Anya Miroslavovna Kozlov confronts several moral dilemmas as a Jewish girl living among Christians in tenth century Russia. According to tradition, she is responsible for her actions, as she is soon to turn twelve years old and become a bat mitzvah; the choices she must make weigh heavily on her young shoulders. Some seem straightforward — baking challah is definitely more important than hunting dragons. Some are much more ambiguous. Should Anya agree to the killing of a dragon at the Tsar’s request, or follow her grandmother’s reminder that saving a life, according to the Talmud, is the equivalent of saving the world? Sofiya Pasternack’s new middle-grade fantasy novel combines magic and high-stakes adventure with meditations on Jewish survival inside an alien culture.
Anya and her family live in the village of Zmeryeka, far from any of the Jewish communities which developed out of trade routes in Kievan Rus, the ancestor of several modern Eastern European nations. According to the logic of Anya’s stubborn yet supportive grandmother, Babulya, Jews are less likely targets of persecution in a place where their numbers are insignificant. Sabbath observance is limited to their own home and Anya’s bat mitzvahwill be marked not by her reading the Torah to a large group of women, but only within their own small family of Anya, Babulya, and Anya’s mother — a woman trying stoically to support her family since her husband has been conscripted into the Tsar’s army. Readers may wonder about the likelihood of Anya having participated in this rite of passage at all, or may accept that, within the parameters of this novel, Anya’s study of Jewish texts need not conform to history any more than the Tsar’s pursuit of dangerous dragons.
Anya’s closest friendship is with Ivan “Vosya” Ivanonich, a boy from a family of professional jesters who, like Anya, needs to decide his own destiny. His nickname is necessary to distinguish him from his brothers — all also named Ivan. Anya had previously been isolated from other children because of her identity. As she explains to the dragon whose fate depends on a complex series of events, “My Sabbath is different from theirs. So I don’t play with them, ever.” Pasternack subtly integrates the themes of choice and responsibility throughout the narrative; even as Anya hurls horseshoes at a Viking or flees from monsters, her moral quest remains at the center.
Pasternack’s challenge lies in balancing Jewish customs, Russian folklore, and fantastic elements in one novel, but also in describing Jews uprooted from a Jewish world. She provides a fascinating backstory about Anya’s family and how they came to settle in Zmeryeka, and emphasizes the difficulties of their daily existence cut off from other Jews. Since the novel is not governed by the rules of realism, being Jewish means that Anya’s father owns two copies of the Talmud and her mother cooks bliny for Shavuot but also that her family’s impish domovoi, (house spirit) wears a kippah. The response of their neighbors to the sole Jews in their midst is largely positive, perhaps to an unusually generous degree. There is one cruel and corrupt magistrate, but his prejudices are not shared by the villagers. Even the local priest is improbably tolerant of his non-Christian neighbors. If this aspect of Pasternack’s novel seems more hopeful than credible, it does not ultimately detract from her ambitious project. Anya is a new and memorable Jewish character who has forged her way into fantastic literature.
Anya and the Dragon is highly recommended, not only for children but also for adults eager to find high-quality fantasy books with Jewish themes.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.