Heavy Medal Mock Newbery Finalist: BLACK BIRD, BLUE ROAD by Sofiya Pasternack
Introduction by Heavy Medal Award Committee Member Aryssa Damron
In a distant land, in a distant time, a young Jewish girl will do whatever it takes to save her
brother from the leprosy that is eating away at him. She’ll defy her parents, her gender, and
she’ll even face the Angel of Death himself. BLACK BIRD, BLUE ROAD a middle grade novel by Sofiya Pasternack, is full of Jewish lore, of demons and angels and ravens bearing gifts, and at its core the love between a brother and sister.
“There was no one. No one to believe that Ziva could do the things she set out to do–like find a cure for her brother’s illness, or master a demon, or sway the Angel of Death, who she called malach ba-mavet. Ziva did two of those things, dear listener.”
Ziva and Pesah are twins, and Ziva is the only one who seems to care about properly caring for
her brilliant brother as he fights leprosy, loses his fingers, and battles the ostracization of his
community. When she discovers that her family intends to send him away to a colony, Ziva
knows she must take dramatic action. She packs a wagon and she flees with her brother,
setting out for a city and a doctor that she hope can help her find a cure. After a highway
robbery throws their plan entirely off course, Ziva must learn to trust a half-demon as she seeks to save her dear brother from the Angel of Death himself.
This is a richly told story, reminiscent of many past Newbery winners , including CRISPIN: THE CROSS OF LEAD and THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON. The Jewish lore woven into the story is a beautiful addition to children’s literature as a whole, and Ziva’s motivations are intertwined with her experiences, her readings, and her knowledge of demons and angels and the wise judge Devorah. Ziva herself is the kind of Newbery protagonist you love to see—a head-strong girl who is dedicated to her family and to justice and yet has those child-like flaws, bias against things she’s been told are always bad, fear of death and the unknown, etc.
I was enthralled by this story-especially the breaks within the book told through a looming omniscient narration style.
“The garden had a tiny whisper of a path that wound in, so Ziva followed that. Almas and Pesah followed behind. They went deeper into the garden, and even though it had all the makings of a peaceful place, the hairs on the back of Ziva’s neck stood up.”
Pasternack has an excellent story here. Ziva is a stunning protagonist, and Pesah’s story is told
so beautifully here—especially at the end, and while I love what she was able to do in
incorporating Jewish legend and religious elements into the text, I worry that the lack of
embellished prose details is going to hold it back.
What do you think about Black Bird, Blue Road? This is definitely a sleeper title–one that I
hadn’t heard of until it made the list, but instantly fell into. I think anyone reading it will enjoy it, but is it the best of the year?
Heavy Medal Award Committee members and others are now invited to discuss this book further in the Comments section below. Please start with positive observations first; stick to positives until at least three comments have been posted or we reach 1:00 pm EST. Let the Mock Newbery discussion begin!
About Emily Mroczek-Bayci
Emily Mroczek (Bayci) is a freelance children’s librarian in the Chicago suburbs. She served on the 2019 Newbery committee. You can reach her at email@example.com.
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