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The Yellow Bird Sings: A Novel
by Jennifer Rosner

Published: 2020-03-03
Hardcover : 304 pages
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In Poland, as World War II rages, a mother hides with her young daughter, a musical prodigy whose slightest sound may cost them their ...
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In Poland, as World War II rages, a mother hides with her young daughter, a musical prodigy whose slightest sound may cost them their lives.

Editorial Review

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A brooding heat permeates the tight space of the barn loft, no larger than three strides by four. The boards are rough-hewn and splintery and the rafters run at sharp slants, making the pitch too low for Ró?a to stand anywhere but in the center. Silken webs wad the corners and thin shards of sunlight bleed through cracks. Otherwise it is dark.

Kneeling, Ró?a pats down a dense pad of hay for Shira to lie on. She positions her by the wall across from the ladder, then covers her with more hay. Ró?a makes a spot for herself in front of her daughter, angled so she can keep her eyes on the door. Her heart still hammers in her chest.

Not an hour ago Henryk’s wife, Krystyna, barreled in to corner a chicken and discovered them crouching behind a hay cart. Ró?a swallowed a startled gasp and tightened her hold on Shira. Krystyna’s eyes darted to the wall hung with tools—trowels and spades, shovels, a pitchfork—then she slowly backed out. A few moments later Henryk stepped in. His expression was deeply troubled, but his hands held two potatoes each.

“We have boys of our own. We’ll all be killed.”

The dirt-packed floor shuddered beneath Ró?a’s feet. There were prizes for denunciations: a bag of sugar per Jew. Her mind raced with what currency she could offer: yeast and salt from the bakery. Coins. Three of her grandmother’s rubies sewn into the hem of a coat. If necessary, her wedding ring.

Had she misjudged them? Henryk frequented their bakery before the war. He had been friendly, maybe even a little flirtatious, when Ró?a worked at the counter. Sometimes he brought his son Piotr and each would eat a jam-filled cookie in one bite, smiling and batting away the powdered sugar that clung to their lips. They were grateful to her family; her uncle Jakob, a medical doctor, tended to Piotr when he came down with rubella. Ró?a believed they’d help, at least at the start.

“I beg you, just for a night or two.”

“No more.”

Henryk cleared equipment from the loft and forked up hay. Ró?a followed closely as Shira scampered up the ladder.

Now they lie here, still and silent. Ró?a asks herself, Where will we go next? Not back to Gracja. Not after what happened to Natan, shot dead after a week’s hard labor, and her parents, herded out of their apartment onto cattle trucks. And not to the woods, where her cousin Leyb has gone, with no guarantee of food or shelter. Come winter, with the forest’s frigid temperatures, Shira could not survive it.

So where? Ró?a scours her mind but finds no answer. Tonight’s contingency is Henryk’s root cellar, to the side of the farmhouse, if vacating the barn becomes necessary.

The loft boards are hard on Ró?a’s back and buttocks, and a splinter of hay stabs at her neck, yet she holds still until Shira drifts to sleep; then she shifts position, ever so slightly, in a slow, soundless motion.

In the afternoon, Henryk places a water bucket and two clean rags inside the barn door. Ró?a and Shira pad silently down the ladder. After they drink their fill, Ró?a submerges her arms in the water, the coolness loosening her whole being.

She wipes Shira clean first, taking the dirt and grime from her cheeks and neck with slow, gentle turns of the cloth. Patiently, indulgently, she swabs Shira’s hands—cupped tight as if cradling something, a habit started after her father didn’t return—moving the cloth quickly between each of Shira’s fingers, then sponging her wrists and upper arms. She sends Shira flitting up to the loft and begins on herself, unbuttoning her shirt to reach her chest, her back, and the space under her arms. The water trickles down her sides; Ró?a catches it with the cloth and carries it upward along her body, taking care to rub away her odor. She sponges until she senses a slight shift outside the barn. Henryk? He lingered after delivering the bucket, she thinks, and is now watching her through a crack in the lower barn wall. Her breath grows shallow. She looks down at her exposed breasts, her taut stomach, her jutting hips. Her first instinct is to turn away, but she holds herself still. They will be fed here tonight. Sheltered. She douses the cloth again and continues on, the feel of Henryk’s eyes watching her, seeing her.

Later in the day, Ró?a peers through a gap in the loft boards and glimpses Krystyna inside the farmhouse, agitated, arguing with Henryk. She is shaking her head, hard, causing the baby, ?ukasz, to slip sideways down her hip. Ró?a sinks low to the loft floor.

Henryk enters the barn and begins forking hay out in large piles, blocking the sight line from the neighboring fields and the road.

The farmhouse, white with carved shutters painted a cheery blue, is smaller than the barn and does not fully occlude the view from the road, especially where it curves. The tavern must be somewhere close by because already Ró?a can hear carousing.

At nightfall Ró?a shows Shira how to wrap her finger in the clean corner of a rag to make a toothbrush and how to relieve herself in a bucket filled with straw that Henryk will afterward mix with the animals’ hay and waste.

Henryk brings a different bucket with food in it. Boiled cabbage and turnips. “Krystyna sent this for you. Just for tonight. She’s very frightened.”

Ró?a nods, grateful.

Back beneath hay, Ró?a presses the heels of her hands to her eyes. Spots of yellow and black bloom there, spreading like spilled dye. They chase away images of Natan and her parents.

Eventually, she opens her eyes to find Shira watching, enchanted, as two rabbits hop sideways on a hay bale and scurry about. If Shira misses her bedtime rituals from home—a drawn bath, warm milk with nutmeg and honey, snuggles from her grandparents—she doesn’t show it. On her leg, her fingers tap out the rhythm to some elaborate melody only she hears in her head.

Krystyna enters an hour later, stern and stiff postured, her lips pulled into a straight line. But she’s brought more water and a bit of bread. Ró?a can neither thank Krystyna nor admonish Shira before her girl flits down the loft ladder and, with a dramatic bow, offers Krystyna a small rectangle of woven hay she’s made. Krystyna’s face softens. Her eyes grow kind. Shira scrambles back to the loft and into Ró?a’s arms. view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

Welcome to the Reading Group Guide for The Yellow Bird Sings. Please note: In order to provide reading groups with the most informed and thought-provoking questions possible, it is necessary to reveal important aspects of the plot of this novel—as well as the ending. If you have not finished reading The Yellow Bird Sings, we respectfully suggest that you may want to wait before reviewing this guide.

1. What is the significance of Shira’s bird? How does it aid her? Do you think its original color, yellow, is important or telling? In what ways does the bird’s evolution mirror or not mirror Shira’s?

2. In the barn, Ró?a has to keep Shira—five years old and a musical prodigy—silent and still. What are her most effective strategies? Do you think she would have an easier time if Shira was younger or older?

3. When Ró?a asks Krystyna outright why she is helping them, Krystyna responds, “In God’s eyes your child is no different than mine. She deserves every chance to live.” What are Krystyna’s motivations for harboring Ró?a and Shira and, later, for arranging Shira’s transport to the convent? Do you think Krystyna knows of Henryk’s advances on Ró?a? If so, why doesn’t she send Ró?a and Shira away sooner?

4. How would you describe the relationship between Henryk and Ró?a? Does it change over time? From our 21st-century perspective, would we call it rape? Would Ró?a? Do you think she has any agency in their relationship? Is it still possible to think of Henryk’s decision to protect Ró?a and Shira, despite the risk, as heroic?

5. Judaism is fairly absent from the novel, despite it being the reason Ró?a’s and Shira’s lives are in danger. Why do you think that is the case? Why does Ró?a rarely reference her religion?

6. In the barn, Shira eats her own portion of food and whatever her mother saves for her. She also eats the special foods Krystyna gives her on outings. How does hunger, satiety, and the storing of food play out later, specifically with regard to her feelings of guilt?

7. In the convent, Zosia is permitted to speak but stays largely silent. As she grows more comfortable playing the violin, she comes to think of the sound as “safer even than silence.” What does the author mean by that phrase? Discuss the importance of music in the novel. What can music express that words (or silence) can’t?

8. Although the nuns dye Zosia’s hair and teach her Catholicism, she still feels like an outsider. Discuss the various ways in which the girls, the nuns, and Pan Skrzypczak treat her otherness, and the forms of prejudice and kindness she encounters. Do you think they suspect that she is Jewish?

9. Discuss Ró?a’s relationship with the sisters, Miri and Chana, and Zosia’s relationship with Kasia at the convent. How is female friendship portrayed in this novel? How is it different than the relationship between mother and daughter?

10. At the camp in the woods, Ró?a is heartbroken to realize that other families remained intact: “Here are mothers, in the woods, in winter, who did not part from their children. They kept them with them and their children survived.” Do you think she still made the right decision in sending Shira away? What would you have done in her place?

11. Ró?a cannot bear to hold Issi, a young child at the camp. Issi’s mother doesn’t understand, and the narrator explains, “what is whole does not comprehend what is torn until it, too, is in shreds.” Do you agree that there is an inevitable limit to our empathy? Can novels like The Yellow Bird Sings expand our capacity to empathize? If so, how?

12. Over the course of the novel, Shira becomes Zosia and then Tzofia. What does she lose with each name change? In her author’s note, Jennifer Rosner writes of the hidden children who inspired her novel: “If you remember me, if there is anyone out there who recognizes me and can tell me about my family, my name, then I might discover my history, my roots: my self. For refugees of current wars and violence, children displaced and torn from their families, this question echoes on.” Do you agree that Shira’s experiences continue to resonate today, with the global refugee crisis?

13. Why do you think Ró?a decides not to try to have more children once she moves to America? Do you think that was a selfish decision? Was it fair to Aron to keep it from him, or does she have the right to make that choice for herself?

14. What did you think of the novel’s ending? Do you believe that Shira and Ró?a will have a future together?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

No notes at this time.

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Member Reviews

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  "You will remember long after you turn the last page"by Silversolara (see profile) 09/11/20

It is 1941 and we find Roza and Shira hiding in a barn after they fled the city where they lived.

Roza saw her parents and husband killed, and she realized the only way to keep her daught

... (read more)

  "War tests the bond between a mother and daughter."by thewanderingjew (see profile) 05/01/20

The Yellow Bird Sings, Jennifer Rosner, author; Anna Koval, narrator
This is a poignant tale about a mother running for her life, during the Holocaust. Her parents have been taken away by t
... (read more)

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