What is the Truth? by Chris Dexter
I have always been captivated by World War II and the individuals, on both sides, who were involved in it. I am in awe of the people who lived through it, who fought and survived, who witnessed and lived through the horrors and found a way in which to forgive, who fought and did not live. I have always wondered if I would be brave enough to fight back, to hide someone even at the risk of my own life and the lives of my family, to secretly undermine the Germans so that innocent people could live. Years ago while in my final year of college, I remember watching the news and seeing a reporter interviewing people, on the streets of New York City, about the Holocaust. A great deal of those interviewed had never heard of the word, Holocaust, and did not know much about World War II. A couple people even insisted that the Holocaust had never occurred and had been made up. I was appalled.
The first book that I read about World War II was Lois Lowry’s Newbery winner Number the Stars. This is still my favorite children’s book of all time. Over the years, I continued to read books, both fiction and nonfiction, on this time period and continued to be amazed by the resilience and bravery of those living during that time. I have read books such as Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, Jane Yolen’s Devil’s Arithmetic, and Elie Weisel’s Night. More recently, other books have been written about the atrocities that were happening in countries all over the world at that time. Between Shades of Grey by Ruta Sepetys tells the story of a Lithuanian girl taken by Soviet soldiers to work in a camp in Siberia. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak depicts what is was like to be a German who did not agree with what was happening in his/her own country while living within Germany during Hitler’s reign. Erik Larson’s nonfiction account In the Garden of Beasts describes what was happening in Nazi Germany during Hitler’s rise to power through the eyes of William E. Dodd, the U.S. Ambassador to Germany, and his family.
Not only have I continued to read books on this subject, I have also had my students read Number the Stars and other middle grade books about this time period. We have had great discussions about history, morality, bravery, and strength. Students have come to school with stories of relatives who lived and fought during World War II. One student’s pregnant great grandmother fought in the Resistance during the war and was captured and tortured, having a finger cut off, but managed to survive.
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein continues to tell the story of World War II but from a different perspective. This suspenseful, fast paced, young adult novel tells the story Maddie and Queenie, two young women who become best friends while being a part of Britain’s WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force). One is a pilot, and one is a spy. One comes from a privileged family, and one is a commoner. Under normal circumstances, they would never have met and become friends. However, war changed that, and they become as close as sisters. Queenie and Maddie are shot down over France, and both girls believe the other is dead. One is captured and held in the Chateau de Bordeaux, once a hotel but now Gestapo headquarters. She must write the truth, Verity, including codes and other Allied secrets in order to extend her life and avoid execution. She does this while being tortured and believing that her best friend is dead. The other is found by French Resistance and must hide from the Nazis until she can be flown back to England. Throughout the book the reader is continually asked to consider, “What is truth?” This book has twists and turns and keeps the reader from figuring out the entire truth until the climatic end, although Wein has subtle clues throughout the book that provide hints about what is truly happening and that provide foreshadowing of the end. This excellent book is definitely a high school level book because of the mature content and would pair well with another book such as The Book Thief. Wein also published a companion novel this year titled Rose Under Fire which I cannot wait to read.
Once again, books open the door to other worlds and link readers to the past, present and future and challenge them to think and question. Books, such as Code Name Verity, also allow us to introduce students to characters and real life individuals who lived through this time. Hopefully, by continuing to introduce students to quality literature, we will not have this generation interviewed by a news organization and have them say that they have never heard of the Holocaust or that it was made up. As Elizabeth Wein writes on the last page of the “Author’s Debriefing,” “LEST WE FORGET.”
Chris Dexter (@cwdexter) is the librarian and gifted and talented teacher at Radley School (grades 2-5) in East Helena, Montana. She is in her twenty-second year of teaching and loves her job as librarian and her role in leading children to become life-long readers. She is married and has a daughter and two border collies. She loves to read and mountain bike.