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Battle of the Books

Round 1, Match 2: Code Name Verity vs Titanic


Code Name Verity
by Elizabeth Wein
by Deborah Hopkinson
Scholastic Press

Judged by
Margarita Engle



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……

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


  1. Excellent commentary, RGN. I really liked Titanic but I felt all along that this was just no contest. Even though I don’t have Verity going all the way in my bracket, I still think it’s the best book on the list. It was the one I was dreading to read — I wasn’t looking forward to all of the torture I had been warned about — but in the end I was so very grateful to have read it. I especially love Verity because Wein doesn’t pull any punches. She devastates you and is unapologetic about it. She assumes that teenagers are smart enough to get all of the little nuances in the book. I haven’t read the book that actually won the Printz, but it’s hard to imagine how it can be better than Code Name Verity.

  2. I’m only partially finished with Titanic, enough to know I want my 7th gr teachers to switch to this FAR MORE engaging piece of narrative nonfiction as opposed to the dry piece they currently use.

    That said,

    YES! I’m 2 for 2! I read and listened to Code Name Verity and can’t wait to get it into the hands of our 8th gr teachers! This should be a welcome addition to their study of the Holocaust. Like RGN points out, it’s hard to believe this is historical fiction instead of historical nonfiction!!

    Of course, this mean two of my faves will battle later!! Argh!!

  3. Big sigh of relief. I was actually kind of nervous about this even though I felt that there was really no contest. As everyone else has said-Code Name Verity is one of the best books of the year. The way Ms. Engle began her commentary didn’t help my nervousness. (But then I don’t get all the fuss about Titanic. It is a fine book and better written than most on the topic, but I wasn’t overly impressed by it.)

  4. “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…”

    See, I had the opposite experience. I couldn’t forget that I was reading the last interactions, letters, thoughts of actual people, and then I would feel guilty for enjoying the build-up and suspense of do they live/do they die?

  5. Oh, good, I can breathe again. Things were getting a bit dicey for a moment.

    I actually (shamefully) didn’t finish Titanic–it wasn’t holding my interest and I had too many other books waiting for me. And CNV was my favorite book last year, which is a mild way of saying that I am a ridiculous fangirl where it’s concerned. So that’s my bias.

    I loved that Engle picked up on the understated poetry in Wein’s language–that’s something I didn’t pick up on the first time I read it (too busy crying), but really appreciated the second time around.

  6. Yay! Code Name Verity was my favorite book of the year, let alone of this contest.

    But, yeah, it’s kind of a shame it was up against Titanic first round. That was one of the better nonfiction of the year. I don’t normally read books about Titanic, but read this for Capitol Choices and found it surprisingly compelling.

    But Code Name Verity had to win! And I loved Margarita Engle’s description of why.

    Now, when it goes up against Bomb, the judge will no longer be able to complain that the books are so different! Different, yes, but both about World War II, so not different in EVERY aspect.

  7. This was a tough battle for me. I absolutely loved Titanic when I read it. I thought it was fantastic and amazing and informative. But then I read Code Name Verity, which was also fantastic and amazing, and it has haunted me. I literally thought about it for days after I finished it, and it still keeps coming back.

    I definitely wish that these two books had not been paired up in this first bracket. Both of them could have been pitted against books that I didn’t enjoy instead. Oh well.

  8. Phew. She had me nervous there for a moment. Good pick in the end.

  9. So very pleased to see Verity move on! Very pleased. But tomorrow’s titles are both a mystery to me. Sigh.

  10. When I first saw that my beloved, CODE NAME VERITY, would be up against TITANIC I had no worries. And then I finally got around to reading TITANIC and became very nervous.

    Although I’ve been a fan of Hopkinson’s picture books for years it took putting her full length text into BoB to get me to read it. And, even though, I have an abundance of both fiction and non-fiction on the epic sea tragedy I, myself, had never read a single book on the subject. Of course, had seen a movie about it at some time or another, so I assumed I was adequately educated. Little did I know. How could knowing the outcome of the fateful trip prepare me for actually being there and watching hundreds of fellow passengers fall into the depths? I felt like I’d been body slammed. TITANIC: VOICES FROM THE DEEP is exquisite torture. I have no idea why my students hunger to read book after book on this topic. Each year the demand remains constant and now I can give them an excellent accounting.

    (In an aside: the book didn’t mention the Band playing as the ship went down. Is that because it is apocryphal or just not in the accounts Hopkinson used? Based on my love of the Harry Chapin song I want to believe in this bit of heroic musicianship.)

    And speaking of exquisite torture in my three readings of VERITY I kept hoping for a different outcome on the bridge. I couldn’t love this book more and I’m relieved to see it move on without the need for an undead resurrection. But my girls will need to hold up strong for their next round when they go up against a weapon of mass destruction.

    “Just fly the plane, Maddie.”

  11. Steffaney Smith says

    As if the commentaries weren’t good enough….must admit to enjoying the great BoB artwork. Kudos! Love the binoculars spying on the lifesaver!

  12. Last year we had Life (an exploded diagram) which went far in the battle….can Code Name Verity do better? I hope so!

  13. Can I comment that I felt pretty much the same way as Engle, and would not have been surprised if Titanic won this match just because it is so superb a book in and of itself, with an entirely different agenda to CNV? I read it on the edge of my seat and its mastery is in the fact that, like all good tragedies, the whole way through the book I kept wanting it to end differently. I have given it to my reluctant-book-reader nearly-13-year old boy and he’s halfway through it in a day, and he completely agrees with me on this aspect: “You keep reading things like how they’re working to close off the leaks and you think: Oh, maybe that’ll work and they’ll be OK. They send another telegraph, and you think, OH, maybe help will get there – someone will come to their rescue.” The whole way through the book I kept wanting it to end differently. I sobbed. And I was so relieved when the doomed ship finally SANK and the rescue started – after all that loss we *needed* a rescue. Fantastic book!


  1. […] probably happiest with Margarita Engle, simply because she praised my favorite book, Code Name Verity, and quoted beautiful lines and […]

  2. […] Match 2 (March 13) Code Name Verity vs Titanic – judged by Margarita Engle Winner: Code Name Verity […]

  3. […] Match 2 (March 13) Code Name Verity  vs Titanic – judged by Margarita Engle Winner: Code Name Verity […]

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