Parents' Choice Foundation: Reviewing Children's Media Since 1978

Parents' Choice Awards : Books : Historical Fiction
Finding Zasha

Finding Zasha

Spring 2013 Historical Fiction
Ages: 8 - 12 yrs.
Author: Randi Barrow
Publisher: Scholastic
ISBN: 9780545452182
Hardcover Price: $16.99

In the fall of 1941, twelve-year-old Ivan's life changes when he is separated from his mother and forced to evacuate his Leningrad home, which is under siege by German forces. Guided by his wise Auntie Vera, who learned valuable survival skills during the Revolution of 1917 and the decades of upheaval that followed, Ivan learns to navigate the uncertainties of life under German occupation. When a brutal Nazi commander Axel Recht leads a regiment into his new village, however, Ivan faces a new set of choices and dangers. Ivan's musical skill lands him a privileged-and dangerous-position squarely in the middle of the Nazi headquarters. He is anxious to use this position for as long as possible in order to spy on the Germans and aid the village's partisans against them. Axel Recht brings with him two lovable German shepherd puppies, however, which he plans to train as attack dogs to hunt Russian partisans. As much as Ivan needs to protect himself and his allies in the village, he cannot bear to see the dogs mistreated and twisted into monsters. He must figure out a way to save the dogs, as well as himself and his friends.

This novel, the prequel to Saving Zasha, combines a number of elements that make it thought-provoking and appealing for young readers; it is simultaneously an adventure tale of survival, an historical war story, and a dog book. While Ivan himself is a somewhat bland narrator, the secondary characters, such as tough Auntie Vera and fierce Polina from the village, are well drawn. The great strengths of this novel lie, first, in the thrilling escape plan, and second, in its thoughtful treatment of Ivan's love for the dogs, raising questions about our ethical obligations to animals during times of stress. The end of the book, after the escape, is somewhat anticlimactic; and although she alludes to the Soviet gulags and to the stateless Sami people in the north, Barrow tends to evade thorny questions about the Soviet patriotism that Ivan and the partisans are defending. Despite these problems, the novel is engaging and interesting, offering a good read for history buffs and dog lovers alike.

Naomi Lesley   ©2013 Parents' Choice
Naomi Lesley taught middle and high school English for six years. She is currently in a doctoral program at the George Washington University, focusing on American young adult literature.

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