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Real Heroes for the Young: Nechama Brodie Reviews Youth and Children’s Literature

By Nechama Brodie for The Times

Nechama Brodie is moved to tears by a war-time saga still relevant for teens today

Code Name Verity – by Elizabeth Wein

“I have two weeks. You’ll shoot me at the end no matter what I do.” I had been warned that Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity would make me cry – her agent, Ginger Clark, was offering tissues over Twitter to everyone who’d read the World War 2 drama about two teenage girls.

Still it came as something of a shock, lying there in the bath (as one can only really do with an old-fashioned paper book), tears streaming down my face so that I had to look away from the pages, wishing the words would be different when I looked back and knowing they would not.

I suppose that’s a terrible way to recommend a book: buy this, it will make you sob. But, honestly, it’s more than worth the price of a box of tissues or a tube of waterproof mascara, because this is a book that will remind you of the things that are Really Important. And I can’t tell you what the plot is, exactly (loose lips sink more than ships), but it’s also a fantastic read.

Inspired by real-life women’s auxiliary military efforts in wartime England (Wein says that where she fails in accuracy she hopes to “make up for it in plausibility”; this is aided in no small part by the author’s own experience as a female pilot), Code Name Verity perfectly captures and animates the fortitude and nostalgia of the era, from the austerity of food and clothing rations to the everyday bravery of men and women on the homefront.

But it’s not a history lesson: Code Name Verity is a lesson in courage and friendship, and a reminder that choosing to do the right thing can sometimes be the hardest choice of all.

Verity’s protagonists are not much different in age to the teenage posses of Twilight and other fables; they have no magic powers or mobile phones or world wide web to navigate their journey – and yet they tackle impossible odds with great daring and valour, whether it’s fixing broken airplanes or sending coded messages from behind enemy lines.

Even though Code Name Verity‘s characters are fictional, there were women, young women, doing those things at that time: pilots, spies, resistance fighters… These are heroines worthy of our daughters (and sons), not some lovestruck teenager who gets turned into a Barbie doll.

It’s not always easy to tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys in real life; mostly, they don’t come bearing Nazi badges or baring vampire fangs.

Wein ends her author’s notes with the phrase “Lest We Forget”, a tribute to those who fought, served and died in the war but equally an acknowledgement of the tremendous potential of the human spirit – not only to stand up for what’s right, but to take action against what’s wrong.


Starseeker – by Tim Bowler

Tim Bowler’s Starseeker is something of a rare find: a sensitive, powerful book aimed at teenage boys. Its title and cover, rather confusingly, make Starseeker look like yet another of the many alien invasion/ magician young adult titles available, but (some rather eclectic mysticism aside) it’s simply a rather intriguing account of adolescence: the story of Luke, a gifted young musician who is struggling to deal with the loss of a parent and who has fallen in with the wrong crowd at school.

Bowler is excellent at constructing taut emotions between characters – the push-pull between Luke and his mother; the uncontained aggression of boys turning into men; the desperate teenage need to both seek and reject approval from the adult world… There’s enough action and mystery to keep young readers engaged, and parents will appreciate the book’s honesty as well as its gentle, healing outcome.

My First Book of East African Birds My First Book of Southern African Birds - Volume 1 My First Book of Southern African BirdsMy First Book of Southern African Mammals My First Book of Southern African Wildlife
My First Book of Southern African Creepy-CrawliesMy First Book of Southern African Snakes and other ReptilesMy First Book of Southern African InsectsMy First Book of Southern African Ocean LifeMy First Book of Southern African Seashore Life

“My First Book of” series – by various authors and illustrated by Jennifer Schaum, Judy Maré and Sally MacLarty

The wonderful homegrown “My first book of …” series makes a perfect starter kit for aspiring nature enthusiasts – covering everything from creepy crawlies to birds, snakes and creatures that like to be beside the seaside.

The books are suitable for early readers, with large, colourful illustrations and short, easy-to-understand text (provided in English, Afrikaans, Zulu and Xhosa) accompanying each entry, together with an info box showing the relevant food and habitat (and paw or claw marks).

The series is also available as an e-book, which could come in handy if you’re travelling to the bush or the coast (although you may be less keen to let your small person tap away on your tablet on the beach).

  • The “My First Book of” books are published by Struik Nature

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