even if they were to get away, they might freeze to death, or starve, or the bears might get them. For the Polish refugees, the whole of the USSR becomes a prison from which there is seemingly no escape.


A Winter’s Day in 1939 is a story of family, the harsh realities of war, and the fight for survival against the odds.  Adam and his family are ripped from their safe, comfortable life in Poland and transported to prison camps in Russia, in freezing conditions and with little to eat and drink.  They get transported in dirty, stinking train carriages with a stove and a pipe as a toilet, live in cramped barracks with many other families, and are forced to work for the good of Russia.  People die of exposure to the freezing conditions and disease is rife.  In these conditions you need to have to will to survive, and for Adam and his family, this is what is keeping them going.

The story is narrated by Adam, so you see everything through his eyes.  You feel how much he wants to survive and how important his family is to him. You get a real sense of how desperate their situation gets as time goes by, especially when it comes to food.  When a clerk at one of the evacuation centers apologizes to Adam for the lack of food, Adam says ‘He sounded sorry about it but that was no help to us.  You couldn’t eat ‘sorry.” You want so much for Adam and his family to survive the war and be able to return home, but you don’t know if their story will have a happy ending.

One of the things that stands out in Melinda’s story is the sense that Adam, his family, and the other refugees around them, hadn’t done anything wrong, yet they’re treated the way they are.  Adam says this himself, ‘We were being punished but I hadn’t done anything wrong.  None of us had.’ These people have been thrown out of their homes and sent to prison camps for no reason what so ever.

A Winter’s Day in 1939 is a great addition to any home or school library.  It’s a war story that hasn’t been told before and it will have an affect on readers of all ages.  Stories like Melinda’s help us to remember all those people who died during this horrific period of history and I’ll certainly remember Adam’s story for a long time.

4 out of 5 stars