Sometimes a book cannot be judged by its cover; Anna and the Swallow Man by Gavriel Savit is one of those books that can. From the beauty of its watercolor painted cover depicting a shivering girl leaving footprints in the snow while in the shadow of a swallow, to the story of undying trust and loyalty between two unlikely people forged out of a need for survival, this book never lets you down.
It was to be for a few short hours when Anna’s father left her with the neighbor while he went to an “all intellectuals” meeting in Krakow called Operation Sonderaktion Krakau. The Germans had just entered their city, Krakow, Poland, in 1939 and it was in this, her 7th year, that little Anna would never see her father again. Left entirely alone–with the ability to speak seven different languages thanks to her father’s linguistic talents–little Anna must endure the Nazi regime while staying alive.
Anna is an intelligent, silent observer and understands that the soldiers within their city will show her little compassion or mercy. I was entranced with this little child prodigy and–knowing what happened to the city of Krakow–feared for her. Within the first few days of being alone, locked out of her apartment with no one stepping up to take her in their care, Anna observes a man who she intuitively trusts and knows will take care of her despite having no prior relationship.
Anna seeks out the man, impressing him with her ability to speak multiple languages, while he impresses her with his ability to call down a swallow; he warns her to take care of herself, which she interprets as advice to follow him. He doesn’t know she has followed him out of the city until her loud cry reverberates through the woods warning him (and the reader) that danger is present. Thanks to her warning the Swallow Man is saved from being discovered and the reader can let out a held-breath as the danger has passed. To show his gratitude to little Anna, the Swallow Man allows her to follow on his journey giving her simple rules to follow: Never speak of her name or her past, and never question his authority in front of others. She may ask as many questions as she would like, but only when they are alone together.
Throughout their journey they continuously escape the ever-present danger lurking in each and every town, city, and person they encounter for fear that the German soldiers will discover them. The fear of the unknown kept me entwined in Anna’s journey while her unyielding trust in the Swallow Man was intense. When they encounter a Jewish man named Hirschl on their journey, it is apparent the devotion and loyalty is reciprocated. The Swallow Man allows Hirschl, who fled the ghetto in Lubliner, to accompany them on their journey against his better judgment, but to the pleasure and delight of little Anna. After they became a group of three, Operation Barbarossa, has started and their fight for their lives becomes more perilous than before. When they encounter a peddler who threatens their existence, the Swallow Man has to murder this stranger for fear of what may befall them if he doesn’t and Hirschl leaves them shortly after this act of brutality. The intense grief is felt through Savit’s compassionate description of words flooded with emotion.
Throughout the book many issues weaved together making a truly cohesive description of the dark elements found within humanity during times of desperation. This is not a book to hand to a young child for the visions depicted are not for the weak minded nor for those wanting a light summation of World War II. The unnatural relationship formed was one only found in times of hardship and one in which I cannot let go easily. Anna is a brave young girl who survives this world because she had a savior and learned to become one as well.
In the classroom: Childhood obesity is an epidemic Michelle Obama felt compassionate about. She started the Lets Move initiative to get students of all ages to MOVE! Thanks to this initiative it makes this lesson plan possible–although it doesn’t exactly link to common core, it does make it possible to justify in the classroom. Anna and the Swallow Man walked. They walked everywhere–across borders of towns, cities and countries. The average person walks around 1 mile or 2,500 steps a day. Since our characters in this book walked from sun up to sun down they probably walked around 5 miles, or 10,000 steps a day minimum. Their walking allows you a unique opportunity when teaching a World War II unit. Have your students wear a pedometer–most gym teachers can get these in bulk, or your local YMCA may have a classroom set you can borrow. Give your students a pedometer and have them walk the journey. Pick your path–set the destination: Krakow to Warsaw to Berlin. Have teams compete. Have individuals complete a homework assignment to endorse Lets Move! and help complete their own journey of steps. Imagine a homework assignment where each student has to walk a mile a day. Do your students have the tenacity to endure what a seven-year-old girl did for not only a week, but more than seven years?
Anna and the Swallow Man by Gavriel Savit (Knopf Books for Young Readers | 9780553513349 | January 26, 2016)