We’re very excited to spotlight author Catherine Urdahl today on the MUF blog and her new book Virginia Was A Spy! (Cathy has generously offered to send a signed copy of Virginia Was A Spy to one lucky winner–US+Canada. See details at bottom.)
Hi Cathy! Thank you for sharing Virginia Was A Spy with me. This was such an interesting biography about a trailblazing woman who was a spy . . . but as your book reveals, she was much more than a spy.
About the Book
Can you give us a short summary about the book?
Virginia Was A Spy is the true story of World War II heroine Virginia Hall. Virginia was an American who overcame huge obstacles—including an amputated leg—to become the first female secret agent working in occupied France. She was a master of deception and disguises. At one point she posed as an elderly milkmaid, selling homemade cheese to the Nazis in order to get close to them and listen in on their secrets.
When did it come out?
The book was published in August 2020.
Tell us who would especially enjoy this book (as it’s both a picture book and aimed at lower middle-grade readers). I wrote this book for ages 8 and up—anyone who’s interested in spy/adventure stories, incredible (and unrecognized) heroines, and World War II history. In addition to the main story and the wonderful illustrations by artist Gary Kelley, the book includes back matter with more details for older readers.
About the Author
Can you describe your writing journey? Did you enjoy writing as a child? Did you always plan on writing for kids?
I’ve always loved reading. My favorite part of school—especially in the early years—was going to the library. Once I was so lost in my book I didn’t notice that my class had left. I wrote (and illustrated) my first homemade book in second grade. In high school and college I wrote poems and short stories. Then I went to work in corporate communications, writing articles for company newsletters and brochures. But more and more, I dreamed of writing for children. I finally started writing, taking classes, and meeting with a critique group. After a lot of practice—and a lot of rejection—I published my first book, Emma’s Question, in 2009 and my second book, Polka-dot Fixes Kindergarten, in 2011.
What draws you to writing nonfiction? To biographies about women?
I love learning about people in history—what they did and, more important, why they did it. Whether I’m writing fiction or nonfiction, character is the most fascinating element for me. Researching a real person is like getting to know someone layer by layer and figuring out how their actions impacted history and even how we live today.
I especially love writing about unrecognized women like Virginia. History books are filled with the stories of men. But women were there, too—often behind the scenes, since both laws and stereotypes kept them from the roles that made men famous. Each of these women made specific contributions—and became part of the larger story of women’s rights and roles in our society.
What message do you hope readers will take away from Virginia Was A Spy?
Virginia fought for the right to be herself and fulfill her purpose. She heard no a lot—from the men of the U.S. Foreign Service, who said a woman with a wooden leg could not be a diplomat; from downed pilots who didn’t trust a woman to help them escape; and from British spymasters who thought it too dangerous for her to return for a second mission in France. Countless people underestimated her ability, both because of her gender and her amputated leg. But Virginia didn’t take no for an answer. More than anything, I hope readers are inspired by her determination to be herself and to make a difference.
Research and Writing Process
What got you interested in the life of Virginia Hall? Why did you think this was an important story to tell?
I first read about Virginia in an anthology about women in World War II. I admired her courage; she actually fought for the right to be a spy, despite the extreme danger. She didn’t let anything stop her—not even her heavy, wooden leg, which she had to drag through snow drifts on a 30-mile escape hike through the mountains. I wanted to honor her courage and determination, as well as her significant contributions to the Allied victory in World War II. But on a more personal note, I was drawn to write about someone so different from myself. I sometimes struggle to find courage to take action—even though the risk is NOTHING like Virginia faced. Maybe I could learn from her, even though I definitely do not have what it takes to be a spy!
Virginia was always unconventional—doing what others thought was unacceptable for women at the time and fighting against those who wanted to hold her back. Which of Virginia’s roles during her life surprised you the most and why?
Virginia’s whole life was surprising, given expectations about women’s roles at the time. But for me, the biggest surprise comes near the start, when she volunteers as an ambulance driver. Virginia had traveled to Paris to escape her disappointment about being rejected by the U.S. Foreign Service. But when war broke out, she took a huge leap from being a young woman exploring her favorite city to a person risking her life to rescue injured soldiers near the front lines. As an American, she could have returned to the United States, but she chose to stay in France.
Your book contains so many fascinating details about how Virginia operated as a spy (like putting a flowerpot in her window to signal she was home). What was the most interesting detail you found in your research? There were so many interesting details—it’s hard to choose. But one of my favorites is how Virginia and her doctor friend disguised downed Allied pilots as French farmers and helped them escape the country. Many of the pilots didn’t speak French, so if the Nazis stopped them their covers would be blown. To solve this problem, the doctor bandaged their necks and gave them notes explaining they had suffered throat injuries and could not talk.
Virginia went to great lengths to hide her identity (even changing the fillings in her teeth). Why did you think it was important to include these kinds of details in your book?
Specific details help readers enter into the story and understand what being a spy really involved. Imagine changing all the fillings in your mouth! Secret agents like Virginia had to pay attention to every little detail. If they didn’t, they increased their risk of being caught. So the little details are important in telling the story of a spy.
What took more time than you anticipated when researching/writing/revising?
I had so much interesting information, but I couldn’t include it all. I had to decide which details were most important for showing Virginia’s character and the actions she took. I also had to figure out how to shape these details so the book would read like a story and not just a list of facts. Both of these things involved lots and lots of rewriting and lots and lots of cutting!
How can teachers use this book in their classrooms?
My website—www.catherineurdahl.com—contains several free classroom activities, including a step-by-step biography-writing project and a character-trait activity, as well as profiles of other female spies. Teachers also could use the book as part of a study of World War II—as a way to highlight the work of all the unrecognized heroes.
Are you doing school visits or events related to this book? Tell us more! (What grade range? What’s your focus—history, writing, or both?)
I love doing school visits—both virtual and, when it’s safe, in-person! I use Virginia Was A Spy for grades 3 and up (including middle school and high school) and tailor the visit to the specific grade level. I offer a variety of programs, including a “story-behind-the story” presentation, which talks about the overall brainstorming/research/writing/revision process, as well as presentations on biography-writing, women’s history, and spies.
For younger students, I offer presentations using my earlier books—Polka-dot Fixes Kindergarten and Emma’s Question.
I love this book, Cathy. Thanks so much for sharing it with us on the MUF blog!
Please click the giveaway link below BEFORE SATURDAY MIDNIGHT and comment, retweet, follow MUF, etc. for a chance to win a signed copy of Virginia Was A Spy. The winner will be announced on Sunday, March 21.