Homefront Heroines: New Kids’ Books Explore Hidden Wartime History

Published: 14 May 2024

By Emma Kantor
via the Publisher’s Weekly website

Brightwood Code gang

The horrors and heroes of World Wars I and II have long been commemorated on the page and screen, yet comparatively little is known of the individuals who did more than keep calm and carry on off the battlefield. From switchboard operators to covert codebreakers, unsung workers at home and overseas played a pivotal role in securing Allied victory. We spoke with the authors of three new books for young readers that shine the light on some of the lesser-known stories of civilian ingenuity and bravery—women and teens who contributed to the war efforts in their own invaluable way.

Hello from the Other Side

Monica Hesse

Monica Hesse was deep in the writing trenches with another YA novel set in 1918 when the concept for The Brightwood Code (Little, Brown, May 14) first struck her. “Whenever I’m struggling with a piece of historical fiction, the answer is usually that I don’t understand the time period fully enough. I was talking about this with my husband, and he started doing research, too. He came to me and asked, ‘Well, have you thought about the Hello Girls?’ I’d never even heard of them; it was like a whole new chapter had been unlocked. It started from there.”

The more she learned about these young women, who were hired by the U.S. Army as bilingual telephone operators and stationed in France to improve wartime communication, she wondered, “How have I been so immersed in this time period for so long, and there’s this aspect of history that I’ve never heard about? I just felt like, if this was something that I wasn’t aware of, chances were good that a lot of people wouldn’t have heard of it either.”

Hesse noted, “What’s doubly interesting is that even though these women were being recruited and trained by the government and were being sent to the front lines, they were never considered military. They were considered civilian contractors, which meant that they didn’t get military benefits. They came home, and then a 50-year fight ensued for them to try to get recognition for the work that they had done. And the recognition did eventually come, but it was generations later.” In addition to writing historical YA, Hesse is a columnist at the Washington Post, reporting on feminist issues and gender discrimination, and she sensed this was fertile ground for a novel.

The Brightwood Code alternates between flashbacks of teen Edda in WWI France, where she is one of 200 women serving as a Hello Girl with the American Expeditionary Forces; and after the war, in D.C., where she works as an American Bell Telephone operator. Late one night during her shift, she receives a mysterious call that plunges her back into intrigue connected with her wartime activities. Hesse said she takes “a three-dimensional, multi-sensory” approach to her historical investigations. “Equally important is the research about the life that people would have been living at that time. I like to read books, visit museums, and try to get my hands on fashion or lifestyle magazines from the era, so that I know what my character would have been wearing or eating or reading. Even though a lot of that might not make it into the book,” she said, “I find it necessary to think about the culture that my main characters are absorbing.”

The everyday details she uncovered about the life of a telephone operator were especially illuminating. “They gave a window into the struggles that women made at the time to be respected in the workplace, and how that is similar or different to the things that women continue to think about today,” Hesse said. She hit on a treasure trove of primary sources, in the form of archival footage. “AT&T has a collection of YouTube videos that go back to the beginning of the company’s history, and you can watch the training videos for operators in the 1910s and 1920s!”

Placing the job in the context of women’s restricted professional lives during that period, she said, “At the time, the opportunities for women’s work were extremely limited. The respectable professions basically would have been librarian, teacher, or nurse. Telephone operator wouldn’t have been a scandalous profession, but it was not considered a professional class. It wasn’t something that parents would have been necessarily excited about their daughters doing. And so there was this big push to make it look respectable,” which was reflected in the training videos of the day.

Read the entire article on the PW website here:

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