Elizabeth Wein’s talk from the FCBG conference

The Federation of Children’s Book Groups’ annual conference took place last weekend and it was a memorable few days! I hope to post several items from the conference over the next couple of weeks, including lots of photos. First up, however, I’m very glad to be able to share with you the talk given by Elizabeth Wein.

American by birth, Elizabeth Wein, a writer of historical fiction for young adults, has now lived in Scotland for over 10 years. Her first five books are a retelling of the King Arthur stories, but relocated to 6th century Ethiopia.. Her latest novel for teens, Code Name Verity, is a World War 2 thriller, and has been shortlisted for this year’s Carnegie Medal. She and her husband share a passion for flying. Elizabeth got her flying license in 2003 and her love of flying is partly what inspired her Code Name Verity.

It’s with great pleasure I hand over now to Elizabeth:

“When young writers ask me for tips about writing fiction, the number one thing I tell them is to write about something they are passionate about. The same goes for grown-up writers, and it’s doubly true for historical fiction.

I thought about this a lot last year after Code Name Verity’s publication, because people began asking me for advice about how to make history interesting – not because I’m a successful history teacher or have any professional credentials in the field, but simply because I’ve written an exciting novel that happens to be set in the past. And I came up with a little four-part programme for Bringing History to Life, which I’ve never actually shared with anyone before.

My quartet of criteria includes Involvement, Parallels, Community, and Empowerment.

I think of history as a launch pad. I don’t, and can’t, approach it as a lesson I want to teach – instead, it is a story I want to share. I wasn’t much of a history student myself unless some detail grabbed me by the throat. In high school, it was King Arthur –the legend drove me to find out more about the veiled history of the real man. Modern fantasy drove me to read non-fiction accounts of Roman Britain and to take a module in Medieval History when I was 15.

And as you’ll hear most Americans say, there is so much history in Europe! The hands-on feeling of continuity, of being able to touch and connect with one’s past, is deeply appealing.

Code Name Verity takes place during World War II: on the simplest of levels, living in Europe gives me much more immediate access to wartime artefacts and locations than I ever had in the States.

The evidence of the war is all around me—concrete anti-aircraft emplacements up and down my favourite beaches, blocks for deterring tanks in case of invasion, painted arrows on civic buildings pointing the quickest route to water in case of an air raid—even my own front wall bears the scars of wartime thrift, where our Victorian iron railings were hacked down to supplement raw materials for tanks and weapons.

The airfield where I learned to fly in Scotland is dotted with wartime gun emplacements. The airfield where we flew when we lived in England is, coincidentally, the home of the ATA, the Air Transport Auxiliary headquarters—and of course it was the women who flew with the ATA who gave me the idea for the story that became Code Name Verity.

From the start, the sense of involvement was deeply important to me in writing this book, and I think that my own connection with the story helps readers to connect. It’s true of all good historical fiction—the reader connects with Clem Ackroyd in Life: An Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet; in non-fiction, too, the reader connects with the hopes and fears of the broad cast of vivid personalities in Steve Sheinkin’s Bomb: The Race to Build (and Steal) the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, or with the barrage of faces and ticket stubs and personal postcards illustrating Deborah Hopkinson’s Titanic: Voices from the Disaster.

Code Name Verity is presented as a series of journals, so effectively I really could become my characters as I was writing. Given that the heroine is more or less tied to her chair while she writes, I had no excuse for leaving the table. I did actually write most of it on a kitchen chair. Also, since Verity is writing the first part of the book using pencil and fountain pen, that’s what I used too. I usually do write my fiction longhand before typing it up.

When I got to the section where the narrator is given prescription forms to write on, I was completely distracted by the format of the virtual page, BEGGING the sarcastic and creative Verity to fill the forms in for Adolph Hitler and William Wallace and Mary Queen of Scots. I did actually ‘fill in’ quite a few myself before I settled on the slightly more sober inclusion of only two in the book, for one of the other characters. But this is the kind of creative freedom that it is so much fun to play with when you’re writing fiction. It does feel like involvement to me. And the author’s personal and emotional investment in the story gets passed on to the reader.

Modern Parallels
The second point I’d argue for bringing the past to life through fiction is that everything in history has Modern Parallels. History isn’t something that happened a long time ago in a vacuum—time is a continuum, and we are the direct descendants of the people who lived, farmed, invented, fought, loved, enslaved and freed each other at any given time in the past. There is a war going on right now, and some of today’s young people are finishing school and joining the conflict. Perth, where I live, has a long-standing association with the Black Watch, 3rd Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland—I’ve been told that Black Watch is one of two tartans my Perth-born son is allowed to wear.

Black Watch battalions fought on three continents in the Second World War, and the current battalion was posted to Helmand Province in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012, where they took part in the transition to Afghan-led governance, assisting in building the capability of the Afghan National Police and the Afghan National Army.

War isn’t the only parallel that can be drawn between our lives today and British home front experiences. The thrifty spirit born of rationing, which itself seems so much a thing of the past, is very much alive in local initiatives to keep our own vegetable gardens, buy locally grown food and goods, and recycle as many materials as possible from garden waste to mobile phones. There are clear and easy ways to relate the imposed hardships of living in a country under siege to the self-imposed sacrifices of protecting an embattled environment.

It’s possible we’ve grown so familiar with the omnipresent shadow of racial hatred and gender division that we don’t even see the wartime parallels. The threat of terrorism and the consequences it has imposed on us in the past decade are just things we live with. But they engender the same kind of fear and xenophobia that were generated during the Second World War, though we dread raking through those ashes. I’ll give you a few examples:

A Google search I did on my high school French teacher, who had been both Jewish and a member of the French Resistance, using only her name and ‘French Resistance’ as search terms, turned up as the first hit an anti-Jewish website where a bunch of on-line anonymous chatters were commiserating over how annoying it was that people like this old woman were going around giving lectures about the Holocaust.

When my daughter was eight, we had to take action at her school against a kid who wasn’t letting her into playground games, yelling ‘British only!’ whenever she tried to join in. My daughter is white. Her native language is English. She was born in Buckinghamshire. But her mother is an immigrant.

The most poignant topical example is surely that of Malala Yousafzai, who just this week has started at a school in Birmingham after her long recovery from a bullet wound to the head – at 15 she was the victim of a Taliban assassination attempt for the simple reason that she took a public stance on the right for girls like herself to be allowed an education.

Prejudice is so very, very insidious – so very subtle. I think it’s all too easy to see how it can get out of control. We can use the example of the battle against oppression and intolerance that went on seventy years ago to help us fight our contemporary battles against its poisonous influence.

On a simple level, in writing Code Name Verity, making modern parallels was actually the easy part—wherever possible I drew on experience and familiarity. When the girls go exploring on bicycles in the rain and get a flat tyre, it’s based on a trip I made with one of my own best friends. When Maddie is flying in the Highlands on a winter’s day that is so cold and humid it seems to be snowing in the cockpit, I’m writing about my own experience. The castle Verity describes is based on twenty different Scottish castles that I’ve visited more times than I can count (you can see two, Scone Palace and Pitheavlis Castle, from my bedroom window).

And every sexist remark that Maddie has to put up with was actually said to me at some point in my past (not all by the same person). So really, the core of the book, the everyday life and the relationships between characters, is based on reality and helps to make the reader relate to what’s going on.

Global Community
The flip side of creeping xenophobia is my third point for bringing history to life, and that is Global Community. We are living in an amazing era of instant connectivity and communication with all corners of the world. Through the Internet, satellite communication, mail order companies that ship instantly and everywhere, people throughout the globe are experiencing an awareness of common heritage, connections, and exchange that has no parallels in any period of history.

Exchange student programmes throughout Europe allow young people to connect with each other in an engaging and immediate way—the High School of Dundee, not far from us in Perth, recently ‘twinned’ with a German school to study the same historical period, culminating in exchanging classroom visits. My own children’s school is twinned with a school in Malawi. My American niece went to Mexico for two weeks and helped to build a school while she was there.

I’ll give you another lovely and germane example. Karen Levine has written a middle grade non-fiction book called Hana’s Suitcase. Hana’s Suitcase tells the story of Fumiko Isioka, the curator of a Japanese Holocaust museum, who led a group of schoolchildren to trace the origin of one of the museum’s artifacts, the suitcase of the title.

The kids got involved in the project, writing letters all over the world; eventually the modern children’s detective work led them to contact Hana’s living brother in Canada, and the museum curator made a pilgrimage to Europe to uncover more scraps of information. Piecing together what little evidence they had, the class actually discovered enough details about the brief, heartbreaking life of the owner of the suitcase to allow Levine to write the biography of Hana Brady, who was transported to Auschwitz and murdered there in 1944 at the age of 13.

The concept of global community is inevitably strong in Code Name Verity, despite that it depicts a myriad of nations at war with one another. I’m an American writing a book that’s set in France telling the story of a Scot and an Englishwoman fighting against the German Occupation. One of my favourite scenes is when the Scot, an American, and a couple of Germans are gathered in one room complaining about how hard it is to fit in among the French.

My fourth and final point for bringing history to life is that of Empowerment. The younger generation need to see themselves as the guardians of knowledge, heirs to a legacy—a sense that ‘This was not our battle, but we are going to learn from it and do better things for our world.’ The example of the schoolchildren who solved the mystery of Hana’s suitcase is only the beginning: we should all be able to take the “lessons” we learn in reading and apply them to our lives.

These lessons can be simple ones starting at home—zero tolerance on racial or religious hatred within the school, for example. Or young people can take an active role in wider issues: campaigning for Amnesty International, raising funds for aid to war torn areas in developing countries, engaging in programmes such as the CCF and Air Cadets.

Empowerment is maybe what I really wanted to drive home when I decided that the heroes of Code Name Verity were going to be girls. In this story, the necessities of war force women into roles that had previously been reserved for men—and they find that they are good at them. Part of what I wanted to do, in writing this book, is to make clear to a young generation of women that they can do anything they are capable of doing—they can take control of their lives—but that they still do have to fight for it.

Men are constantly telling Maddie she’s not strong enough or big enough or smart enough to do a variety of things, and every single time she manages to prove them wrong. I like to think she does it without sacrificing her femininity, too. This is a valid message for today.

The Second World War shaped the world as we know it today. It led directly to the Cold War and the nuclear arms race, the enmity between Israel and Palestine that still goes unresolved, not to mention all the aspects of 21st century life that had wartime origins: computers, radar, rockets, nylons, ballpoint pens, jet engines, contact lenses, penicillin, instantaneous electronic communication and simultaneous interpretation, to name a few. History is not just a lesson—it is not about a remote planet in a galaxy we need a radio telescope to see. It is about us, about our extended family, our reason for being.

As far as the Second World War is concerned, we are at the edge of an era—the war generation will soon be lost to us. But it isn’t quite yet. Last year my twelve-year-old son’s class had a visit from Alastair Urquhart, a man who among other things was one of the prisoners of war forced to build the ‘bridge over the River Kwai’, and who actually witnessed the explosion of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki.

When Alastair Urquhart is no longer with us, it is the schoolchildren of Perthshire who will be the living ‘witnesses’ to this event, the keepers of this experience. Young people learning history today need to think of themselves as active participants in a continuous story, and we should encourage them to be ambitious about their own goals for the future. The next generation needs to think of itself as today’s keepers of the lessons of the past, both good and bad, and as tomorrow’s innovators.”


Elizabeth Wein giving her talk at the FCBG Conference, March 2013.

Elizabeth Wein giving her talk at the FCBG Conference, March 2013.

I’m sure you’ll agree with me, Elizabeth’s talk was fascinating. It was a pleasure to listen to, and honour to meet her.

One response to “Elizabeth Wein’s talk from the FCBG conference”

  1. Alex Baugh says:

    What an interesting and cogent way of looking at history. Small wonder that Code Name Verity is one of my favorite WW2 novels. The idea of connectivity is so true, but so forgotten in today’s world. David McCullough once said a good history writer needs to really live the history they are writing about and I think Elizabeth Wein has found a very unique perspective on doing this.

    Thanks so much for publishing this talk so those of us who weren’t there to hear it, can also enjoy it.