Friday Afternoon Visits: September 14
Dodsworth in New York: Tim Egan

How To Be A Spy: Justine Smith

Book: How To Be A Spy in 7 Days Or Less
Author: Justine Smith
Illustrator: Jan Lewis
Pages: 32
Age Range: 5 to 9

Who can resist a children's book called How To Be A Spy in 7 Days Or Less? This Kingfisher title, written by Justine Smith and illustrated by Jan Lewis, is SO much fun. It looks like a picture book, but, I would say, one for older kids who can read it on their own. There are lots of small pictures, with text in lists. The outer edges of the covers, as well as the end pages, are decorated with a circuit board-like pattern, suggesting modern-day spying techniques. The book comes tied shut, with ties that look like shoelaces, as though to keep the contents inside a secret. In the back of the book is a large envelope, containing:

  • Sunglasses
  • Fake mustache
  • Cypher wheels (for created coded messages)
  • Spy notebook

See what I mean? So much fun. The text is broken into six one-day lessons, each consisting of two full-page spreads, followed by a single graduation day spread. Each day's lessons are broken up into multiple related sections, each about important activities like disguises, body language, and secret messages. After years of reading spy books, I didn't personally find many new ideas, but I think that kids who are around six or seven years old will be utterly captivated.

There are also lots of activities to keep kids busy - like making a secret sign to identify your spy headquarters, writing secret messages in lemon juice, and cutting holes in a newspaper to use it for surveillance. And of course there's a section on ciphers, complete with sample message to decode.

There are a few humorous nods (and some serious "we want to avoid liability" nods) to parents. Like in the section on tailing people, the book suggests: "Choose your target. Your mom or dad is a good choice--they'll be distracted and busy." Other passages are just plain funny, with a dry humor  that made me giggle. For example, in the section on disguises it says: "Remember that your goal is to blend in. A woolen hat and scarf in the summer will just look suspicious." This is accompanied by a picture of a muffled person, sweating, walking along a beach, being pointed at and laughed at.

The illustrations are closely tied in with the text, and add both humor and detail. Most scenes feature Agent 001, code name Ace, a sandy-haired boy who wears a trench coat and sunglasses. Ace is supported by Agent 002, code name Charlie, a black girl in a lab coat, with glasses and striped tights. They also work with Agent 003, code name Mike, a very cute little bug, billed as "a tiny robot spy with attitude." It does stand out to me, as an adult reading the book, that the minority-race girl is in a clearly supporting role, while the white boy has most of the actual adventures. At least with her lab coat and leggings Agent 002 does portray a hip female scientist. And she has cool gadgets to work with. But still... I did notice it.

Quibbles about racial and gender roles aside, I do think that both boys and girls will enjoy reading this book and participating in the activities. There is something eternally intriguing about spies, from Harriet M. Welch to James Bond. How To Be A Spy in 7 Days Or Less covers all of the trapping and cool activities associated with spying, in a handy, user-friendly package. I think that it would make an excellent gift for first and second graders. I have a deserving home in mind for my copy already.

Publisher: Kingfisher
Publication Date: September 15, 2007
Source of Book: A review copy from the publisher