The other evening, a woman stopped me on my way out of a restaurant to say, “Don’t you love that book!” Along with my carry-out, I held in hand Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity. “I do love it,” I answered, and then asked how she’d come to read this Young Adult novel. My inquisitor revealed she’s a university professor who teaches a YA lit class. She next said her students didn’t like this irresistible story that recently won the Edgar Award for Young Adult Fiction. Seriously?
Code Name Verity is about the capture and interrogation of a young British secret agent in Nazi-occupied France. In exchange for her life, the agent, Julie, code name Verity, agrees to divulge wireless codes and allied airfield locations. Our narrative is her written treason.
The confession is tricky to grasp at first. That’s because she’s writing in the third person, often assuming her best friend Maddie’s viewpoint. Maddie, code name Kittyhawk, piloted their doomed airplane to France. Interspersed in the confession are Julie’s very teen-aged opinions and outbursts (“YOU STUPID NAZI BASTARDS!”). Those outbursts remind us she’s writing this for her captors, and yet clearly we are her intended audience. The sensation of this layered viewpoint is a bit like patting your head and rubbing your stomach — and I’ll throw in tapping your toes, too; however, once you steady yourself, the complexity becomes gripping.
One suspects from the outset there’s more going on than a giving up of military secrets — that treason is not at the heart of this story — but exactly what the author is up to is the question that hooks us. We learn from Julie’s story about how she and Maddie became friends and participants in British secret war missions; and we’re engaged in dramatic scenes about Maddie’s rise as a woman pilot against all odds in the 1940s, as well as Julie’s frightening moments imprisoned in Gestapo Headquarters, tempered for a YA audience, of course.
A little beyond one-third of the story, there’s a scene in which an American radio announcer interviews Julie. This announcer is pro-fascist, broadcasting Nazi propaganda to American soldiers in English. The Nazis want to send the message they are treating their captives without harm. She says to Julie, “Je cherche la vérité” (I am looking for truth), and Julie replies, “Je suis l’esprit de vérité” (I am the soul of truth). This is the moment the story turns, the moment I realized whatever I thought the confession was about may actually be something else entirely; the moment I knew Elizabeth Wein would be unfolding revelations of the kind that are unpredictable and smart, the kind that make a good mystery great.
So why did the students not like the book? The professor said they didn’t think it was YA, and I replied that I, too, thought it seems too complex for the genre. A few times I had to refresh my understanding of the squadrons, aircraft and airfields being written about, as well as my understanding of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, Air Transport Auxiliary and Special Operations Executive, which Julie and Maddie join. It’s all fascinating detail, but for a teenager, it may, instead of fascinating, be confusing. As I write that, I’m well aware the criteria for YA lit is more involved than the reading level. The Atlantic article “How Young Adult Fiction Came of Age” gives insight on this criteria, including “the genre’s unique viewpoints, which are often illuminated with emotion but not informed by experience.”
The fate of Julie, Maddie and their mission unfolds with intrigue until the very end. The narrative challenges I’ve mentioned pale in comparison to the five-star drama. Adults need to keep in mind YA means harsh realities are presented with a lite touch, and one needs to have a youthful sensibility to get involved with the characters. It’s actually a nice break from being a grown-up, and why — along with the incredibly good stories being told nowadays, from The Hunger Games to The Fault in Our Stars, The Book Thief to Code Name Verity — adults are reading YA lit.