One of our recommended books for 2020 is The Yellow Bird Sings by Jennifer Rosner

THE YELLOW BIRD SINGS

A Novel


In Poland, as World War II rages, a mother hides with her young daughter, a musical prodigy whose slightest sound may cost them their lives.

As Nazi soldiers round up the Jews in their town, Róza and her 5-year-old daughter, Shira, flee, seeking shelter in a neighbor’s barn. Hidden in the hayloft day and night, Shira struggles to stay still and quiet, as music pulses through her and the farmyard outside beckons. To soothe her daughter and pass the time, Róza tells her a story about a girl in an enchanted garden:

The girl is forbidden from making a sound,

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In Poland, as World War II rages, a mother hides with her young daughter, a musical prodigy whose slightest sound may cost them their lives.

As Nazi soldiers round up the Jews in their town, Róza and her 5-year-old daughter, Shira, flee, seeking shelter in a neighbor’s barn. Hidden in the hayloft day and night, Shira struggles to stay still and quiet, as music pulses through her and the farmyard outside beckons. To soothe her daughter and pass the time, Róza tells her a story about a girl in an enchanted garden:

The girl is forbidden from making a sound, so the yellow bird sings. He sings whatever the girl composes in her head: high-pitched trills of piccolo; low-throated growls of contrabassoon. Music helps the flowers bloom.

In this make-believe world, Róza can shield Shira from the horrors that surround them. But the day comes when their haven is no longer safe, and Róza must make an impossible choice: whether to keep Shira by her side or give her the chance to survive apart.

Inspired by the true stories of Jewish children hidden during World War II, Jennifer Rosner’s debut is a breathtaking novel about the unbreakable bond between a mother and a daughter. Beautiful and riveting, The Yellow Bird Sings is a testament to the triumph of hope—a whispered story, a bird’s song—in even the darkest of times.

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  • Flatiron Books
  • Hardcover
  • March 2020
  • 304 Pages
  • 9781250179760

Buy the Book

$25.99

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About Jennifer Rosner

Jennifer Rosner is the author of The Yellow Bird SingsJennifer Rosner is the author of If A Tree Falls: A Family’s Quest to Hear and Be Heard, a memoir about raising her deaf daughters in a hearing, speaking world. 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. The Yellow Bird Sings is her debut novel and is being published around the world.

Author Website

Praise

“Rosner challenges the Holocaust with a touch of magic (the yellow bird appears throughout), clarifying a dangerous time and place even as she offers a vibrant, affecting portrait of the mother-daughter relationship.” Library Journal (starred review)

“In Shira and Roza, Rosner captures two souls in turmoil, chronicling their grief as well as their strength of will to overcome, their longing and even surprising triumphs…The Yellow Bird Sings keeps your heart in your throat, your eyes pricked with tears.”BookPage (starred review)

“This stunning debut novel sings with the power of a mother’s love and the heartbreaking risks she’ll endure.” Booklist

“A World War II story with a Room-like twist, one that also deftly examines the ways in which art and imagination can sustain us…This is a Holocaust novel, but it’s also an effective work of suspense, and Rosner’s understanding of how art plays a role in our lives, even at the worst of times, is impressive.” Kirkus

“Moving…A wrenching chronicle.” Publishers Weekly

“A beautiful book in so many ways. Like Shira’s imaginary bird, Jennifer Rosner’s prose is lilting and musical, yet her tale of war’s grave personal reality is gripping, heartrending, and so very real.” —Lisa Wingate, author of Before We Were Yours and Before and After

“Music and love course through this beautiful novel, twin rivers of wonder. Jennifer Rosner has written a book that will break your heart, and then put it back together again, a little larger than before.” —Alex George, author of A Good American

“Desperately moving and exquisitely written. If you only read one book this year, make it The Yellow Bird Sings. A beautiful story with achingly memorable characters, for me Jennifer Rosner’s novel stands alongside The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and Code Name Verity as one of those profoundly special World War Two novels you know you will never forget.” —AJ Pearce, author of Dear Mrs. Bird

“A beautifully written tale of mothers and daughters, war and love, the music of the living and the silence of the dead.” —Kate Quinn, author of The Huntress and The Alice Network

Discussion Questions

1. What is the significance of Shira’s bird? How does it aid her? Do you think its original color, yellow, is important or telling? In what ways does the bird’s evolution mirror or not mirror Shira’s?

2. In the barn, Różahas to keep Shira—five years old and a musical prodigy—silent and still. What are her most effective strategies? Do you think she would have an easier time if Shira was younger or older?

3. When Róża asks Krystyna outright why she is helping them, Krystyna responds, “In God’s eyes your child is no different than mine. She deserves every chance to live.” What are Krystyna’s motivations for harboring Róża and Shira and, later, for arranging Shira’s transport to the convent? Do you think Krystyna knows of Henryk’s advances on Róża? If so, why doesn’t she send Róża and Shira away sooner?

4. How would you describe the relationship between Henryk and Róża? Does it change over time? From our twenty-first-century perspective, would we call it rape? Would Róża? Do you think she has any agency in their relationship? Is it still possible to think of Henryk’s decision to protect Róża and Shira, despite the risk, as heroic?

5. Judaism is fairly absent from the novel, despite it being the reason Róża’s and Shira’s lives are in danger. Why do you think that is the case? Why does Róża rarely reference her religion?

6. In the barn, Shira eats her own portion of food and whatever her mother saves for her. She also eats the special foods Krystyna gives her on outings. How does hunger, satiety, and the storing of food play out later, specifically with regard to her feelings of guilt?

7. In the convent, Zosia is permitted to speak but stays largely silent. As sheg rows more comfortable playing the violin, she comes to think of the sound as “safer even than silence.” What does the author mean by that phrase? Discuss the importance of music in the novel. What can music express that words (or silence) can’t?

8. Although the nuns dye Zosia’s hair and teach her Catholicism, she still feels like an outsider. Discuss the various ways in which the girls, the nuns, and Pan Skrzypczak treat her otherness, and the forms of prejudice and kindness she encounters. Do you think they suspect that she is Jewish?

9. Discuss Róża’s relationship with the sisters, Miri and Chana, and Zosia’s relationship with Kasia at the convent. How is female friendship portrayed in this novel? How is it different from the relationship between mother and daughter?

10. At the camp in the woods, Róża is heartbroken to realize that other families remained intact: “Here are mothers, in the woods, in winter, who did not part from their children. They kept them with them and their children survived.” Do you think she still made the right decision in sending Shira away? What would you have done in her place?

11. Różacannot bear to hold Issi, a young child at the camp. Issi’s mother doesn’t understand, and the narrator explains,“What is whole does not comprehend what is torn until it, too, is in shreds.”Do you agree that there is an inevitable limit to our empathy? Can novels like The Yellow Bird Sings expand our capacity to empathize? If so, how?

12. Over the course of the novel, Shira becomes Zosia and then Tzofia. What does she lose with each name change? In her author’s note, Jennifer Rosner writes of the hidden children who inspired her novel: “If you remember me, if there is anyone out there who recognizes me and can tell me about my family, my name, then I might discover my history, my roots: my self. For refugees of current wars and violence, children displaced and torn from their families, this question echoes on.” Do you agree that Shira’s experiences continue to resonate today, with the global refugee crisis?

13. Why do you think Róża decides not to try to have more children once she moves to America? Do you think that was a selfish decision? Was it fair to Aron to keep it from him, or does she have the right to make that choice for herself?

14. What did you think of the novel’s ending? Do you believe that Shira and Róża will have a future together?

Excerpt

Chapter 1

Poland, Summer 1941

A brooding heat permeates the tight space of the barn loft, no larger than three strides by four. The boards are rough-hewn and splintery and the rafters run at sharp slants, making the pitch too low for Róza to stand anywhere but in the center. Silken webs wad the corners and thin shards of sunlight bleed through cracks. Otherwise it is dark.Kneeling, Róza pats down a dense pad of hay for Shira to lie on. She positions her by the wall across from the ladder, then covers her with more hay. Róza makes a spot for herself in front of her daughter, angled so she can keep her eyes on the door. Her heart still hammers in her chest.

Not an hour ago Henryk’s wife, Krystyna, barreled in to corner a chicken and discovered them crouching behind a hay cart. Róza swallowed a startled gasp and tightened her hold on Shira. Krystyna’s eyes darted to the wall hung with tools—trowels and spades, shovels, a pitchfork—then she slowly backed out. A few moments later Henryk stepped in. His expression was deeply troubled, but his hands held two potatoes each.

“We have boys of our own. We’ll all be killed.”

The dirt-packed floor shuddered beneath Róza’s feet. There were prizes for denunciations: a bag of sugar per Jew. Her mind raced with what currency she could offer: yeast and salt from the bakery. Coins. Three of her grandmother’s rubies sewn into the hem of a coat. If necessary, her wedding ring.

Had she misjudged them? Henryk frequented their bakery before the war. He had been friendly, maybe even a little flirtatious, when Róza worked at the counter. Sometimes he brought his son Piotr and each would eat a jam-filled cookie in one bite, smiling and batting away the powdered sugar that clung to their lips. They were grateful to her family; her uncle Jakob, a medical doctor, tended to Piotr when he came down with rubella. Róza believed they’d help, at least at the start.

“I beg you, just for a night or two.”

“No more.”

Henryk cleared equipment from the loft and forked up hay. Róza followed closely as Shira scampered up the ladder.

Now they lie here, still and silent. Róza asks herself, Where will we go next? Not back to Gracja. Not after what happened to Natan, shot dead after a week’s hard labor, and her parents, herded out of their apartment onto cattle trucks. And not to the woods, where her cousin Leyb has gone, with no guarantee of food or shelter. Come winter, with the forest’s frigid temperatures, Shira could not survive it.

So where? Róza scours her mind but finds no answer. Tonight’s contingency is Henryk’s root cellar, to the side of the farmhouse, if vacating the barn becomes necessary.

The loft boards are hard on Róza’s back and buttocks, and a splinter of hay stabs at her neck, yet she holds still until Shira drifts to sleep; then she shifts position, ever so slightly, in a slow, soundless motion.

* * *

In the afternoon, Henryk places a water bucket and two clean rags inside the barn door. Róza and Shira pad silently down the ladder. After they drink their fill, Róza submerges her arms in the water, the coolness loosening her whole being.

She wipes Shira clean first, taking the dirt and grime from her cheeks and neck with slow, gentle turns of the cloth. Patiently, indulgently, she swabs Shira’s hands—cupped tight as if cradling something, a habit started after her father didn’t return—moving the cloth quickly between each of Shira’s fingers, then sponging her wrists and upper arms. She sends Shira flitting up to the loft and begins on herself, unbuttoning her shirt to reach her chest, her back, and the space under her arms. The water trickles down her sides; Róza catches it with the cloth and carries it upward along her body, taking care to rub away her odor. She sponges until she senses a slight shift outside the barn. Henryk? He lingered after delivering the bucket, she thinks, and is now watching her through a crack in the lower barn wall. Her breath grows shallow. She looks down at her exposed breasts, her taut stomach, her jutting hips. Her first instinct is to turn away, but she holds herself still. They will be fed here tonight. Sheltered. She douses the cloth again and continues on, the feel of Henryk’s eyes watching her, seeing her.

* * *

Later in the day, Róza peers through a gap in the loft boards and glimpses Krystyna inside the farmhouse, agitated, arguing with Henryk. She is shaking her head, hard, causing the baby, Lukasz, to slip sideways down her hip. Róza sinks low to the loft floor.

Henryk enters the barn and begins forking hay out in large piles, blocking the sight line from the neighboring fields and the road.

The farmhouse, white with carved shutters painted a cheery blue, is smaller than the barn and does not fully occlude the view from the road, especially where it curves. The tavern must be somewhere close by because already Róza can hear carousing.

At nightfall Róza shows Shira how to wrap her finger in the clean corner of a rag to make a toothbrush and how to relieve herself in a bucket filled with straw that Henryk will afterward mix with the animals’ hay and waste.

Henryk brings a different bucket with food in it. Boiled cabbage and turnips. “Krystyna sent this for you. Just for tonight. She’s very frightened.”

Róza nods, grateful.

Back beneath hay, Róza presses the heels of her hands to her eyes. Spots of yellow and black bloom there, spreading like spilled dye. They chase away images of Natan and her parents.

Eventually, she opens her eyes to find Shira watching, enchanted, as two rabbits hop sideways on a hay bale and scurry about. If Shira misses her bedtime rituals from home—a drawn bath, warm milk with nutmeg and honey, snuggles from her grandparents—she doesn’t show it. On her leg, her fingers tap out the rhythm to some elaborate melody only she hears in her head.

Krystyna enters an hour later, stern and stiff postured, her lips pulled into a straight line. But she’s brought more water and a bit of bread. Róza can neither thank Krystyna nor admonish Shira before her girl flits down the loft ladder and, with a dramatic bow, offers Krystyna a small rectangle of woven hay she’s made. Krystyna’s face softens. Her eyes grow kind. Shira scrambles back to the loft and into Róza’s arms.

Chapter 2

Shira practices being invisible. She hunches her shoulders, sucks in her stomach, slinks like a cat. Her mother practices, too, burying herself deep in the hay and beckoning Shira, with a wave of her hand, to settle into her lap and be still. Or with a finger to her lips, she instructs her to stay silent.The floorboards are rough and the hay is sharp and scratchy. Shira does not understand why they can’t go home—why they ever left home—where together her mother and father tucked her into bed as if in a soft, downy nest and where music and the scent of her grandmother’s baking wafted through the air.

There, Shira could patter down the hall and join the company, watching as they unclasped the cases of their instruments. Nestled in her grandfather’s lap, breathing in his workshop smells of sawdust and lacquer, she bounced and tapped to the ripple of notes from her mama’s cello, her tata’s violin.

At first, in the tuning and warm-up, everything sounded off-kilter and sad. But then they struck up their songs and the music carried them all, until Shira no longer felt herself settled against her grandfather but in an altogether different place of pure, shared beauty. Vibrant, soulful melodies. Fiery, stomping rhythms. It didn’t matter how loud things got—there wasn’t a neighbor in the building who didn’t relish their playing. Shira could even hum if she wanted to. But here, her mother is insistent: they need to be silent, to hide. So she coils herself tight like a spring and holds herself in.

Shira strives to mute the sound of every movement—her footfalls, her breath. The anticipated stream of her pee, she has learned to mete out in a near-silent trickle. And she knows to cover over and so erase any sign of her existence—a series of vanishing moments—before she retreats beneath piles of hay.

Yet even as Shira wills herself to silence, her body defies her with a sudden sneeze, an involuntary swallow, the loud crack of her hip from being still too long. A calf muscle cramps. An itch needs a scratch. Her bowels press. The most carefully planned movement causes the hay to rustle or a floorboard to whine. Shira looks over at her mother apologetically. Worried, her mother stares back.

Shira rehearses the plan to move, if need be, from the barn to the root cellar—a ziemianka with the stork’s nest above it, at the side of the farmhouse—where she is to wait for her mother on the floor behind the barrels, unmoving (no matter the cold or damp) for however long it takes: neck straight, not crooked, or else she’ll get sore. She also rehearses what her mother told her over and over about her sounds, how they can be no louder than a whisper except when she says that it is safe, very late at night, to speak pianissimo rather than piano pianissimo. If her mother wakes her suddenly, she is not to raise her voice. She must control her breathing: no heaving sighs. Absolutely no sneezes.

Copyright © 2020 by Jennifer Rosner