I Spy: Books about Espionage

Liven up a social studies or language arts curriculum with these exciting books about intelligence gathering.

By Angela Leeper

Upper elementary school through high school

The long-running legacy of James Bond films and the newly created International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., are proof enough that adults never tire of the mystique and thrill of espionage. Secret gadgets, codes, disguises, and double agents are just as—or even more—thrilling to children and teens.

Although other fields of work may also come to mind, John Farman states that “Spying is one of the oldest professions” in his book
The Short and Bloody History of Spies. The focus of this article is a historical look at espionage. After perusing such titles as Thomas B. Allen’s
George Washington, Spymaster or Peggy Caravantes’
Petticoat Spies, adolescent readers may be surprised to learn that some of the best spy stories involve actual people and events from American and world history. The following bibliography contains informational and historical fiction titles as well as contemporary spy series for the next generation of James Bond fans.


Chinese Cinderella and the Secret Dragon Society. By Adeline Yen Mah. 2004. 256p. HarperCollins, $15.99 (9780060567347); HarperTrophy, paper, $5.99 (9780060567361).

Gr. 5–8. Set in Shanghai in 1942, this martial-arts thriller tells the story of 12-year-old Chinese Cinderella, who escapes her abusive stepmother and joins the Secret Dragon Society. Under the guidance of Grandma Wu, she and three orphaned boys learn kung fu, philosophy, and other useful skills, and plot to save downed American pilots from the Japanese army. Special features include maps, an author’s note, historical note, glossary, bibliography, and the Chinese zodiac.

Code Talker: A Novel about the Navajo Marines of World War Two. By Joseph Bruchac. 2005. 240p. Dial, $16.99 (9780803729216); Puffin, paper, $7.99 (9780142405963).

Gr. 6–9. Ned Begay describes his childhood spent at a boarding school meant to strip him of his Navajo culture and his later experiences in the marines, training to be a code talker, braving battle in the bloody Pacific theater, and keeping his story secret until it was declassified. An author’s note on the Navajo and code talkers and a bibliography follow the eye-opening text. For a nonfiction accompaniment, see Nathan Aaseng’s
Navajo Code Talkers (Walker, 1992).

Dear Ellen Bee: A Civil War Scrapbook of Two Union Spies. By Mary E. Lyons and Muriel M. Branch. 2000. 176p. Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, $21.99 (9780689823794).

Gr. 5–8. Accompanied by period photos, illustrations, and documents, this novel, told in letters and diary entries, is based on the real relationship between Elizabeth Van Lew (Miss Bet), a wealthy Richmond abolitionist, and Mary Elizabeth Bowser (Liza), the daughter of Van Lew’s freed slaves. When Liza takes a position in Jefferson Davis’ home, the women work together, using the code name “Ellen Bee” to gather intelligence for the Union army.

Finishing Becca: A Story about Peggy Shippen and Benedict Arnold. By Ann Rinaldi. 1994. 384p. Harcourt/Gulliver, paper, $6.95 (9780152050795).

Gr. 7–10. When Becca Syng’s family finds itself with limited resources after her father’s death, the 14-year-old is sent to the high-society Shippen household to be the personal maid for spoiled Peggy. During her servitude, Becca observes Peggy’s romance with and marriage to General Benedict Arnold and her mistress’ influence over Arnold’s treason during the American Revolution. This Great Episodes novel ends with an author’s note, glossary, and bibliography.

For Freedom: The Story of a French Spy. By Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. 2003. 192p. Laurel-Leaf, paper, $5.50 (9780440418313).

Gr. 6–8. Despite witnessing not only the horrific bombing and occupation of her hometown, Cherbourg, but the seizure of her family’s home as well, Suzanne David finds the courage to aid the French Resistance. As a member of the local opera company, she has the perfect cover and means to become agent “Twenty­-two.” This suspenseful historical novel is based on interviews with the real Suzanne.

Girl in Blue. By Ann Rinaldi. 2001. 320p. Scholastic, paper, $5.99 (9780439676465).

Gr. 5–8. Rather than marry her lecherous widower neighbor, Sarah Wheelock flees her rural Michigan home, disguises herself as a boy, and joins the Union army. When the teen’s identity is revealed, she is asked by the Pinkerton Detective Agency to work as a maid and investigate Rose Greenhow, a Confederate spy in Washington, D.C. An author’s note offers more information on the real Greenhow, Pinkerton, and Sarah Emma Edmonds, the basis for Sarah Wheelock’s character.

Parade of Shadows. By Gloria Whelan. 2007. 304p. HarperCollins, $15.99 (9780060890285).

Gr. 6–9. In this cloak-and-dagger story set in the Middle East, 16-year-old Julia Hamilton accompanies her father, a British diplomat, on a tour of Ottoman-controlled Istanbul, Damascus, Palmyra, and Aleppo in 1907. Amidst sandstorms, dervishes, and a ride on the Orient Express, Julia discovers that her father is actually on a secret mission for England’s Foreign Service and their traveling companions may have hidden agendas of their own.

The Traitors’ Gate. By Avi. 2007. 368p. Simon & Schuster/Richard Jackson, $17.99 (9780689853357).

Gr. 5–9. Borrowing from Charles Dickens’ early life, Avi has created a plot-twisting tale set in Victorian England. After his naval clerk father is suspected of trying to sell information about a new military weapon and sent to debtor’s prison, 14-year-old John Huffam must solve the real reason for his father’s imprisonment and why so many international spies are interested in his family.

Informational Books

American Spies and Traitors. By Vincent Buranelli. 2004. 112p. Enslow, $26.60 (9780766020061).

Gr. 5–8. Explaining in the preface that spies can be considered both patriots and traitors, Buranelli presents 10 brief portraits of American spies, from Nathan Hale and Benedict Arnold to Josephine Baker and Boston Red Sox catcher Moe Berg. Period photographs and artwork, source notes, and supplemental resources accompany the straightforward text in this Collective Biographies title.

American Women Spies of World War II. By Simone Payment. 2004. 112p. Rosen, $21.95 (9780823944491).

Gr. 6–9. This American Women at War title features six notable female spies, including model Aline Griffith and journalist Mary Bancroft, and describes their methods and motivations for spying. Black-and-white photographs appear throughout, and a time line, glossary, and list of further resources conclude the book. For more on espionage during this time period, see
Super Spies of World War II by Kate Walker and Elaine Argaet (Smart Apple, 2003).

Elizabeth Van Lew: Civil War Spy. By Heidi Schoof. 2006. 112p. Compass Point, $23.95 (9780756509859).

Gr. 5–8. This Signature Lives biography traces the life of Elizabeth Van Lew, an abolitionist who spied for General Grant in Confederate Richmond, Virginia, and created her own cipher and a network of female spies. Excerpts from journals and letters, period photographs and artwork, a time line, glossary, and supplemental resources contribute to the book’s research value.

Famous Spy Cases. By Kate Walker and Elaine Argaet. 2003. 32p. Smart Apple, $24.25 (9781583403426).

Gr. 4–6. Each double-page spread in this Spies and Spying title briefly introduces a famous international spy case, from Yoshiko Kawashima, a Chinese princess who tricked the emperor, and Marita Lorenz, who collected intelligence on Fidel Castro, to U-2 spy planes and the raid on Son Tay, a P.O.W. camp in Vietnam. Each spread also contains photographs, maps, and background facts. For more interesting facts about spies and traitors through the ages, see
Spies and Traitors by James Stewart (Smart Apple, 2008).

George Washington, Spymaster: How Americans Outspied the British and Won the Revolutionary War. By Thomas B. Allen. Illus. by Cheryl Harness. 2004. 190p. National Geographic, paper, $5.99 (9781426300417).

Gr. 6–8. America’s first president was a furtive spymaster, and his use of spies and counterspies and secret messages written in code, ciphers, and invisible ink helped win the Revolutionary War. The book’s design, period reproductions, and original black-and-white artwork resemble a book from the eighteenth century. Allen includes coded messages for readers to solve as well as a spy chart, war time line, glossary of spy terms, and more. For more on this book, see the article “Agent 711, Our First President” in the September 2004 issue of
Book Links.

Harriet Tubman, Secret Agent: How Daring Slaves and Free Blacks Spied for the Union during the Civil War. By Thomas B. Allen. Illus. by Carla Bauer. 2006. 192p. National Geographic, $16.95 (9780792278894).

Gr. 6–8. With a vintage design similar to George Washington, Spymaster (see above), this volume deviates from the usual biographies of Tubman as Underground Railroad conductor to reveal her role as a Union spy during the Civil War. Allen also explains how several slaves and free blacks took advantage of their “invisible” status to gather information and relay it to Union officials through secret signals and codes.

Killer Lipstick: And Other Spy Gadgets. By Don Rauf. 2007. 64p. Franklin Watts, $26 (9780531120842); paper, $7.95 (9780531175361).

Gr. 7–10. Teeming with colorful graphics and photos, this title in the 24/7 Science behind the Scenes: Spy Files series details the inventive gadgets, codes, and ciphers used by spies and provides a list of professional resources and Web sites for secret agent wannabes. For more on high-tech spying, see the series’
Micro Spies: Spy Planes the Size of Birds! by Lisa Jo Rudy (Franklin Watts, 2007).

Petticoat Spies: Six Women Spies of the Civil War. By Peggy Caravantes. 2002. 112p. Morgan Reynolds, $24.95 (9781883846886).

Gr. 7–up. Caravantes profiles six women spies of the Civil War, including Sarah Emma Edmonds, Pauline Cushman, and Elizabeth Van Lew, in this well-researched Notable Americans title featuring archival photos, source notes, and a glossary. The author focuses on how these dedicated women used disguises, ruses, and their gender to their advantage to spy for such venerable officials as Generals George B. McClellan and Stonewall Jackson.

The Real Benedict Arnold. By Jim Murphy. 2007. 272p. Clarion, $20 (9780395776094).

Gr. 7–10. Using Arnold’s military journals and political documents, Murphy carefully contrasts popular myth with historical fact about one of the most vilified figures in American history. The chapters dealing with Arnold’s treason are taut and suspenseful, and the final section, “Notes, Sources and Related Asides,” provides additional resources. Also see Ann Graham Gaines’ Benedict Arnold: Patriot or Traitor? (Enslow, 2001) and, for younger readers,
Benedict Arnold (Bridgestone, 2002) by Susan R. Gregson.

Secrets, Lies, Gizmos, and Spies: A History of Spies and Espionage. By Janet Wyman Coleman. 2006. 128p. Abrams, $24.95 (9780810957565).

Gr. 6–10. Published in conjunction with the International Spy Museum, this collection of spy stories with a variety of visuals, quotes, and sidebars presents fascinating information on secret plans, devices, tunnels, codes, and disguises used by spies throughout history. In addition to key terms, a time line, and a bibliography, celebrity, literary, and imaginary spies are also featured in the book.

The Short and Bloody History of Spies. By John Farman. 2003. 96p. Lerner, $19.93 (9780822508458).

Gr. 5–8. Beginning with a look at one of the earliest known spies, Sun Tzu, a Chinese author who outlined spying techniques in
The Art of War in 510 BCE, this Short and Bloody Histories series title continues with coverage of other famous spies and spy attacks in history, tools of the trade, and the future of spying. Lighthearted narration and cartoonlike sketches keep the text entertaining while a glossary, bibliography, and list of related Web sites add further information.

Spy Science: 40 Secret-Sleuthing, Code-Cracking, Spy-Catching Activities for Kids. By Jim Wiese. Illus. by Ed Shems. 1996. 128p. Wiley, paper, $12.95 (9780471146209).

Gr. 4–6. Illustrated with line drawings, this book contains 40 activities and experiments related to spying techniques, gadgets, secret messages, and codes. The author provides more interest with explanations of key terms and concepts, examples from history, and activity extensions. More spy-related activities can be found in Rain Newcomb’s
The Master Spy Handbook (Lark, 2005).

Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers, and Secret Writing. By Paul B. Janeczko. Illus. by Jenna LaReau. 2004. 144p. Candlewick, $16.99 (9780763609719).

Gr. 4–8. Janeczko offers a plethora of codes, ciphers, and recipes for invisible inks for budding cryptographers. Complementing his conversational text are historical anecdotes of code makers and code breakers (e.g., Charlemagne’s substitution cipher and Thomas Jefferson’s cipher wheel) and entertaining black-and-white sketches. Back matter includes a “Hall of Fame,” bibliography, and answer pages.

Ultra Hush-Hush: Espionage and Special Missions. By Stephen Shapiro and Tina Forrester. Illus. by David Craig. 2003. 96p. Annick, paper, $14.95 (9781550377781).

Gr. 5–8. This Outwitting the Enemy title explains both lesser- and well-known secret war operations carried out by the Allied and Axis powers during World War II, including Britain’s Double Cross double agents, the rescue of Mussolini from imprisonment on an Italian mountainside, and Navajo code talkers. A plethora of sidebars, maps, archival photographs, and full-color paintings enhances these fascinating accounts.

Spy Series

Alex Rider series. By Anthony Horowitz. Philomel, $17.99; Puffin, paper, $7.99.

Gr. 6–9. In the first installment of the series,
Stormbreaker (2001), 14-year-old Alex Rider’s uncle is killed and the teen is blackmailed into becoming an M16 agent whose first case involves stopping an evil computer tycoon from murdering Britain’s school children with biological weapons. The Alex Rider series also includes
Point Blank (2002),
Skeleton Key (2003),
Eagle Strike (2004),
Scorpia (2005), and
Ark Angel (2006).

Danny Watts series. By Andy McNab and Robert Rigby. Putnam, $15.99.

Gr. 9–12. In
Traitor (2005), orphaned Londoner Danny Watts is rejected by the army because his estranged grandfather, Fergus Watts, was a traitor who disappeared years before, but the British military offers the teen a scholarship if he can find Fergus. As Danny searches for the truth with his reporter friend Elena, he enters the world of espionage. A glossary of military terms precedes this fast-paced thriller. The intrigue continues with
Payback (2006) and
Avenger (2007).

The Specialists series. By Shannon Greenland. Puffin, paper, $6.99.

Gr. 6–9. Rather than face juvenile detention after hacking into a government computer system, 16-year-old genius Kelly James changes her identity and joins a secret government spy agency. In
Model Spy (2007), Kelly poses as a model while locating the long-lost father of David, her attractive college R.A. and fellow Specialist. The Specialists carry out further missions in
Down to the Wire (2007) and
The Winning Element (2008).

Spy Goddess series. By Michael P. Spradlin. HarperTeen, $15.99; paper, $5.99.

Gr. 6–9. Spoiled 15-year-old juvenile delinquent Rachel Buchanan is sent to Blackthorn Academy, a covert school that trains its pupils to fight against Simon Blakenship, a maniacal former FBI agent who wants to rule the world. In the first installment of the series,
Live and Let Shop (2005), an Edgar Award nominee, Rachel uncovers her headmaster’s secret life and restores the stolen Book of the Seraphim. Her adventures continue in
To Hawaii, with Love (2006). Also see the related manga title,
The Chase for the Chalice

(Tokyopop, 2008).

Spy High series. By A. J. Butcher. Little, Brown, paper, $6.99.

Gr. 7–10. In the year 2060, six teens train in academics and espionage at the elite Deveraux Academy (a.k.a. Spy High). In
Spy High Mission One (2004), members of the Bond Team clash until they must work together to battle Dr. Averill Frankenstein, a descendant of Mary Shelley’s creation. Other missions include
Chaos Rising (2004),
The Serpent Scenario (2004), and
The Paranoia Plot (2004).

Angela Leeper is an educational consultant and writer in Wake Forest, North Carolina.