Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
- Age Range: 12+
- Grade Level: 6-12
- Series: Stand-alone
- Print Length: 465 pages
Spinning Silver is a loose fairy tale retelling of Rumpelstiltskin that weaves together elements of Russian folklore, and Jewish culture to make a book that is so much more than the sum of its parts. I loved it. It easily ranks on my top 10 so far for 2020.
The story follows Miryem. A young Jewish girl who saves her family from freezing and from starvation by taking over her father’s money lending business. Her father isn’t a bad guy, the opposite in fact. He feels so strongly for people and so never asks for repayment, meaning his family, Miryem’s family is starving and freezing through an unusually long cold winter. Miryem saves her family by taking over the business and collecting on the debts owed. A job she turns out to be very good at. Eventually, she catches the eye of the Staryk king for having the talent of turning silver to gold.
Separate but intertwined with Miryem’s story are the lives of two more strong girls, Wanda and Irina.
Wanda is raising her two brothers after her mother’s death and trying to survive the terror caused by an abusive drunk father. When he is unable to pay Miryem, an agreement is struck and Wanda gets to work off his debts.
Irina is a plain and unmemorable daughter of a duke. She gets married off to the Tzar after which her true strength shines. This plain Jane turns into a strong compassionate leader making hard decisions to do what is best for her people.
For me, a good villain can make or break a story. Spinning Silver has several characters I love to hat and for me this is where Novik’s skill truly shines. All of the characters, good and bad, have reasons behind their actions. The villains aren’t just one-sided characters put there to move the story forward. They are people who’ve been dealt a hard hand and are doing the best they can. I don’t always like the choices they make, but I understand why they’ve made it.
The heroes make bad choices, but as Irina says in the book,”I’d chosen- not the lesser evil, but the less immediate one” and that is the best reason for characters to make the wrong choice.
Is this a kids book?
According to the publisher, this book is published as an adult book. There is no recommended age range. I didn’t know this going in. I assumed it was a book aimed at the upper mid-grade level, maybe 7th grade, and I found the difficulty of the text to match that expectation. In terms of reading difficulty, I would have no problems giving it to an advanced 5th grader reader, and certainly no problems once you get into middle school 6-8th grade.
What Makes it a Challenging Read?
Spinning Silver is mostly Miryem’s story. And the book is written with different scenes told from different point of view characters. This in itself is not a hard aspect to understand. The challenging part is that inside each chapter the point of view change is marked by a small symbol between two paragraphs. There is no subtitle telling you whose head you are now in. Knowing this going in, it shouldn’t be a problem. Especially since each character has their own voice and it is pretty easy to tell Wanda scene from a Miryem scene.
After reading level we need to talk about content. I very much ascribe to the notion that kids will absorb what they understand and gloss over what they don’t. Yet we all want to protect our kids from a certain level of adult grittiness.
Technically this book has death, loss of a parent and sibling, physical abuse, alcoholism, accidental murder, and demon possession. None of this is excessive, or graphic. Wanda’s mother dies in childbirth, as does the baby she bore. Wanda’s father is an alcoholic who tries to marry off his daughter for a weekly beer delivery.
None of these topics is spoken of graphicly, or in great detail. They are just stated. This happened. This part of life. Because the negative topics are not focused on they are easy to read past. I don’t like gritty grim-dark gore in my books and felt these topics were presented with sensitivity.
To be completely honest, I would give this book to my daughter when she was in 5th grade without a second thought.
If this book were a movie I’d expect it to be G or PG-13. For reference, recent popular PG-13 movies include The Hunger Games, Jumanji, Star Wars, and most of the Marvel cinematic universe.
;TLDR ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Spinning Silver is excellent for lovers of fantasy or fairy tales. It is a fairly easy read with the most challenging aspect being changing the POV character between scenes. There is mention of some more graphic elements, but nothing explicit, or dwelled upon. An advanced 5th grader or 6th grader could read the story with ease. 5 stars. Go read it.