“To be without learning is to be without eyes” is the only phrase, singularly situated in the middle of the first page of Jennifer Nielsen’s latest young adult novel, “Words on Fire”. It is a Lithuanian proverb.
The theme of being “without” is intertwined throughout this beautifully crafted, emotional and thrilling young adult novel. Audra, the main character, who has led a very sheltered life up until now, is suddenly thrust into a world of survival, discovery and more importantly into a world of books, words and ideas. It’s a world that had been intentionally kept from her. Her only connection to the written word was her knowledge of the letter A, as the first letter of her name. So it makes perfect sense that she begins her journey without a deep understanding of the power of the written word and ends up risking her life once she realizes that words have the power to save a culture which is doomed to extinction.
For those of us who love to devour books and can’t imagine a world without them, Nielsen effectively uses Audra and Lukas’ interactions as a vehicle to explain how words, when intentionally blended, can transform the worlds of their readers.
As Lukas shares with Audra, “This is a book of ideas. Someone thought the idea and put it into words on paper. That became a seed, and every time someone reads those words, the seed is planted in their minds too, and it grows and spreads and becomes a plan, and those plans begin to change the world”.
As educators, that is the magic that we want to share with our students. We want our students to do so much more than just “read” the words on a page. We want them to see their power, to know that they (our students) can take those words and use them to create, dream, plan and make a difference. We want our students to become completely immersed in their reading world like Audra when she shares, “I loved the feel of the paper between my fingers, the smell of the ink. Every word was a symphony, singing in me of other lands, of other people, of places where new ideas were encouraged, not made illegal”.
But beyond becoming immersed in a world as readers, we also want our students to know the power of creation. We want them to use words, play with words and combine words to create other worlds, to create characters and to create tantalizing images of places that others will want to visit.
As this heartwarming tale comes to an end, whether intentional on the part of the author/publisher or just a serendipitous detail, I found tears rolling down my check, in tandem to Audra’s, as on cue, with a 3,2,1 countdown. When you read page 321 you will know the reason for the tears!
I challenge you to read this book, to share it with your students and to then take up the task of writing with them as they explore the power of words.
Come write with me.
No doubt about it,”Words on Fire” is a powerful read, and holds game-changing opportunities for all who read it. When I reached a point in the story with less than 100 pages left to read, I direct messaged Jennifer Nielsen…
My goodness, Jennifer!
Words on Fire is a symphony of adventure, heartache, and enlightenment!! My goodness!
I haven’t finished it yet.
I don’t want it to end.
I could be wrong, but I hear your VOICE loud and clear. If YOU were Audra, and the books around you burned and vanished…you would grieve the loss of all the characters, conflicts, victories, defeats, and more.
“Every book has suddenly become a life I could save…”
If in our lifetime, if we ever need book smugglers…I’ll join you to be your Audra, Lukas, Milda, Ben…and the others!
Words On Fire has ignited in me a whole new passion and appreciation for books, reading, words, language, culture and more.
I don’t dare finish it.
I will then mourn the end of brilliant Nielsen characters once again. Ugh. Too much! 😉
Thank you 💕
Well, I did finish the book, and I absolutely shed the same tears you shed on page 321. Jennifer Nielsen’s artistry in storytelling completely grips you to stay within every moment. Present – within the very words you are reading. In this story I could not afford to think ahead, and I never needed to look back. The risk, the threat, the fight, the love, the teamwork, the pain, the suffering, and the thrill all tied you down the each word and sentence as you read. The consequence? Frequent episodes of shock, sense of loss, panic, anticipation, urge to cheer-on, agency, pain, and…I can’t say the last experience since it would be a spoiler.
“Words on Fire” taught me so many lessons about history, society, governance, and humanity.
I have always loved books and reading…but I feel a renewed sense of gratitude for having access to books, and the ability to enjoy them.
As always, I’m working through the heavy longing to be with the remarkable characters I come to love and cherish.
Jennifer Nielsen, you are a gift to writing, consistently crafting crucial stories which entertain, teach, and grip your readers. I can not recommend “Words on Fire” enough!
Thanks for writing this post, Sue!