We are thrilled to be sharing a gripping wartime mystery with our Cockatoo subscribers this month. Debut author Rhian Tracey is an exciting new voice in one of our favourite genres, historical fiction. Set at Bletchley Park at the outset of the Second World War, I, Spy is packed with adventure, mystery and brilliant characters. We were on the edge of our seats! Here Rhian tells us what inspired the story and which historical novels for children she recommends you turn to next.
What inspired you to write I, Spy?
My great-aunt, Audrey, who worked as a code breaker at Bletchley Park during the war. She signed the Official Secrets Act when she was 17 and kept the secret until quite late in life. I went on a school trip to Bletchley with my daughter, as a parent helper, and was flooded with ideas, inspired by Audrey and the information she shared with us.
What research did you do, and did you learn anything that surprised you?
I spent almost two years researching the book. I visited Bletchley Park endlessly, taking in the stories tour guides shared, as well as the exhibitions and collections on display. I also worked with Dr Thomas Cheetham, research officer and Peronel Craddock, who was then Head of Exhibitions and collections. I learned so many things that surprised me, but the most interesting fact was that women made up more than 75% of the workforce.
What do you think it is that makes Robyn well suited for the job she is given?
Robyn loves being outside and in nature. It’s where she’s most at home and feels herself. She has a connection with animals and finds them easier to be with than people. She’s also trapped at Bletchley, locked down, and Joy, the pigeon is not. Robyn gets to live vicariously through Joy each time she leaves the lofts at Bletchley Park, experiencing freedom through the bird. Robyn truly cares about animals and wants to make sure they are well treated, and this makes her perfect for the job with the carrier pigeons.
How many of the characters and their experiences are based on real people or events?
Codebreakers, Dilly Knox, Alan Turing, Mavis Lever, Margaret Rock all pop up in I, Spy and were real people who worked at Bletchley as well as Betty Webb, who is still alive and gives talks about her time at Bletchley Park. These people and their remarkable experiences inspired I, Spy, as well as my great-aunt who was given a crash course in Japanese and went on, with others, to break Japanese superenciphered codes at Bletchley, including the Emperor code.
There were pigeon lofts at Bletchley and pigeons were taken from the royal lofts at Sandringham and brought to Bletchley. King George VI gave a pigeon to the National Pigeon Service, which was set up during the war. His pigeon was shot down on its way to Holland — two messages were put on the pigeons sending for help. The King’s bird got back to England and delivered the message, having flown 120 miles. There were over 250,000 pigeons in the National Pigeon Service during the war.
In what ways do you think Robyn’s story will resonate with young readers today?
It’s easy for readers to put themselves in Robyn’s shoes as they will remember what it felt like to be ‘locked down’ during Covid and miss school and not be able to see their friends, just like Robyn at Bletchley when war breaks out. There were so many new rules for Robyn to follow, things she could no longer do, having curfews, not being allowed outside at certain times of the day and these restrictions will resonate with readers. Robyn is also frustrated by the adult world and all their secrets, and this is something readers will be able to relate to.
Why did you choose to write books for this age group?
I like spending time with this age group. Their ability to suspend disbelief opens up so many possibilities. They ask great questions, when I do author visits, which makes me see a character or a storyline in a new way. It’s fascinating how, once you’ve written a book and it’s been read, it becomes ‘their story’ and this age group is able to make it into something new.
Do you have a favourite place to write?
Outside. I’ve long been a big fan of method writing, literally walking a mile in my character’s shoes, inhabiting their environment. I spent a lot of time writing on location at Bletchley Park, immersing myself in Robyn, Mary, and Ned’s worlds.
Which other historical books for kids would you recommend our subscribers read next?
Copies of our I, Spy 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!
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