Book signing

Elizabeth Wein defends young adult fiction


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It's the high renaissance for young adult fiction thanks, in part, to the fact that nearly one-third of all books intended for youth are purchased by adults over 30.

Ruth Graham's essay “Against YA,” recently published in the online magazine “Slate” bluntly stated that adults shouldn't read young adult fiction because it's escapist, nostalgic, delivers instant gratification and doesn't present the teen perspective in a critical way.

Elizabeth Wein Book Signing

When: Wednesday, July 16, 6:30 pm

Where: Elsie H. Hillman Auditorium, Hill House Kaufmann Center, 1835 Centre Ave.

Tickets: $10 each. Call 412-622-8866 or www.pittsburghlectures.org.

Come again?

YA fiction is not so homogenous as to be so carelessly grouped — and summoned to execution. Case in point: Elizabeth Wein's historical fiction.

Ms. Wein's historical novels for young adults, such as the New York Times best-seller, Printz Honor Book, and Edgar Award winning “Code Name Verity” and the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award Honor book, “Rose Under Fire,” are painstakingly researched World War II dramas full of historical nuance and complexity. They don't pander to sentimentality or devolve into the ever-ubiquitous teen romance.

Ms. Wein's books pose challenges to adult readers. In the hands of a teen, they might have the ability to alter perspectives completely.

Since 1995, she has lived in the United Kingdom, calling Scotland her home for the past 14 years. Born in New York City, Ms. Wein lived in England and Jamaica before spending her formative years in Pennsylvania.

“I've taken as a totem an osprey, she's the oldest osprey in the UK. She migrates to Western Africa every year, a 3,000-mile round trip. I've thought about this bird a lot — she's at home wherever she is. I try to feel that way,” Ms. Wein said during a telephone call from her home in Perth, Scotland.

“My mother's family is from Pennsylvania, and my grandmother still lives there. My maternal grandmother raised me since I was 14. Now she is 98 years old. I go back there every year,” she said.

The author's travels to Pennsylvania were fortuitous for The Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures Kids and Teens Series, which has arranged for Ms. Wein to come to Pittsburgh while she's in the state.

Ms. Wein will speak and sign books at the Hill House Kaufmann Center on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m.

Set during World War II, “Verity” is about the bonds of friendship among women. Maddie, who is an air transport auxiliary pilot for the British Royal Air Force, befriends Julie, another ATA pilot who becomes a British spy. Julie is shot down in Germany and is subject to torture and interrogation, a “night and fog” prisoner who will likely never be heard from again.

Ms. Wein, who has a pilot's license, said the idea for writing “Code Name Verity” came to her after she read Anne Morrow Lindbergh's “Gift From the Sea.”

“She had a lot to say about early flight experiences and what it was like to be a woman flying in a man's world,” she said.

“Rose Under Fire,” the companion novel to “Verity” and Ms. Wein's newest, shares some of the same characters and transpires shortly after “Verity” leaves off.

“Rose” is about a female American noncombat pilot who, after landing in Nazi occupied France, is taken to Ravensbruck, the concentration camp for female political prisoners. While there, she is befriended by a group of Polish women, the “Ravensbruck Rabbits,” who were victims of Nazi medical experimentation.

Most of the events in “Rose,” particularly those that took place at Ravensbruck, are historically accurate. One of the central themes of “Rose” is the novel's mantra, “tell the world.” Says Ms. Wein: “I wanted to tell the world. I wanted to talk about these people and how they survived. They were all condemned to death in 1941, and of the 74 that were operated on, 61 lived through the war. It was really an amazing effort on everybody's part to keep them alive, even though they were actively trying to kill them — that whole effort really happened.”

“Rose” shows just how difficult and complicated “telling the world” is. Memories distort while experiences amplify in the mind. Rose, like Ms. Wein's inspirational osprey, makes a home very far from home as a way to cope with her traumatic experience.

While writing the novel, Ms. Wein attended a summer seminar at Ravensbruck on the subject of memory and media images, which “turned out to be very relevant, the whole idea of how you tell the world, and how you preserve what actually happened, and how memories get distorted,” she said.

Despite the difficulties of telling the world about such a difficult experience, Ms. Wein wanted to reinforce the idea of survival and hope.

“I wanted people to be aware that these characters were going to have a future, that there was a way to move on,” she said.


Julie Hakim Azzam teaches literature at The University of Pittsburgh and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

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