Elizabeth Wein on Stateless and historical fiction for tweens and early teens

Stateless by Elizabeth Wein. Book cover and author photo.


Our Macaw subscribers are heading off on a whirlwind tour of 1930s Europe this month with the brilliant Stateless by Elizabeth Wein. We love the historical backdrop to this gripping murder mystery, not to mention the inspiring lead character, 17-year-old female aviator Stella North, and the thrilling adventure she takes us on! We asked Elizabeth to tell us more about what (and who) inspired the book, and which other works of historical fiction for young people she recommends you read next.

What inspired you to write Stateless?

A long time ago, my editor asked me to write a “golden age of flying” novel. That meant a book set during the air races and aerobatic stunting of the 1920s and 1930s, when flying was young, and new aircraft designs were exotic and exciting. I knew I wanted to have a teen as the heroine, and I thought that making her be a pilot in an air race would be a great way to create tension and drive in the plot. Making it a murder mystery as well added a whole lot more tension!

What research did you do and did you learn anything that surprised you?

So many random things! I wrote this book during the pandemic, mostly in 2020, which meant that I didn’t get to travel to do research – and this was supposed to be a book about an air race around Europe. So I spent a lot of time virtually exploring European cities by trawling their tourism websites. I really enjoyed Hamburg’s virtual City Hall tour, which was a big help in setting the scenes there (http://rathaus-3d.hamburg.de/#pano=175) – by the time I’d finished learning about Hamburg’s history, I’d also learned a lot about its many modern attractions and cultural vibe, and it made me wish I could live there!

As for things that surprised me – I was amazed by how popular Coca-Cola was in Nazi Germany, with Coke even sponsoring the Berlin Olympics in 1936.  But the thing that surprised me the most was when I was trying to figure out how the character Tony was going to sneak into Germany without showing his passport, and I discovered there is a woman living today known as the “Serial Stowaway” who has sneaked on board more than twenty commercial flights. Runner up for what surprised me most was ROBO DWARF HAMSTERS. They have nothing to do with the book, but they are cuteness personified. I came across them completely by accident while researching Tony’s name.

What do you think it is that makes Stella extraordinary?

For me, the most extraordinary thing about her is her ability to let go of things and move on. She doesn’t harbor resentment; she’s ready to dare new experiences; she’s willing to change her mind. Her determination to find a better life drives everything that she does, from the moment when she’s trapped alone in her parents’ apartment at the age of three and keeps herself alive by drinking the water in the wash basin. But she doesn’t dwell on the bad times once they’re past: though she knows they’re part of what made her, she’s always looking to the future, always ready for things to improve. And actually, I think that her interest in birds and in flight is closely related to this: wild things don’t look back on their past the way humans do, and flight in the 1930s was all about moving on: building new planes, setting new records, visiting new destinations.

How many of the characters and their experiences are based on real people or events?

The “historic” events are all made up – there was never a “youth air race” to my knowledge, and I made up all the plot to go with it.

HOWEVER, the big chase scene through Hamburg is based on my own experience of clubbing in Hamburg when I was twenty-two – only I am happy to say I did not have the police chasing me! I wanted to recapture the exhaustion and amazement of emerging from a dark smoky basement into the bright chaos of the Sunday morning Fischmarkt. As well as doing research on the city’s tourism website, I relied heavily on my own journal entries from 1986!

Only two of the characters are “based” on real people, and they are two of the grown-ups, the chaperones who go along with the young pilots to make sure they behave themselves. (Sure they do.) My character Lady Frith is inspired by the Irish aviatrix and philanthropist Mary, Lady Heath, who was a dispatch rider in World War I and participated in the 1924 Women’s Olympiad before learning to fly – eventually breaking records as the first pilot of any gender to fly from South Africa to England! (https://www.ilovelimerick.ie/lady-mary-heath/)  My character Marcel Bazille is inspired by the Frenchman Raphaël Élizé, born in Martinique and a decorated hero of World War I. He graduated from university as a veterinarian, the only Black man in his class, and as mayor of Sablé-sur-Sarthe became the first Black man to be elected to a French office in modern times. (https://www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/elize-raphael-1891-1945/)

In what ways do you think Stella’s story will resonate with young readers today?

Stella is trying to make a place for herself in a rapidly changing world where she feels she doesn’t fit, and I think that is something that all teen readers can relate to. I think that her need to prove herself among her peers, and her desire for belonging, and her drive to do something well that she cares about, are all universal and timeless problems that young people are constantly dealing with.

Why did you choose to write books for this age group?

This is an answer you’ve probably heard from other people, but I basically write what I like to read! I started writing for this age group when I was part of this age group. The appeal has never grown old. I love being able to talk and exchange ideas with young people, and I still enjoy reading books aimed at this age group. There is also a lot of support for young adult authors from educators and librarians.

Do you have a favourite place to write?

There is a café by the river in my city, with a wood fire, and I really like to sneak off there and have a coffee and a toasted teacake and get some work done.

Which other historical books for this age group would you recommend our subscribers read next?

Hilary McKay’s wonderful wartime novels, The Skylark’s War and The Swallow’s Flight. They’re funny, sad, and wonderful portraits of loving families and friends during the first and second world wars. McKay’s vibrant and complex characters and hugely readable prose style inspire me!

Copies of our Stateless pack, including a copy of the book and loads of fun activities to go with it, are now available for individual purchase. Grab a copy while stocks last!

This post includes affiliate links to our bookshop.org page, meaning we receive a small percentage of the sale should you purchase through them. Additionally, a percentage from all sales on the platform goes directly to local UK bookshops which is an initiative we're delighted to support!


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