Lynn: Recently, my fifth-grade grandsons and I visited the Grand Rapids Public Museum, where a section of the Berlin Wall is on exhibit. After listening to me try to explain how it came to be, one of them asked, “Didn’t people try to get across it?” “Yes,” I said, “That is exactly what people tried to do.” We have few if any YA books on this topic and I am grateful to Kephart for writing about this subject in Going Over (2014). Beth Kephart is a wonderful writer, so of course this book is much much more than just an account of a historical topic.
The actual Wall isn’t the only wall in this story.
Set in 1983 in divided Berlin, this complex story is told by two young people in love. Ada lives in West Berlin and Stefan lives behind the Wall in East Berlin. They dream of being together but that can only happen if Stefan attempts a dangerous escape. His grandfather died in just such an attempt and Stefan has the added worry of his increasingly fragile grandmother who would be left behind and alone. Ada slips out at night to create graffiti art—pictures about escape—but the risks for Stefan are terrifyingly real and he wonders if he has the courage to do more than gaze at freedom through his telescope.
Kephart’s writing is rich with sensory details and she creates a vivid sense of this time and place with the sights and smells, the fear and tension, the guard towers, the old bullet holes in buildings and the piles of wartime rubble—and the hope that keeps people going. The actual Wall isn’t the only wall in this story. The people of Going Over are everyday people, doing their best to survive and many of them build their own walls, some of silence, some of surrender, some of culture and not all of them can be safely crossed.
I remember when the Wall went up and I also remember when it came down and the giddy relief and jubilation we all felt. But for many of our teens, this is just one of those events they study in history. Kephart’s book can change that for readers. The people step from the pages and into our heads and hearts, bringing with them an incredible sense of living, breathing and experiencing this important story.
Cindy: There may be other books on this topic for teens (readers, please leave the titles in the comments if you know of any) but I doubt there are any that are written as beautifully as Kephart writes. I’ve been a fan of hers since reading Undercover, a modern riff on Cyrano that is so much more. This new novel is a perfect introduction to the Berlin Wall for older teens or strong middle school readers. I expect it to appeal to the fans of Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys about Stalin’s reign of terror, another book about a lesser explored historical time period in teen fiction. Teachers looking for dual voice narratives will find this book a worthy sample as Ada and Stefan describe their disparate circumstances and fears. Going Over made Ilene Cooper’s Top Ten Historical Fiction for Youth list in the April 15, 2014 Booklist issue. I’m glad to see it made that list. Purists often argue that historical fiction must be set at least fifty years in the past, but anything more than 15 minutes ago my teens deem historical. 😉 Your mileage may vary.
* I booktalked my one advanced reader copy to an eighth-grade class yesterday and needed a dozen copies. These students were fascinated by the premise and had lots of questions. One came up to give me more details about the wall. My book order just increased. And when those copies arrive, I will remember to booktalk them with Serge Schmemann’s nonfiction book When the Wall Came Down (2006).