AJ Pearce's debut novel, Dear Mrs. Bird, is one of our Best Books of the Month, and though Scribner published it just a few days ago, this funny, poignant story set during the London Blitz is already a reader favorite.
Pearce's endearingly outspoken young heroine, Emmeline Lake, is keeping her chin up and doing her bit for the war effort when she rashly accepts a job as junior secretary to Mrs. Bird, the advice columnist at a women's weekly.
But Mrs. Bird is far from sympathetic to women who write to her with real-world problems involving anything she deems unseemly (the list is long). Soon Emmeline is tempted to offer her own counsel, risking relationships at the office and at home.
Dear Mrs. Bird is imbued with the voice and attitudes of the war years; it's clear Pearce is an expert in that era. We asked her to tell us about five of her favorite World War II books and her list, below, ranges intriguingly from Elizabeth Wein's bestselling YA novels to back issues of Good Housekeeping and the published diaries of women who experienced the Blitz first-hand.
AJ Pearce: Five of My Favorite Books About World War II
The story of a young British spy who is captured by the Gestapo, Code Name Verity is an incredible novel which grabs you by the heart and doesn’t let go. Elizabeth Wein writes so beautifully – before you know it you care desperately what happens to her characters. It’s the same with her novel Rose Under Fire, set in Ravensbruck concentration camp. I didn’t sleep properly for days after reading them. They just stayed with me.
2. Mrs Tim Carries On (Leaves from the Diary of an Officer’s Wife in the year 1940) by D.E. Stevenson
Published in 1941 and currently out of print I believe, this is such a wonderful example of D.E. Stevenson’s effortlessly light touch, and subtle hidden depths. I love this fictional diary as it is witty and cheerful, but the characters show immovable spirit and stoicism in the face of the Nazi threat. For all the making light of things, there are passages in this book that are extremely moving. When "plump kind Aunt Posy" explains why she isn’t frightened of the bombs, ("We are all soldiers now…") I defy anyone to read it without admiration and a lump in their throat.
A real diary this time and a fantastic record of one woman’s life in London during the war. It absolutely captures how normal people just kept going, despite living in the most challenging of times. The book is sub-titled "A Diary showing how Unimportant People in London and Birmingham lived through the war years…" and if you want to read about the famous British fortitude, this is the book.
4. Good Housekeeping 1944
This is actually a bound volume of a year’s magazines and along with several hundred other magazines and newspapers I have collected, is central to how I researched my novel Dear Mrs Bird, which is set in a British women’s magazine in 1941. This volume is typical in that it is a window into another era, through a medium we are all very familiar with. There is something special about reading the very magazines someone – perhaps an ordinary woman like me – would have read in the middle of the war.
[Editor's Note: Though the volume AJ Pearce mentions is not readily available, readers interested in Good Housekeeping in the wars years might enjoy The Home Front: 1939-1945.]
5. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows
Set in 1946 and of course, about the German occupation of Guernsey, this is one of my favourite novels. Again, witty one moment and heartbreaking the next, and so beautifully written through letters. I love how the friendships grow as Juliet becomes part of the Guernsey community. It’s another novel where I found myself caring hugely about all the characters and what they had been through.
(Photo: from the New York Times Paris Bureau Collection)