Liz Kessler has written many books for young readers. Her latest, Code Name Kingfisher, is a dual timeline story surrounding World War II. Following Liv in the present day who is trying to learn more about her grandmother, and two Jewish girls in the 1940s, the book is a fantastic read for fans of Michael Morpurgo and Phil Earle. We have the honour of chatting with Liz Kessler about researching for Code Name Kingfisher and writing war stories for a middle-grade audience.
Is the story in Code Name Kingfisher inspired by any real people?
The story was inspired by two sisters, Truus and Hannie Oversteegen. I heard about them while I was researching my previous book When The World Was Ours. As teenagers, the sisters got involved in the Dutch Resistance during World War Two. They were so daring and strong and committed to fighting against injustice, and they inspired me to write about brave young people like them.
What was the research process for this book like?
I went to Amsterdam and visited the Anne Frank House, the Resistance Museum, and several synagogues. I made notes everywhere I went. Then I read books, scoured the internet for facts, and ran all of it by a friend’s brother, an expert in Jewish history in Amsterdam. It’s very important for me when writing historical books that I do as much research as possible, as getting my facts right is a very high priority for me!
Any interesting facts you learned from the research process that you didn’t put in the book but can share with us?
I had to think carefully about how far to take things with the two sisters in my book. In real life, Truus and Freddie took part in activities that were highly dangerous. At the beginning, they would walk with Jewish children to help get them to places of safety or send messages to other resistance members on their bikes. Later on, they were trained to shoot and in the latter part of their experience with the Resistance, they would visit taverns where they would flirt with high-ranking Nazi officials who they would invite to join them for an intimate walk in the woods where someone would be lying in wait to shoot them. My editor and I agreed that these activities were not suitable for a middle-grade book!
With wars being such a heavy topic, how did you make sure you did a suitable adaptation for young readers?
I worked hard to make sure that modern-day readers would be able to relate to my sisters, Mila and Hannie, even though their story takes place in 1942 in Holland. In addition, I have a contemporary story running alongside the one from the 1940s, with characters whose lives – and problems – would be the kind that a modern audience would relate to. I avoided going into too much depth with the horrific side of the war, and I mainly focused on the relationships and the characters. And we decided to add a dog, and a dog always makes everything better!
The dual timeline is very effective in telling this story. What was the writing process like? With the atmosphere of present-day England and WWII Holland being so different, did you write the different timelines in different settings?
Not really. I wrote all of it in my office at home! The heart of my writing is always in the planning, and with this book that was especially important. Each of the present-day chapters has a link to the chapter from the 1940s that follows, so the narrative weaves – hopefully seamlessly! – between the two timelines, with each timeline shedding bits of light on the other.
Other than learning about WWII, what do you think is the most important message that readers should take away from Code Name Kingfisher?
I think it’s the same message that seems to crop up in all of my books, whether they are about mermaids, fairies, time travel or Dutch resistance fighters! And that’s about being comfortable in your own skin; standing up for what you believe in; loyalty to friends, family and loved ones and kindness to others, even – and sometimes especially – strangers.
And finally, what would you encourage readers to do to understand more about their family’s history?
Talk to your parents, grandparents, great grandparents! Ask them about their lives. Ask them to tell you about their own childhoods. Make notes, or – even better – record them. Believe me, when you’ve grown up and they are no longer around, you’ll be so glad you did this!