As Hitler rages through Europe fourteen-year-old Anya’s family flees Odessa, suspected of being anti-Communists, to the French Quarter of Shanghai—A safe haven for Jewish people.
The French Quarter of Shanghai holds a fascinating mixture of cultures: French, Chinese, and Russian, along with Jewish superstition and Chinese magic which add rich detail, interest, and humor to the story. The family’s young Chinese cook warns: “It’s too dangerous to swim during the month of the Hungry Ghost Moon. A ghost is waiting at the bottom of every pool to drown children.”
Though the danger of Japanese invasion occupies their thoughts, Anya’s family is wealthy enough to be protected from much of the misery in Shanghai, allowing Anya the luxury of normal girl things—riding her new bicycle and a crush on a boy. The Shanghai poor are everywhere and the family has learned to walk past them, as others do—even past the undesirable baby girls left on the streets to die. Anya is a feisty protagonist with opinions who doesn’t always do what she’s supposed to do, which oftentimes gets her into trouble, but occasionally is the exact right thing to do.
When she uncovers a basket in the gutter outside her home that she thinks contains a kitten and finds a discarded baby girl, everything changes. Anya listens to her inner voice while acknowledging the responsibility she’s uncovered and prays for guidance: “God, I know I should pray to the Jade Emperor since this little girl is Chinese. Even though you are my Jewish God, could you please talk to the ruler of the Chinese heavens? Between the two of you, I’m sure you can agree to help this poor baby? Good Jews don’t throw out baby girls. Mama and Papa kept me. The Torah says all children are precious.” All girls are precious. We’re all the same.
Even within their safe haven there are prejudices—Anya’s grandmother looks down at Oriental Jews who she says made their fortunes trading Opium. The family of the boy Anya has a crush on look down on Russian Jews, like Anya, because they are thought to be thieves. The dialogue is engaging and is laced with cultural details and attitudes.
Anya’s War is the story of a Russian Jewish girl’s struggle to protect a Chinese baby girl while a larger war rages around them. It’s the story of how she grows and changes through her efforts and hardships. It’s a weighty, important story about the value of human life and about prejudice, all balanced by the humor and interest that come from a this fascinating mix of cultures and people. AND it’s based on the author’s family history.
—Kari Baumbach, children’s literature enthusiast
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