|Code Name Verity
by Elizabeth Wein
by Deborah Hopkinson
Judging is inherently biased. It is a blatantly subjective process. Since I am primarily a writer of novels in verse, I foolishly assumed that I would be asked to choose between two volumes of poetry. Instead, I have received two works of prose, and just to make the choice even more challenging, one is historical fiction, while the other is nonfiction. This is not a simple case of comparing apples and oranges; it’s apple pie against whipped cream. I want both!
Titanic: Voices From the Disaster, by Deborah Hopkinson, and Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein, are both spectacular feats of literary accomplishment. Both are based on towering mountains of detailed research. Both cover historical topics so disturbing and terrifying that in my opinion, both books are only suitable for teens. Younger children would be devastated.
At this point, I should probably admit that I have read other books about the Titanic, but I have never seen anything about captive British women pilots in World War II. I didn’t know they existed, and I happen to love the rediscovery of forgotten aspects of history. On the other hand, Titanic surprised me with an astounding array of heart-wrenching photographs, personal anecdotes, and excerpts of letters by survivors.
Let’s talk about those photographs. Am I supposed to judge this Battle between a famous shipwreck and unknown women pilots solely on the basis of words, or are visual images a factor? I don’t know. If there are rules in this Book Battle, no one informed me. This is extreme fighting. Anything goes. There are no pictures in Code Name Verity, so once again, I have to say: give me both the fruit pie and its whipped dairy topping! They both win. No? Well. I guess there are rules after all.
Okay, so I’ll start with photographs. Along with the quotes and letters in Titanic, the visual images provide an exquisite supplement to the author’s expertise. Hopkinson writes like a gentle encyclopedia, presenting so much information in such an incredibly organized fashion that at times it is actually possible to forget that there will not be a hopeful ending for most of the endearing real-life characters who are described, quoted, or portrayed through vignettes of specific moments: the arrival on deck, reading a book at bedtime, or bailing icy water out of an overcrowded lifeboat. My favorite aspect of this book is the emotional impact of all the combined bits and pieces.
By contrast, Code Name Verity does not make an organized impression. The rambling style is one more commonly found in adult novels than those meant for young people. It is a first person story, but the identity of the narrator keeps changing, as she writes a long, baffling confession (or accusation, or diversionary puzzle, or secret code—we’re never sure which). She writes between grueling bouts of torture by monstrous Gestapo executioners, so a reader might be forgiven for assuming that there will be no hopeful endings here either. I have to admit that I’m glad there were no horrifying pictures inserted into the twists and turns of agonized stream of consciousness monologues. Yet somehow, Wein manages to slip merciful touches of almost-humor into the captive pilot’s small acts of defiance. For instance, when the daring heroine (or sly double agent—we’re never sure which) writes: “The evil of daily life here is indescribable,” she gets carried away by the joy of writing the truth, forgetting, yes, actually forgetting, that her words will be read by Nazi interrogators, who will punish her brutally. Okay, that’s not really my kind of funny. But there is mercy in the striking description of her utter relief when her hair is washed, to rid her of lice. Best of all, there are traces of poetry. In one notable dream scene, the statement, “I just want to go on flying and flying in the moonlight” made me smile gratefully, especially since the dream moon is green. On page 28, the description of a pilot’s aerial view of Scotland is a passage so breathtaking that I felt as if perhaps I actually had received a volume of poetry after all. And on page 252, I found my favorite line in the entire book: “Must be lovely flying in peacetime.”
Both books are fantastic within their own specialties, but Code Name Verity is the one I choose.
— Margarita Engle
And the Winner of this match is……
CODE NAME VERITY
This is a hard match for me. On the one hand, I think that, despite being both a Sibert Honor book and YALSA Nonfiction finalist, TITANIC is still sorely under-appreciated. I am grateful, however, that Margarita pointed out the strength of the primary source material here, particularly the photographs, as well as the emotional impact of the piece in spite of our familiarity with this fateful story. On the other hand, I find CODE NAME VERITY to be one of the best young adult novels of the year, and once again, despite being a Printz Honor book and a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor book, it feels like it deserved even more. I’m happy that Wein has won so many fans because of it, and hopefully, they will turn to her earlier fantasy books while they await her next effort. Can CODE NAME VERITY knock out our second consecutive nonfiction contender?
— Commentator Jonathan Hunt
Simply put, I love Code Name Verity. It’s one of the best books of this year, and it deserved favorite in this battle. It’s downright brutal and then you make peace, eased along by some incredibly smooth language. I don’t care if it’s a kid’s book or not; it made into the contest.
Nevertheless, this is the type of mindless bracketing that I dislike, and leads to the loss of so many good books along the way.
For Titanic is excellent, too. As our judge pointed out, Hopkinson makes us lose ourselves in flawless, innocent descriptions of life and people aboard the Titanic, before leading us slowly to the dreadful end. I felt a sense of impending doom whenever I read anything relatively calm in the least. In this battle, this achievement may well only be equalled by Bomb, The Fault in Our Stars, and Code Name Verity. High praise, indeed.
Both books are masterful, and manage to capture the emotion in tragic events wonderfully. Perhaps the thing that tips Code Name Verity over the top (discounting beautiful writing and characterization) is the fact that Wein manages to do this with a made-up story, albeit historical fiction. Indeed, it seems just as true as Titanic.
— Kid Commentator RGN