“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.