Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

piranha stars green 5

“a book that celebrates the strength and capability of women”

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Here is a book that defies all that anyone ever told you about writing for children and makes you wonder why anyone made that stuff up in the first place. To start with, there’s the idea that the protagonist must be around the same age as the readership. It’s plainly ridiculous when you consider the classic books which are pure YA fodder – I Capture the Castle, Wuthering Heights. There’s absolutely no reason why young adults should be limited to reading about people under the age of eighteen. I’m not sure if the age of Maddie and Julie is stated anywhere in Code Name Verity, but I imagine them both in their early twenties. It’s World War Two and in a complicated series of loops and flashbacks, we learn that these two friends have flown to Nazi-occupied France, Maddie as pilot and Julie as a spy. When the plane crash-lands, Julie is captured and suffers horrifying torture at the hands of the Nazis, while Maddie first goes into hiding and then works with the resistance to attack the prison where Julie is being held.

I’ve already mentioned the complexity of the plot; the point here is ‘verity’ or truth. Julie narrates the first half of the story, and her account is oddly disjointed and unsettling. Why is she telling us these particular facts? Can she really be the feeble collaborator she makes herself out to be? It’s impossible to discern the truth, because the script she is writing is for the eyes of her captors. At first, she doesn’t even refer to herself in the first person in the story she’s unfolding. We learn how Maddie and Julie met and became friends, the circumstances that led to their ill-fated trip to France. She declares that she is betraying her country as she lists details about planes and airfields. Her situation is terrifying, her fear palpable; she does not know, as we do not, when they will tire of her writing and decide to send her onwards to her death.

Then the second half begins, Maddie’s half. We see the same story from her point of view. You’ll find yourself leafing back through the pages to see how Julie’s account tallies with Maddie’s. I’m going to have to tread carefully here, so as not to give anything away, but suffice to say, questions from the first half are answered by Maddie, things begin to make sense. The first half was a gruelling read in places, but the second half … so much more harrowing! Did I cry? Of course I did. And I relished the heroism of these young women. If you’re looking for a book that celebrates the strength and capability of women, Code Name Verity could not be perfect.

So … children’s book or not? I’d judge it perfectly suited to a young adult reader – thrilling, personal, emotional. But at the same time, I see nothing here that would make an adult dismiss it – it’s complex, fantastically well-researched, original and beautifully written. I’ve already ordered two more Elizabeth Wein books!

Claire Watts


More to Read!

There is a wealth of fabulous books about the experience of young people in World War 2. Two of my favourites are The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian.


Claire Watts writes and edits fiction and non-fiction for children and young adults. Her new YA novel, Gingerbread & Cupcake , is published on December 1st. 


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