Kathie: Rebecca, I’m so happy to have a chance to talk with you today! Your second middle-grade nonfiction book, Unbreakable: The Spies Who Cracked the Nazis’ Code, is set for release on October 25th by Henry Holt and Co. Can you tell us a bit about it, please?
Rebecca: Thanks so much, Kathie! I’m thrilled to bring this early sneak-peak to MG Book Village!
Unbreakable is the story of the fight to crack the Enigma code in World War II. It begins about a decade before the war breaks out, when Polish cryptographers discover that all of their tricks to unravel codes don’t work against a new German cipher. Over the build-up to and then through the war, we see how spies, soldiers, and mathematicians steal, capture, and solve this cipher that was hiding some of the most important Nazi communications.
Kathie: What was it about this topic that prompted you to write a book about it?
Rebecca: Some of my favorite books are spy thrillers, and the adventure of cracking Enigma is a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story that hits every box: aliases! invisible ink! codes! spies! a love story! cool tech! The more I researched and read, the more I realized that I had to write about it.
I also loved that mathematicians were some of the heroes of the story. It’s fun figuring out how to express the excitement and energy of solving a very technical problem to young readers!
Though the story does not focus on the gender divide specifically, I am also honored to write about the way women contributed to cracking Enigma.
Kathie: Can you share a bit about your research process, and something you discovered that fascinated you?
Rebecca: Right off the top, I know you’re a librarian, Kathie, and that many of your readers are, too, I have to give a huge thank you librarians! I wrote this whole book – conception to final draft – during the pandemic, and there’s no way I could have done it without librarians. Thank you for all you do!!
Reading is always my first go-to. I read and read and read. Bibliographies of books point me in the next directions I need to go and help point me to people who know a lot on the topic. It’s been a pleasant surprise to find that many people are very kind and willing to speak about their area of expertise! Getting up the nerve to ask is usually the hardest part.
I’m grateful that I was able to exchange several emails with Dermot Turing, Alan Turing’s nephew, who has written several books of his own about Enigma. He was also kind enough to put me in touch with Beata Majchrowska, the Polish biographer of two of my very favorite people in this book: Antoni and Jadwiga Palluth. While the biography is only available in Polish, Beata and I were able to email and Skype, and she was so incredibly helpful in understanding the characters and their story.
As for something that fascinated me…I don’t want to give anything away! I will say that I was surprised by how confident the Germans were that their code was truly “unbreakable.” There were so many close calls!
Kathie: I find it so interesting that your background is in science and engineering, while your books focus on stories about people. How do those perspectives work together?
Rebecca: This is such a fantastic question, and I have an absolute blast playing with this dichotomy during school author visits!
I’ll tell students about my work in the auto industry, where we would intentionally put cars into situations where they’d break – think Death Valley in June or high in the Rocky Mountains pulling heavy trailers. Then, after they’d break, we’d figure out what went wrong and work to make sure it didn’t happen again.
And when I worked with the NFL, it was the football players that were breaking. How can we use what we know about the way the world works – which is what engineering is – to keep these athletes healthy and whole?
There was always a problem, or a conflict. There was always a setting. There were characters. Sometimes those characters were football players and sometimes they were cars, but there were backgrounds and motivations to each.
I came to see that what I was doing as an engineer was telling a story, albeit one that used numbers and equations more than letters and paragraphs!
I’m intrigued by the idea of non-people as characters, too. It was a different conversation, but I remember that you, Kathie, pointed out to me that Antarctica itself is almost a character in Race to the Bottom of the Earth, which made my day!
So, perhaps my books are about characters, and a lot of those characters just happen to be people. Because, to me, science and engineering is story-telling.
Kathie: Please tell us about the cover of your book, and who designed it? Did you have any involvement in the process?
Rebecca: I was thrilled when my fantastic editor, Brian Geffen, suggested that Shane Rebenschied should illustrate the cover. His photo illustration is just jaw-dropping, and I loved his portfolio the moment I saw it. Sarah Kaufman is the designer, and I couldn’t be happier with how she brought everything together.
Brian had such a clear vision for the cover from the start, which reflects the story so wonderfully. I was able to give feedback, but not much was needed! Brian’s concept, together with Shane and Sarah, absolutely brought the story to life.
Kathie: It’s time for the big reveal!
Kathie: I absolutely love this cover! I think it will immediately draw the attention of young readers. What were your thoughts when you first saw it?
Rebecca: I was (and still am!) totally blown away! This perfectly captures the feel and pace of the story – high-stakes, espionage, the ever-present threat and then reality of war. There’s so much riding on breaking the Enigma code, and this cover conveys that beautifully! I hope MG readers of all ages will be as floored as I am.
I can’t thank Shane and Sarah enough!
Kathie: Where can our readers go to find out more about you and your writing?
Rebecca: I love hearing from readers! I’m on Twitter at @rebeccaefbarone, and my author website – which is getting its own new reveal this summer! – is www.rebeccaefbarone.com. Contact info, bios, books, info on author visits, and order links are all up!
Kathie: You know that I’m very excited to read this book, especially since I enjoyed your debut, Race to the Bottom of the Earth: Surviving Antarctica. Thank you so much for letting me be part of the cover reveal and chatting with me today.
Rebecca: Thank you so much for this fantastic reveal, Kathie! It’s been so much fun chatting with you and introducing readers to Unbreakable. Thank you to you and the rest of the MG Book Village team!
Rebecca E. F. Barone holds degrees in mechanical engineering and English. Her technical engineering projects have included injury analysis for the National Football League, development of gait biometrics, and engine calibration of hybrid cars. Realizing her love for books in addition to numbers, she now describes the world with words rather than equations. Rebecca enjoys rock climbing, marathon running, and creating amazing (sometimes tasty!) messes with her husband, son, and daughter. Her first book, Race to the Bottom of the Earth: Surviving Antarctica, garnered four starred trade reviews, and her second book, Unbreakable: The Spies Who Cracked the Nazis’ Secret Code, will lauch in October, 2022.