Posted by Hilli, Assistant Editor on January 30, 2019
We couldn’t be more excited to reveal the cover for bestselling author Jennifer A. Nielsen’s upcoming middle grade historical, Words on Fire, which will be published by Scholastic on September 24, 2019! In a story that sounds perfect for fans of The Book Thief, Nielsen will transport readers to a little-known time period—the brutal Russian occupation of Lithuania. Will a young girl named Audra be able to join the resistance, face her greatest fears and help her country fight off the Cossacks?
Read on for an exclusive essay by Nielsen about the inspiration behind this exciting new novel.
Remember the adage, we are what we eat? I believe it is more accurately stated as, we are what we read. That’s certainly true for me. I often reflect on the books that shaped me most, and that continue to impact who I am and the way I see the world.
Meg in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time was the strong, determined girl I wanted to be. S.E Hinton’s The Outsiders instilled in me a deep curiosity to understand more about my world, or perhaps, simply more about myself. Through Lois Duncan, I faced my fears, while Joan Aiken and John D. Fitzgerald gave me a love of adventure. So much of who I am is thanks to the influence of great books.
Perhaps that is one of the reasons why the story of the Lithuanian book smugglers appealed to me so strongly. The more I learned, the more I asked myself, “What value do I place on books?” Are they worth the $17 I plunk down at my local indie? Worth having and reading and making time for in my busy life? For that matter, are books worth my life?
Throughout the 19th century, the small country of Lithuania was occupied by the Russian Empire, something the Lithuanians deeply resented. Uprisings were common as the people attempted to throw off the yoke of the empire’s control. Predictably, every uprising was crushed.
By 1864, Russia decided on a new plan: If Lithuanians would not bend, then they must be broken. The country itself needed to be extinguished.
So how would they destroy a country?
Destroy its culture.
And how would they destroy a culture?
Destroy their books.
All Lithuanian language books became illegal. The language itself was forbidden. The idea was that eventually, the people would have no choice but to identify as Russians.
Yet the empire was not prepared for the book smugglers, known as the Knygnesiai. These brave individuals traveled outside the country and printed books in their language, then smuggled them back into Lithuania for secret distribution among the population. Those who were caught faced beatings, imprisonment or one-way trips to Siberia. Despite this, demand for more books grew, and the Knygnesiai answered. Russia’s plan to destroy Lithuania was quickly becoming the country’s strongest weapon against the empire.
In Words on Fire, young Audra Zikaris becomes caught up with the book smugglers, at first in hopes of saving her family and then to save her country. She never expects that books will become her one hope of saving herself. Words on Fire is a love story written to honor the power of books. Their power to influence a life, mold a generation. And to change the world.
Throughout my life, they have certainly made their impact upon me.
—Jennifer A. Nielsen