An Uninterrupted View of the Sky

Seventeen-year-old Francisco lives a poor life – he shares a bedroom with his sister Pilar, and his Papá struggles to make ends meet as a taxi driver. Francisco’s Mamá constantly nags him to do better in school, which Francisco could care less about. However, Francisco’s old life suddenly seems like a luxury when his father is arrested under false drug charges. Papá is sent to San Sebastián, a prison unlike anything Francisco could have imagined. When Francisco, Pilar, and Mamá visit Papá in the prison for the first time, Francisco realizes just how harsh life can be. There are no guards in the prison, and nothing comes free. If you want a cell, you have to pay for it. Until then, you sleep on the concrete.  

Then, when things can’t seem to get any worse, Mamá abandons Francisco and Pilar. Forced to leave their home behind, Francisco and Pilar move into prison with their father. While they can still go outside the prison to attend school, Francisco finds it impossible to study when his father is barely scraping by on the inside. As one of four women in the prison, Pilar lives in constant danger, and she’s only eight years old.   

Yet, slowly, the small family begins to adapt. Papá is able to purchase a cell so that he and the kids can be safe at night. Meanwhile, Francisco’s relationship with Soledad, a girl from the prison, develops into a friendship, while tension grows between Francisco and his friend Reynaldo, who starts selling drugs. While joining Reynaldo is compelling, Francisco can’t take that risk, not with his sister needing his protection and his father needing a lawyer. However, the corruption in the judiciary system makes it near impossible for Papá’s case to be examined. It will take years to free him. 

Francisco decides that he must graduate high school and make it into college so that he can help his father and sister. The story ends when Papá raises enough money to send Pilar and Francisco to his parents in the countryside. Though Francisco doesn’t want to break up their family, he knows life is safer for Pilar there. Due to his developing relationship with Soledad, Francisco takes her with them and leaves behind his hometown. The story ends with hope for reunification as Francisco is accepted into law school.  

An Uninterrupted View of the Sky is written in the first-person point of view from Francisco’s perspective. At first, Francisco seems bitter and standoffish since he fights with his parents and doesn’t care to do well in school. But after everything is stripped away from him, Francisco begins to appreciate what he had and starts to focus on what is important to him: family and safety. He stops fighting, works hard at school, and protects his sister and father. One of the most powerful scenes in the story is on the day of Francisco’s final school exams. Due to a murder in the prison, no one is allowed in or out, which means that Francisco will miss the exam. Papá uses his only savings to bribe a guard to let Francisco go to school. Early on, due to pride, Francisco never would’ve allowed it, but Francisco knows that he will never get a chance to escape prison if he’s unable to graduate. This scene shows Francisco’s newfound maturity and selflessness.  

The hardships Francisco, Pilar, Papá, and other characters inside and outside the prison face show the harsh reality of life in Boliva in the 1990s. This story is inspired by true events and exposes the effect of racial injustices supported by the Bolivian government. It touches on sexual assault, poverty, violence, and other dark themes, making the story appropriate for mature readers. While not everyone may be able to read An Uninterrupted View of the Sky due to its content, it is a powerful novel about perseverance despite dehumanizing circumstances. Readers will walk away from this story with sadness due to the family’s experiences, but also with hope like Francisco has—hope for a better future. 

Sexual Content 

  • Soledad is sexually assaulted when leaving school. “Two guys. . . step out in front of her. . . one of them slides beside her and reaches a hand under her skirt.” 
  • Soledad says that “girls my age on the streets – sooner or later, they end up selling their bodies so they can eat.”  
  • When Francisco offers to let Soledad stay the night, she says, “You want me in your bed, Francisco?” He blushes.  
  • Francisco and Soledad kiss. “I take [Soledad’s] face in my hands and kiss her. Those black eyes flutter closed as she moves against me. Her lips are salt and wind and fire on mine. She presses the length of her along the length of me, and the stars start spinning above.”

Violence 

  • Francisco gets in a fight while playing soccer. Francisco is “two steps from the goal when an elbow cracks against my eyebrow. Blood slicks down my cheek and drips onto the dirt in front of me.” He is unable to fight further because a friend holds him back. 
  • Francisco sees someone getting threatened in the prison. “I almost run into two guys pinning another prisoner against the wall. One of them has a knife.” The book doesn’t describe what happens after this.  
  • Papá sees a fight. “[Papá] passed a cell with men crowded around the door. You know what was going on inside? Two boys were fighting each other. For entertainment. Like cocks in a pen, they were being paid to fight.” 
  • Pilar is found in a cell with an older man. Nothing happens to her because Francisco comes to rescue her, but the prisoners take over and punish the older man. “[The prisoners] push into the cell. . . The sound of fists on flesh follows me down the stairs as I hurry to catch up with Papá. They must have stuffed a sock in that guy’s mouth, because I don’t hear anything from him but these choked, drowning sounds.” 
  • When Francisco was young, he beat up two boys after they “cornered me before school and called me indio bruto. I didn’t know what it meant, but I saw the twist of their lips, their mocking eyes. So I rammed the bigger one in the stomach and knocked him to the ground, which gave the other one the chance to kick me over and over again from above.” A friend stopped the fight. 
  • Francisco is beat up. “Behind me, feet scuff against gravel. . . I get two quick jabs in the side. My eyes fly open, and my lungs seize. Whoever it is has a ring on. I shouldn’t have let my guard down. The guys go for my back and my ribs and my gut. They don’t say why. They don’t have to. I’m a prison kid now. I’m just trash to them. My ribs are on fire, and my stomach has caved in on itself. But a fight has been coiling inside me tighter and tighter all week, just waiting for a reason to bust out. . . It’s three on one, so anything goes. I am for the nose and the jaw and the crotch and the knees, and I’m kicking and punching and everything hurts. I’m slamming my fist into the meat of their faces and darting around like a bloodsucking mosquito so they can’t pin my arms behind me. Watching the spit fly and their eyes go wide is like blood and bone and breath and life. They pummel me, and I beat the shit out of them.” 
  • When a boy in the prison insults Papá, Francisco punches him. “The words are barely out of José’s mouth before my fist flies out and glances off his teeth.” José doesn’t fight back.  
  • Soledad attacks the men that sexually assault her. When a man “reaches a hand under her skirt. In that second, her whole being bristles. . . Instead of running down the street, she leaps at them and claws at their faces, aiming for the soft flesh of their eyes.”  
  • Papá gets beat up and Francisco comes to his aid. Francisco “can make out a circle of men in the courtyard. They’re all yelling and in the middle of it, two big guys are pummeling this smaller figure on the ground. . . I run down the stairs and push through the hall, and I hear the sound of their boots in his stomach and their punches landing on his face.” The men scatter before Francisco arrives.  
  • One of the kids in the prison gets hit by a pot of boiling water. “Suddenly there’s this crash outside, and then a loud, long wail. Down in the courtyard, a boy a little younger than Pilar is lying on the ground, screaming. His mother bends over him, her hands fluttering above the boy’s blistering skin.” He is removed from the courtyard and sent to the hospital.  
  • Reynaldo and Francisco fight after Francisco refuses to sell drugs. Francisco describes, “Reynaldo plants both hands on my chest and shoves. . . He comes at me again, and this time, he doesn’t shove, he punches. Three quick fists in the ribs. The breath coughs out of me, and my arms close over my stomach.” Francisco doesn’t hit him back, but instead leaves.  
  • Francisco finds out that Red Tito, a man in the prison that is regarded as dangerous, is dead. “Red Tito is dead. His body was found early that morning, gouges like claw marks carved into his chest, a pain of puncture wounds like bite marks in his neck.” Later, Francisco finds blood under Soledad’s nails, implying that she was the one who killed him. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Papá is arrested. “The police stopped [Papá] and arrested him, said that he was going to make cocaine with that gasoline.” 
  • Reynaldo and Francisco drink alcohol together. “Reynaldo dips into his father’s liquor stash, and for the rest of the afternoon, we take turns drinking straight from a bottle of cheap singani.” 
  • After finding a stash of drugs in his bedroom, Reynaldo’s mother kicks him out. 
  • Soledad admits her father does drugs. “Drugs messed with [my] Papá’s head. I don’t even know if he knows I’m there most of the time.” 

Language   

  • Reynaldo says, “Forget those bastards.” 
  • On multiple occasions, Francisco uses the word “bastards” to refer to people he finds mean or difficult to work with, such as policemen and school bullies. 
  • Francisco says “dammit” and “shit” occasionally.  
  • “Indio” and “Indio bruto” are Spanish slurs that are directed at the mixed and/or indigenous population, including Francisco and Soledad. It is used a few times.  
  • One of the men who assaults Soledad calls her a “filthy bitch!”  
  • Francisco writes a poem where he calls the famous poet, Pablo Neruda, “that horny bastard.” 
  • Francisco refers to himself as a “cojudo.” It’s Bolivian slang for “asshole.”  

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • Soledad says that she leaves the prison every weekend to go to the countryside and make an offering to Pachamama. She says, “I thought if the spirits knew how much I wanted a life out of the prison, they would help me find it.” Pachamama is an Andean goddess, similar to Mother Earth.  

The Magic Misfits #1

Street magician Carter is used to distrusting everyone because of the trickery and pickpocketing he must pull off in order to survive on the street. He can’t afford to make meaningful connections with anyone besides his Uncle Sly. So, when he runs away from his uncle, he never expects to find new friends in a sleepy New England town. But like a magic spell, his life changes fast when Bosso and his crew arrive and try to steal any valuables they can get their hands on. 

After one fateful encounter with Dante Vernon, the local purveyor of illusions, Carter meets five like-minded illusionists: the escape artist Leila, the inventor Ridley, the violinist Theo, and the comedy duo Olly and Izzy. With magic and teamwork, the six kids will set out to save the town from Bosso’s villainous schemes.   

Magic Misfits focuses on Carter’s point of view, allowing the reader to gain insight into Carter’s love of sleight of hand and how he adjusts to being in a group of like-minded people. Readers will empathize with Carter’s move to a new place and his adjustment to his new life there. In addition, an omniscient, unnamed narrator occasionally interjects with a summary of events that happened in the story or information about the characters. The narrator’s commentary and humor blend in seamlessly with the rest of the narration. Black-and-white pictures scattered throughout the story also aid in the understanding of the action.  

Uncle Sly taught Carter to be wary of people. However, Carter learns to trust people. Leila helps him break down his guard. His other friends not only help in terms of emotional support, but they also help him get settled in his new town. For instance, Theo invites Carter to stay at his house for a few days, highlighting and reinforcing the idea that friends help friends, no matter the situation. 

Another positive aspect of the story is the how-to-magic tricks that are sprinkled throughout the story. These break up the action and include instructions for readers to try the tricks, with a few illustrations as reference points. These tricks, such as rolling coins on your knuckles and making color predictions, are easy to do, but adults are encouraged to help their little ones with these activities.   

Magic Misfits is a fun, entertaining story that draws upon the flare and grandiosity of magicians. The excellent narration and colorful descriptions of the town alongside the pictures make the setting come alive. There is a diverse cast, not just in the main characters but also the supporting characters; notably, Leila has two dads. Readers will enjoy reading about how Carter’s friendships develop as well as the teamwork between him and his new friends. Plus, the inspiring conclusion shows Carter and his friends besting the villains with their talents and with their trust in one another. If you are looking for more stories about magic, friendship, and teamwork, try Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • None 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None

Language   

  • When finding out that Uncle Sly had rigged the shell game, a passerby yells, “You no-good, dirty cheat!” 
  • Uncle Sly calls one of their neighbors an “old broad.” 

Supernatural 

  • Many of the characters use tricks and illusions, such as Leila’s escape artist tricks or Dante Vernon’s sleight of hand. These are illusions, not supernatural magic.  

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

The Double Helix

The mystery deepens and the action intensifies for 12-year-old Cruz Coronado and his friends in this exciting third book of the Explorer Academy Series.

Cruz, Emmett, Sailor, and Bryndis continue their studies at sea and travel to exotic locations around the world. A mysterious person alerts Cruz to impending danger while he and a few trusted pals explore ancient ruins in Petra, Jordan to search for another piece of the puzzle his mother left behind. Worst of all, now his father has gone missing, which prompts Aunt Marisol, his number one protector, to leave the ship in search of him. Who is the new professor who takes her place? Does the new technology this professor introduces help or hurt Cruz’s quest? And why is Nebula determined to stop Cruz before he turns 13? The clock is ticking as Cruz’s first teen birthday draws near…a milestone that will change his life forever. 

The action intensifies as Cruz tries to figure out a way to save his father without giving in to Nebula’s demands. Back in Hawaii, Cruz’s best friend, Lani, tries to track down Cruz’s father. Readers will enjoy seeing more of the smart, gutsy girl who isn’t afraid to jump into danger. As Lani investigates, she must decipher clues that Cruz’s father has left behind. The chapters jump back and forth between multiple perspectives—Cruz, Lani, and the bad guys. This increases the suspense and reinforces the idea that Nebula will do anything to get what they want.  

Even though Cruz is on Orion, the academy’s ship, Nebula is still able to get to him. Cruz should be safe aboard the ship, but several times someone tries to kill him. Cruz has no idea who to trust, but he’s determined to solve the clues that his mother left behind. However, Cruz is unaware of the fact that Nebula needs him dead before his thirteenth birthday. The reason for this is not revealed, but it adds another layer of mystery to the story.  

The Double Helix’s mystery becomes more complex, which will keep readers intrigued. With danger around every corner, new gadgets, and the introduction of archaeology, The Double Helix will keep readers on their toes. The story packs in interesting science. For instance, when the explorers learn about archaeology they also learn about the lucrative and illegal business of looting archaeological sites and selling cultural objects to private collectors. While The Double Helix educates readers, the lessons are brief and are well- integrated into the story, so they never feel like a lecture.    

The Explorer Academy Series is perfect for science-loving readers who want to see smart teens solve problems. The diverse group of characters are intelligent and likable because they are not perfect. However, Cruz makes a dangerous mistake when he goes off alone on an archaeological field trip and falls into a hidden ancient well. The conclusion ends in a cliffhanger that will have readers eagerly reaching for the next book in the series, The Star Dunes. 

Sexual Content 

  • When a girl’s hand brushes Cruz’s hand, “he felt a tiny shock go through him.” 

Violence 

  • While at a Halloween party, Cruz is blindfolded. Someone grabs him. “Another hand was on his neck, this one sliding around to his throat. As the glove tightened, Cruz’s pulse began to race. He thrust his elbow straight back as hard as he could. . . the attacker’s grip loosen[s].” Cruz escapes. 
  • Someone pushes a rock off a cliff intending to hit Cruz, but someone pushes him out of the way.  
  • In the previous book, the bad guys kidnap Cruz’s father. Cruz meets with the bad guys, intending to give them what they want. At the last minute, Cruz changes his mind and tries to run. “Cruz tried to pull away, but the man in the cap was too strong. He began to bend Cruz’s arm back, pushing him to the ground. Pain shot through Cruz’s wrist. His knees buckled. . .” Someone helps Cruz escape. 
  • Someone pushes Cruz into an ancient well. Cruz “felt a jolt, and suddenly, Cruz was falling. . . Skin was scraping rock. Falling. . . A point punctured his spine . . .Cruz hit the unforgiving ground with a bone-crushing thud. Pain shot through his shoulder.” He’s stuck in a well with no way out. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • During a Halloween party, when a zombie grabs a girl, she says “Bloody undead.” 
  • Dang is used once. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • Many of the archaeological objects have carvings of ancient gods. 

Code Breaker, Spy Hunter:  How Elizebeth Friedman Changed the Course of Two World Wars

In 1943, the CIA intercepted messages from Mexico and South America that were believed to be disguised war information. A team of ciphers was able to decode these messages and they discovered that a secret Nazi spy ring was sending the messages. These decoded messages were the evidence needed to arrest thirty-three German spies in what is now known as “the greatest spy roundup in history.” This team of ciphers was led by Elizebeth Smith Friedman, a renowned cryptanalyst. Elizebeth’s work as a spy and her incredible accomplishments were kept secret, until recently. 

Adapted from Friedman’s personal memoirs, Code Breaker, Spy Hunter utilizes watercolor illustrations and simple vocabulary to recount the amazing story of a previously unacknowledged figure. The story is told in a linear narrative detailing the most significant moments of Friedman’s career as well as some lesser-known fun facts from her personal life. For example, during dinner parties she hosted with her husband, a fellow cipher, they challenged their guests with the coded address of the restaurant.  

The book retells Friedman’s story in a way that is easy for younger readers to navigate while not compromising or minimizing important details to Friedman’s story. Although the book features small font and some particularly text-heavy pages, its colorful, minimalist illustrations help readers maintain a consistent understanding of the story. It is important to note that the book assumes that readers already have a basic understanding of both World Wars. If there are young readers who are not yet familiar with these historical periods, parental guidance will be needed. 

In Code Breaker, Spy Hunter, readers will receive an insightful and important education on an overlooked historical figure. Elizebeth’s story of small beginnings teaches that hard work and positive relationships are the keys to success.  

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • None 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language 

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Spy Files: Spy School

Do you have what it takes to go undercover and discover the secret world of espionage?    

Spy Files: Spy School stealthily slips into the shadows, exposing different types of spies, the training techniques of the secret service, and the fake identities and disguises they use. Discover the grisliest methods of interrogation and the greatest tales of escape. Unmask the celebrity with vital information in World War II. Reveal how a CIA disguise expert helped six diplomats escape from a hostage crisis.    

Packed with case studies, photographic evidence, and mug shots, readers will learn about shaking a tail, spy training, double agents, identity exchange surveillance, black-bag operations, and more.   

Spy School uses a fun format that breaks up information into small, manageable parts. Each two-page spread changes topics and each page has only one to three short paragraphs, plus photo captions. Each page has illustrations such as historical photos, drawings, and mug shots. Plus, some pages have an infographic titled “Top Secret” that gives additional information on spying. While the format will appeal to many readers, the large font and short paragraphs don’t allow each topic to be explored in detail. 

Spy School will whet the reader’s appetites with a wide range of spy-related topics. However, some readers may be disappointed by the book’s brevity, since each topic is covered in seven or fewer sentences. However, if you want to get a quick look into the spy world to see if it is truly like a James Bond movie, then Spy School is the book for you. Because of the wide range of topics, Spy School would also be good if you’re browsing for a more specific topic for a research paper. Readers who want a fictional book on cracking codes, stealing secrets, and dodging bullets should also sneak into the library and grab a copy of Spy School #1 by Stuart Gibbs.  

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • Oleg Penkovsky was a double agent who was “interrogated and shot by the KGB.” 
  • KGB agent Ramon Mercader killed Joseph Stalin’s rival “with an ice pick.”  
  • An anti-Soviet Ukrainian was poisoned with “gas spray hidden in a newspaper.” 
  • During World War II, some spies were tricked. “One prisoner would be taken behind a truck and a shot fired. The other prisoner would become scared and talk. The trick was that the gun had only been fired at the ground.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • In order to avoid being interrogated, “some spies carry deadly cyanide pills, to be used to prevent them breaking down under torture.” 

Language   

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Enola Holmes and the Elegant Escapade

Enola Holmes, the much younger sister of Sherlock, is now living independently in London and working as a scientific perditorian (a finder of persons and things). But that is not the normal lot for young women in Victorian England. Young women fall under the near absolute control of their nearest male relative until they reach adulthood. Such is the case of Enola’s friend, Lady Cecily Alastair. Twice before, Enola has rescued Lady Cecily from the unpleasant designs of her caddish father, Sir Eustace Alastair, Baronet. And when Enola is brusquely turned away at the door of the Alastair home, it soon becomes apparent that Lady Cecily once again needs her help.

Affecting a bold escape, Enola takes Lady Cecily to her secret office only to be discovered by the person Lady Cecily’s mother hired to find her daughter – Sherlock Holmes himself. But Lady Cecily has already disappeared again, now loose on her own in the unforgiving city of London.

Even worse, Lady Cecily has a secret that few know. She has dual personalities. One is left-handed, independent, and competent; the other is right-handed, meek, and mild. Now Enola must find Lady Cecily before one of her personalities gets her into more trouble than she can handle, and before Sherlock can find her and return her to her father. Once again, for Enola, the game is afoot. 

Enola is a truly admirable character who comes up with unconventional ways to help Cecily escape her father’s cruel treatment. While trying to help, Enola digs into Cecily’s father’s past. Enola gets into plenty of mischief along the way. With secret rooms, a dangerous slide down a coal chute, and a daring rescue, Enola’s story is entertaining. However, in this installment Enola doubts her abilities and often scolds herself for not being able to come up with new ideas to discover Sir Eustance’s secrets. This interferes with the story’s enjoyment, especially because it’s out of character for Enola.   

Readers will not relate to the dubious activities of Sir Eustance, as they are tied in with the story’s time period and are not relevant to today’s readers. Enola discovers that Sir Eustance had been selling his deceased servants’ bodies to “dissecting rooms.” While not strictly illegal, “it would be a dreadful scandal if it came out.” Enola uses this information to blackmail Sir Eustance into treating his wife and daughter better. However, Cecily and her mother make such a short appearance that readers will not feel connected to them, making the end of their plight anticlimactic.  

While Enola Holmes and the Elegant Escapade has some flaws, mystery-loving readers will find a lot to like in the Enola Holmes Series. Enola is a head-strong girl who clearly loves solving a good mystery. Her unexpected ways of solving mysteries lead Enola into humorous situations and her interactions with Sherlock add an interesting dynamic. However, the series is best suited for strong readers because of the advanced vocabulary which includes words such as fulminated, iconoclasm, phrenologist, protuberant, and exigency. Despite this, Enola Holmes and the Elegant Escapade gives an interesting view into the late nineteenth century and readers will enjoy trying to decode Cecily’s pigpen cipher. Readers who enjoy the Enola Holmes Series and would like another book with a strong female protagonist should add The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi to their reading list. 

Sexual Content 

  • Cecily was taken by a “charismatic kidnapper.” When she was returned home, most of society considered Cecily “soiled, stained, ruined matrimonial goods.”  
  • During a dinner conversation, a group of women are discussing a woman who bore her husband eight children. A woman says, “One of us should have slipped her a diaphragm.”  
  • While trying to discover Cecily’s father’s secrets, Enola wonders if “he had dallied with brazen ladies of the theatre. . . run wild in his youth. . . succumbed to hard liquor or worse. Perhaps he had even been known to frequent opium dens.” 

Violence 

  • After facing Cecily’s father, Sir Eustance, Enola tries to flee, but the butler “jumped in front of me to bar the door, I was able. . . to whip my dagger out of my bodice and raise it—not truly menacing; I had no intention of taking his life.” The butler moves out of the way. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Sherlock likes to smoke “shag tobacco.” 

Language   

  • Sir Eustance asks Enola, “Who the blasted blazes do you think you are?” 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • During this time period, being left-handed was considered “the mark of the devil.” 

Victor Dowd and the World War II Ghost Army

It’s a true story of deception: Meet the top-secret Ghost Army, a group of artists and sound engineers trained to fake out the Germans in World War II with inflatable rubber tanks and loudspeakers broadcasting the sound of marching troops. And meet real-life Sergeant Victor Dowd, who served in the fight for Normandy, through France, and across the Rhine.

It’s a mystery to solve:There are clues embedded in the story’s text and illustrations, and Spycraft materials come in an envelope at the beginning of the book. Now put on your spy thinking cap and find out what happened to Victor Dowd’s missing sketchbook. 

Unfortunately, Victor’s story lacks action and suspense. Since there is no dialogue, Victor and the other Ghost Army members are not developed, making them easily forgettable. Even though Victor is the narrator, readers will have a hard time connecting to him because he does not have a distinct voice. Plus, the action is discussed in the past tense, which eliminates the suspense. While there are many interesting facts about the Ghost Army, readers may have difficulty staying engaged in the book because of the bland storytelling. 

Despite the book’s flaws, the format is visually appealing. Every page has a graphic element, including pictures that are drawn in black, white, and red. Plus, most of the pages have a quote set apart from the other text. These quotes are printed in large fonts and help break up the text. The graphic elements are essential because hidden in the pictures and text are clues and codes. Readers will use a cipher wheel, a Morse code, and other methods to decipher Victor’s letters. 

Readers will enjoy using the spy tools and finding clues throughout the story. However, the lack of direction makes this task difficult. In addition, many of the clues are given by putting a red film over the pictures; while the clues are fun to look at, no code-breaking is involved. Since many of the clues are difficult to understand, adults may want to read the answer key that appears at the end of the book so they can assist young readers in finding and understanding the clues.  

Readers who are excited to try and uncover secret messages will enjoy testing their spycraft skills while reading Victor Dowd and the World War II Ghost Army. However, the lackluster story will only appeal to readers who are fans of history. If you’d like to learn more about the history of spying, sneak into the library and grab George Washington’s Spies by Claudia Friddell and Night of Soldiers and Spies by Kate Messner. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • After D-Day, Victor looks around the beach and sees “the casualties. Wounded men lay on the runway, waiting to be airlifted to medical units. Beyond them, Vic could see the bodies of soldiers who had lost their lives on the beach.” 
  • During one of the operations, the enemy fired on the unit. “The ground in front of them shook. It felt like an earthquake. The next shell flew over their heads and hit the truck behind them. Pieces of metal flew in every direction. . .” One member of the Ghost Army “was killed when his truck was hit by shrapnel. . . Fifteen other men were wounded. Some of them lost limbs.” The illustration shows a truck being blown up.

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • After setting up the fake tanks and guns, the ghost army went into the local bar and talked about their “fake” unit over beers. The illustration shows the men drinking beer. 

Language   

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

The Cipher

Robert “Smiles” Smylie is not a genius. He feels like he’s surrounded by them, though, from his software mogul dad to his brainy girlfriend to his oddball neighbor Ben, a math prodigy. When Ben cracks an ancient riddle central to modern data encryption systems, Ben suddenly holds the power to unlock every electronic secret in the world—and Smiles finally has a chance to prove his own worth.

Smiles hatches a plan to protect Ben from the government agents who will stop at nothing to get their hands on his discovery. But as Smiles races from a Connecticut casino to the streets of Boston, enlisting the help of an alluring girl, he comes to realize the most explosive secrets don’t lie between the covers of Ben’s notebook—they’re buried in his own past. 

With topics such as public-key cryptography, the Riemann Hypothesis, and prime numbers, readers may be reluctant to pick up The Cipher. However, the mystery and thriller aspects of the story will quickly draw readers into the story and keep them entertained until the last page. The story explains many mathematical principles in a way that makes the math accessible to all readers. Even though the story focuses on math concepts, Smiles’ family life, his love life, and the mystery behind his birth mother combine to make a truly entertaining read.  

Even though Smiles doesn’t have to worry about money, his life is a mess. His adoptive mother died in a tragic car accident. He feels like he is a disappointment to his father. His birth mother rejected his attempt to reach out to her. Plus, he was kicked out of his prestigious high school for having weed in his dorm room. To make matters worse, his longtime girlfriend, Melanie, broke up with him. Smiles is a complete and total mess, and many teens will relate to Smiles’ wide range of emotions and the feeling that he isn’t sure what he should do with his life. Despite Smiles’ messy life, readers will find themselves rooting for him.  

Ford writes his story in the third person point of view, which allows readers to see the same events from different people’s perspectives. This adds a layer of depth and intrigue. In the end, each character reveals a different piece of the mystery. The thought-provoking conclusion will leave readers questioning morality, forgiveness, and the nature of love. Readers looking for a fast-paced mystery full of surprises will find all that and more in The Cipher.  

Sexual Content 

  • After his girlfriend gives him a birthday gift, Smiles kisses her. Without thinking he “was dipping his head and drawing toward her. Kissing her. Tender but intense, soft but electric.”  
  • While in high school, Smiles tried to seduce his high school math teacher. 
  • A girl says she wouldn’t want to be a cheerleader and have “Greg Simmons palm my ass ten feet in the air for a whole football game.”  
  • At a math conference, Smiles meets Erin. They promise to “stick together” and then “their lips met with a wild energy.” 
  • After kissing Erin, Smiles thinks, “Melanie didn’t kiss him like this. Not at all. There was something hungry about it, something that made Smiles feel more desired than he’d ever been in his life. . . [Erin’s] lips were soft and yielding, her murmurs a hum of delight.” Someone walks into the room and interrupts them. 
  • Smiles kisses Erin several more times, but the kisses are not described. 
  • Smiles takes Erin to his family’s cabin. After they go into the hot tub, Erin goes upstairs. Smiles thinks, “And right now there was a hot girl lying on a bed upstairs, waiting for him.” It is implied that Erin and Smiles have sex.  

Violence 

  • A man goes to an affluent neighborhood, puts a package in the mailbox, and then shoots himself.  

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Smiles’ father is in the hospital dying of cancer. He’s given morphine for the pain. 
  • When he was little, Smiles’ mom taught him to “make daiquiris (virgin for him, double rum for her).” 
  • Smiles considers making “a beer pong app for smartphones for when you were drinking but didn’t have a Ping-Pong table around.” 
  • While in a conference room, Smiles sees his birth mother who is “flush with wine.” 
  • When stressed, Smiles thinks “he really could have used a Xanax or something.” 
  • For vacation, Smiles’ family and their friends would go to a cabin. “The moms would pair off and have drinks on the deck.” 
  • When Melanie’s father was overly tired, he would have “a glass or two of Cabernet.” 
  • Smiles was kicked out of his private prep school because he had weed in his closet. Later, he thinks about the first time he got stoned. 
  • An adult in the story drinks whiskey.

Language   

  • Profanity is used occasionally. Profanity includes ass, bastard, bitchy, crap, piss, hell, and shit. 
  • Infrequently, the phrases oh God and God are used as an exclamation.

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • Several times Smiles prays for something. For example, when Smiles sees a hot girl, he “prayed to a merciful God she would stop at the check-in. She did.”  
  • When the NSA kidnaps Smiles’ friend, Ben, Smiles “prayed someone would intervene, but there were no witnesses in the lot.” 
  • When Melanie sneaks a file out of an office, she put it in her purse and “could only pray that Jenna wouldn’t open it and see.” 

Bones of the Sun God

After his adventures in Egypt, Sam Force is finding it nearly impossible to return to everyday life at boarding school—especially now that he knows his parents are still alive. However, his Uncle Jasper has banned him from setting off in search of them until he can go with Sam, but Sam’s not sure he can wait that long. When a man turns up at his school—a man he last saw in the Egyptian desert—he knows he can wait no longer.

Sam needs to continue the hunt for his parents. Luckily, his friend Mary Verulam has a plan, and before he knows it, he’s on his way to Belize. However, from the moment he lands, Sam finds himself being followed and threatened. When his research leads him to a local crocodile park and the leader of a mysterious crocodile cult, things become really dangerous. Sam is left to wonder if he’ll ever be able to locate his parents—and if there is anyone he can trust. 

Right from the start, Sam knows he’s going to sneak out of the country to continue the dangerous search for his parents—he just didn’t expect the search for clues to turn deadly. Multiple people warn Sam about the dangers that lay ahead and strongly encourage him to return home. However, the stubborn boy refuses to listen. While Sam’s determination and resourcefulness are admirable, he’s also impulsive and reckless. To make matters worse, Sam isn’t afraid to sneak into places he shouldn’t be, which causes many problems. Despite his dangerous actions, Sam is a likable protagonist that readers will root for.  

Similar to the first book in the series—The Iron Tomb—Bones of the Sun God doesn’t shy away from violence. In book two, a new villain appears—Felix, the crocodile cult leader – who will do anything to keep his secrets safe. This includes plotting Sam’s death, killing his henchmen, and feeding people to his trained crocodiles. The constant threat of being eaten by crocodiles keeps the action high. Plus, readers will be shocked when the crocodile park’s secrets are revealed. 

Bones of the Sun God continues the mystery of the pyramids and of how the Arc of the Covenant is related to them. However, Sam spends much of his time being chased by others and the story lacks the clues that made book one so much fun. Despite this, Bones of the Sun God will entertain readers. Readers will also enjoy the black and white pictures that are scattered throughout the book. The illustrations will help readers imagine some of the complicated plot points.  

Readers who aren’t put off by violence will find Bones of the Sun God highly entertaining because the action-packed story follows a likable protagonist who is willing to jump into danger to discover where his missing parents are. However, the strange crocodile cult and the bloody violence may make the book inappropriate for some readers. For a high-interest, fast-paced adventure with less violence, there are many good options including The Serpent’s Secret by Sayantani Dasgupta and Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky by Kwame Mbalia. And if you want to discover some Egyptian history in a non-fiction format, check out The Curse of King Tut’s Mummy by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld.   

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • While in a pool of water, a beast attacks a knight. The beast’s “white teeth enveloped his legs. A loud crack echoed across the chamber as powerful jaws slammed together around his waist. With one last effort, he brought his dagger arm down onto his attacker’s skull. . . And then there was only darkness.” The knight dies. 
  • While at a river, a young boy named Elio sees a “crocodile’s jaw open. . . A cloud of white mist bursts from the beast. With the pain came sudden understanding. The boy stared down at the silver dart sticking from his thigh. His eyes felt heavy . . . the last thing he heard as his world went black was the sound of the beast laughing at him.” Elio is kidnapped and taken to the crocodile park. 
  • Sam was cleaning the rowing shed when bullies from his school show up. Sam “aimed the bottle of detergent at Andrew Fletcher and squeezed. The soapy liquid hit him in the eyes, and Andrew howled in pain. Before his two friends could react, Sam swung the foamy jet at them.” Sam is able to get away.  
  • Sam hides with a group of tourists who go to a crocodile park. During a show, a man appears and says, “The guardians of the underworld demand sacrifices.” Then, crocodiles appear and begin attacking people. “Two more [people] went down, the first rammed from the side, the second pushed from behind. Arms flailed, water churned, and then there was only one person left. . . Down at the pool, the woman scrambled back toward the edge, but before she could climb out, her legs were pulled out from under her and she disappeared beneath the surface.” 
  • As the audience watches in horror, another man steps into the pool of water. “Lights in the bottom of the pool switched on, illuminating the crocodiles, who were still holding their human sacrifices.” The man calls on Kinich Ahau and then, “the crocodiles, unburdened by their prey, swam to the far side of the pool and disappeared into the tunnel.” The people who the crocodile attacked walk out of the pool unharmed. The scene is described over three pages. 
  • Two policemen were taking Sam to the airport when they come upon a broken-down car in the middle of the street. “Two men spun toward the police car. They had guns. There were two flashes of light and everything went black. . . A man pulled Sam’s door open and wrenched him out. As Sam was dragged to the old car, the struggling policemen fell silent.” Sam is taken to Felix, the founder of the crocodile park, who locks Sam in a cage. 
  • Sam escapes from the crocodile park and runs towards the forest. Sam falls and “lay there, defenseless. . . he saw the silhouette of the man looming over him. Suddenly, the red [laser] beam hit the man’s face. . . then the man threw his hands to his eyes and howled in pain.” 
  • One of Felix’s henchmen, Azeem, ambushes Sam in the wilderness. Sam throws juice at Azeem’s face and bats attack him. Sam “heard the fluttering of hundreds of pairs of wings as they swept through the forest . . .Sam heard a cry as the first one of the tiny juice-hungry mouths fell on their new meal.” Azeem is not seriously injured.  
  • Sam returns to the crocodile park to save Elio, another boy who is held prisoner. As they try to escape, they see “the body of a large bald man in a white suit.” The man’s skin was a “sickly gray color” and he “had been dead for some time.” Later, Sam discovers that the dead man’s body was stolen from the morgue. 
  • As Sam and Elio run from the crocodile park, a bomb goes off. “The concussion from the blast hit them. Sam saw Elio lifted off the ground and pushed through the air.” Sam has a “nasty cut on his forehead,” but is otherwise uninjured. 
  • Sam finds a hidden entrance into a pyramid. When Sam goes in, he finds Azeem and Felix digging a hole. Felix holds a gun on Azeem, who is at the edge of a pool. Azeem’s “confused look transformed to panic as he heard the noise behind him. . .” Azeem sees a crocodile, but is unable to get out of the pool because “Felix kept the gun aimed down at the Scar-Faced Man.” 
  • As the crocodile gets closer, Azeem panics. “He tried to climb out [of the pool] again, but Felix lashed out with his foot. The kick sent the Scar-Faced Man stumbling backward. . . Azeem went rigid. The water around him became red and his screaming reached new levels of loudness. . . the man was pulled under, his scream cut off. . .” Azeem dies. 
  • After leaving the pyramid, Felix sets off a bomb. Sam and his friend, Mary, run. The explosion “grew to a deafening roar and a howling wind, so powerful Sam and Mary were pushed along the floor of the tunnel. . . Sam felt his exposed skin being stung by the tiny fragments of stone carried along by the explosion. . . He heard Mary screaming.” Afterwards Sam’s “head was throbbing, his ears were ringing from the blast,” but he was otherwise unharmed. 
  • In the pyramid, Sam finds a parchment belonging to a Templar Knight that tells why they built a structure inside the pyramid. While building the structure in a pool, crocodiles appeared. “I shall never forget the look of horror, the pain, as unseen monsters took hold of their legs. Screams were stifled as the men were pulled under…the ugly red stain that spread through the pool left us in no doubt as to the fate of our other two companions.” Later, the knight meets a similar fate. 
  • Sam goes into the pool to retrieve an item. A crocodile “comes out of the tunnel . . . and smashed into [Sam], knocking him back off his feet. . . he went under with his mouth open. The choking sensation triggered a burst of panic that wiped the crocodile from his mind.” Sam survives without injury. 
  • Sam and his friends follow Felix, who is trying to escape in a submarine. “Sam pushed the hatch down, hitting Felix in the head. Stunned, the man let go to the side of the ladder and fell back inside. . . Five feet below, Felix was sprawled in a heap unconscious.” 
  • Sam is trying to get out of the submarine when Felix “grabbed Sam’s pants . . . [Sam] swung his free foot backward, catching Felix in his stomach, then released one hand from the ladder and swung his elbow back, smashing into Felix’s forehead.” The two wrestle with each other for six pages and Sam eventually escapes. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • Some believe that the pyramids were “built on key energy points around the world. Powered by Arks, they create an energy field that holds the earth’s crust in place.” The Ark can produce a magical substance known as the philosopher’s stone, “but the Ark will only produce this magical substance if it is taken out of the pyramid.” Some men would like to remove the Arc and become immortal despite the danger to the earth.  

Spiritual Content 

  • The story revolves around Kinich Ahau, the Egyptian sun god and the god of the underworld. 
  • Sam visits Mayan pyramids where the Maya “performed ceremonies and made sacrifices to their gods.”  

Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy

Cammie is not over her breakup with Josh, and after the winter break, all she wants is for things to go back to normal. But her mother is keeping secrets, the East Wing of the school is closed off, and an unwelcome intruder on a Covert Operations assignment leaves Cammie and her friends on edge.

It should be mentioned that the Gallagher Academy is an all-girls spy school, so Cammie and her friends are less than prepared when it is revealed that an all-boys spy school exists and—even worse—some of those boys will be attending the Gallagher Academy in an exchange program. Suddenly, Cammie, Bex, Liz, and Macey find themselves at odds with their strange new classmates. Why are the boys really here? Why won’t any of them talk about their own school, Blackthorne? And is Zach just a boy spy on an innocent exchange program who happens to like Cammie, or is something more sinister at hand? When Cammie is blamed for a security breach at the mansion, she knows something is not right. But will Cammie and her friends discover the truth about their male counterparts in time to stop whatever nefarious schemes are underfoot?

Despite being a well-trained spy who could incapacitate a person in under eight seconds, Cammie remains a relatable and lovable character who embodies the awkwardness of a typical girl. Readers will fall in love with Cammie, who has impressive spy skills and yet is completely baffled by boys. At one point, Cammie thinks, “Boys! Are they always this impossible? Do they always say cryptic, indecipherable things?” Because the story is told from Cammie’s point of view, readers will get an inside look at her thoughts and feelings, which makes Cammie an endearing character. At times, Cammie’s jumbled emotions will make readers hurt along with her. Especially when Cammie sneaks off alone and wonders if “maybe crying is like everything else we do—it’s best if you don’t get caught.”

Luckily, Cammie has a group of friends that always has her back. Bex is fiercely loyal, while Liz’s optimistic outlook is a welcome relief. Macey adds a little humor with her boy translations. By the end of the book, readers will feel as if the Gallagher Girls are friends. However, that doesn’t mean that Zach is not a welcome addition to Cammie’s life. While his charm is confusing to Cammie, it’s hard not to fall in love with his tough-boy attitude.

Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy continues the series in a satisfying way, bringing back favorite characters from book one with the welcome addition of the Blackthorne boys. In typical Ally Carter style, Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy begins with suspense and leaves the reader turning pages until the very end. Through first-person narration, Carter creates a fun story full of relatable characters and explores teen romance in a wholesome way that is perfect for younger readers. If you haven’t bought the entire series yet, you will want to. Even though there are six books in the series, each book will have readers ready to jump back into the Gallagher Girls’ world.

Sexual Content

  • Zach leans in to kiss Cammie, but they are interrupted. “His hands were warm on the back of my neck; his fingers laced through my hair, and he tilted his head and he moved in. I closed my eyes. And I heard, ‘Oh my gosh! Cammie, is that you?’”
  • Zach kisses Cammie. “The last thing I expected was to feel his arms sliding around me, to sense the whole world turning upside down as Zach dipped me in the middle of the foyer and pressed his lips to mine.”

Violence

  • In P.E. class, Cammie “hauled off and kicked the heavy [punching] bag—hard—and it flew back and hit [Zach] in the stomach. For a second he stood there, doubled over, trying to catch his breath.”
  • Cammie and her friends find their teacher, who had been injured by a thief. “Our teacher fell into their arms. Blood stained the side of his face, and his voice was faint as he lay on the floor and said, ‘He got it.’”
  • Cammie reacts when Zach grabs her. “Without stopping to think, I stepped back into my attacker, tried to flip him over my head, but he countered his weight at that precise time, stopping my momentum.”
  • During what turns out to have been a test of their skills, the Gallagher Girls fight to stop a thief and his guards. “For a moment it seemed to be raining Gallagher Girls. All around me fists flew, kicks landed . . . I’d knocked a guard to the ground and was struggling with a Napotine patch . . . the next time I saw [Liz] she was jumping from the cab, landing on the back of a guard who had been chasing Eva.” The fight continues over four pages.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Cammie remembers how her “mom gave Josh some tea that’s supposed to wipe a person’s memory blank” to make him forget what he knew about the Gallagher Academy.

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

 

 

Chester Keene Cracks the Code

Chester Keene takes great comfort in his routines. Afterschool Monday to Thursday is bowling. Friday, the best of days, is laser tag! But Chester has one very special secret—he gets spy messages from his dad. Chester thinks his father must be on covert government assignments, which is why Chester has never been able to meet him.

Then one day, Chester’s classmate Skye approaches him with a clue. They’ve been tasked with a complex puzzle-solving mission! Skye proves to be a useful partner and good company, even if her free-wheeling ways are disruptive to Chester’s carefully built schedule. As Chester and Skye get closer to their final clue, they discover the key to their spy assignment: they have to stop a heist! But cracking this code may mean finding out that things are not always what they seem. 

Chester is used to being alone. Nobody sits by him at lunch. Nobody sits by him on the school bus. And nobody helps him when Marc bullies him. His dad is the only person that Chester can talk to, but he’s never actually met his dad and they only communicate through emails. But in Chester’s greatest time of need, his dad goes silent. So, when a strange clue is left on his door, Chester is convinced that his dad is a spy in danger—and only Chester can help. When Skye approaches Chester with the other piece of the clue, the two are forced to work together even though Chester would prefer to solve the mystery on his own. 

Chester Keene Cracks the Code has a slow start, but once Skye jumps into the story, the story takes off on a fun hunt for clues. Even though Chester is a bit “difficult,” Skye doesn’t let his quirks chase her off. And soon, Chester discovers that he likes having Skye as a friend, even though she is impulsive. While the clues add mystery to the book, Chester and Skye’s developing relationship adds heart and teaches readers the value of friendship. Even though the story is written from Chester’s point of view, readers will be able to relate to Skye’s annoyance when Chester gets difficult. 

Throughout the hunt for clues, Chester thinks his father is leaving the clues. While Chester thinks about the need to solve the clues and help his father, there is no clear reason that explains why Chester believes his father is in danger. Because of this, Chester’s constant thoughts about his father’s danger become a bit tedious. However, many readers will relate to Chester’s feelings of abandonment and his deep desire to meet his father. Chester eventually learns that with or without his father, he is surrounded by people who love him, and that is enough.   

Even though Chester and Skye must solve the clues left for them, the clues are so specific to the characters that the readers don’t have a chance to solve the clues themselves. Despite this, the story contains enough mystery and adventure to keep readers interested. Plus, the story teaches the importance of friendship, family, and speaking up when being bullied. Chester realizes “people make mistakes. . . Perfect—it doesn’t exist.” Overall, Chester Keene Cracks the Code is a fun read that shows the importance of embracing the people in your life and accepting them for who they are. 

Sexual Content 

  • Chester’s mother is dating a man who stays the night at her house. Chester knows that “Mom and Christopher won’t come out of the bedroom until later.” 
  • Skye tells Chester that her dad might marry his girlfriend because he’s “over the moon. They’re all smoochy smoochy all the time.” 
  • After Christopher proposes to Chester’s mom, they kiss. Skye tells them, “Get a room.” 

Violence 

  • After winning a round of laser tag, Marc (the school bully) corners Chester. Marc punches Chester. “A flash of color bursts behind my eyelids. My ears ring with a tinkling sound, or maybe the force of my body being slammed into the change machine. . .” Chester gets a huge black eye. 
  • Marc is standing by Chester’s locker. When Chester approaches, Marc “tosses a casual punch at my shoulder. . . Only, his hand lands hard enough that it throws me off-balance, and my other shoulder collides with the bank of lockers.” Then, Marc grabs Chester. Marc “grips some combination of my shirt, my armpit skin, and my backpack strap, and with tremendous force, whips my entire body around him. . .” Chester ends up on his back “limbs sprawling, neck kinked.” Chester’s shoulders and neck hurt, and his shirt is ripped. The scene is described over two pages.   
  • Chester tells a story about a man who came into the bowling alley and “tried to rob Amanda [the owner] at knifepoint once. She hit him in the head with a bowling ball.” 
  • Four people rob an armored car. Two of the men have “guns raised, they charge on the truck. Boom. The guard flinches like he hit a wall. He grabs his neck, then slumps down.” 
  • When a guard falls, Chester thinks, “Is he dead? But there’s no blood. No terrible explosion. A tiny arrow sticks out of his neck.” 
  • When the robber sees Chester, he grabs him. “My shoulder pops as [he] binds my hands together behind my back. He uses something thin and smooth. It cuts into my skin.” 
  • Skye jumps in to help Chester. A female robber grabs Skye and “she goes down.” The robber says, “Pop ‘em and let’s get out of here.” One of the men refuses to kill them because “they’re just kids.” The robbery is described over five pages. 
  • The school bully, Marc, calls Chester “Salisbury-face” because they were serving it at lunch. Angry, Chester’s “lunch tray geos vertical, smashes straight into Marc’s face. Peas go rolling over his shoulder, down his arms, and onto the floor.” 
  • Marc corners Chester in the bathroom and gives Chester a bruise “exactly the size and shape of a urinal head.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Twice after being punched, Chester goes home and takes Tylenol for the pain. 
  • While having dinner, Chester’s mother and her boyfriend have a beer. 
  • At the bowling alley, a group of adults is drinking beer.  
  • Chester’s mom’s boyfriend serves pizza and beer to other adults. 

Language   

  • Marc calls Chester a loser several times. 
  • When Marc slams into Chester, Chester thinks Marc is a “jerk-face.” 
  • After hitting Marc with his lunch, Chester thinks, “Oh, no. Oh, crud.” 
  • Skye says Marc is a jerk. 
  • Dang it is used three times. 
  • Heck is used four times. 
  • OMG, my God, and oh my God are used as an exclamation a few times. 
  • Skye calls Chester a doofus and a goof.  

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers, and Secret Writing

Attention: Junior Secret Agent 

Now that these top-secret files have fallen into your hands, you have in your possession everything you’ll need to know about making and breaking codes and ciphers. From everyday codes and pictographs to encryption and concealment methods used throughout history, this handbook proves the necessary tools for a budding cryptographer. And as you’ll see, a duo of seasoned, sneaky spies is on the case to illustrate how it all works. 

Your mission: Reading this book! 

Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers, and Secret Writing gives many examples of ciphers, including ones from literature such as Poe’s ciphers in “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” For each coded message, the answers are in the back of the book, which allows readers to try to figure out the message without peeking at the answers. In addition to ciphers, the book includes information on code-breaking. There are several coded messages that readers will have fun trying to decipher. Readers will also learn about different liquids they can use to make invisible ink. 

Many examples of historical codes are scattered throughout the book, and the end of the book has a chapter titled the “Codemakers and Codebreakers Hall of Fame.” This chapter gives more examples of historical people, such as Benedict Arnold, who used ciphers. Many of the people who created ciphers did so to hide military secrets. However, no bloody battle scenes are described. Instead, the book uses a down-to-earth tone that will appeal to readers. In addition, every one to three pages has some type of graphic element—a practice code, a list, or a black and white illustration. Most of the illustrations are humorous, such as a spy running away from an angry pig.  

Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers, and Secret Writing uses an entertaining format to introduce the art of spying. Through historical examples, readers will learn many interesting facts about codemaking, ciphers, codebreaking, and concealment. Anyone who has ever wondered how spies pass secret messages must read this book. To learn more about the Culper Spy Ring, grab a copy of George Washington’s Spies by Claudia Friddell as well.  

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • Mary Queen of Scots used a substitution cipher, but “it was the discovery and deciphering of this system by her enemies that caused her to lose her head to the executioner when she was convicted of plotting to overthrow Queen Elizabeth.” 
  • An ancient Greek historian, Herodotus, would send messages to his generals. Herodotus found a servant with poor eyesight and then “shaved the slave’s head, then branded a message on his scalp! When the hair grew in, the master told the servant that his eyesight would be better when he had his head shaved at a camp some miles away.” 
  • During England’s civil war, several Puritans were captured and “made the long walk to the gallows.” 
  • Benedict Arnold betrayed the colonies by spying for the enemy. “After a midnight meeting with Arnold, André was captured. . . he was hanged in 1780.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • None

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Mysterious Messages: A History of Codes and Ciphers

This fascinating look at history’s most mysterious messages is packed with puzzles to decode and ciphers that kids can use themselves. In this book you can find the encrypted notes of Spartan warriors, the brilliant code-crackers of Elizabeth I, secret messages of the American Revolution, spy books of the Civil War, the famous Enigma Machine, and the Navajo code talkers. As computers change the way we communicate, codes today are more intriguing than ever.  

From invisible ink to the CIA, this exciting trip through history is a hands-on, interactive experience—so get cracking! 

Mysterious Messages is for readers who want an in-depth historical look at the practice of creating codes and ciphers. The book starts with the father of history, Greek writer Herodotus, who documented some of the first cases of hiding messages. Sections of the book go into more detail about the historical aspects of hidden messages and give examples that readers can try to solve. Along with the stories, the book contains small sections titled “the Boring Definitions Box” that define words. Scattered throughout the book are pictures of the people discussed in the stories. Many of the pictures are of statues, paintings, photographs, and black and white sketches. In addition, historical documents are featured such as a letter written in code to the Queen of Scots, who was planning to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I.   

Politics played a huge role in the development of codes and ciphers, and Mysterious Messages discusses the many ways spies secretly communicated. While the format has a visual element on every page, readers who aren’t interested in history and politics may find it difficult to finish the book. However, Mysterious Messages would be an excellent source to use for a research paper. The book will also appeal to readers who want to learn more about espionage and how codes and ciphers were used both in diplomatic times and times of war.  

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • In order to hide a message, a nobleman “slit open the belly of a freshly killed rabbit, hid his message inside, and sent it off with a courier posing as a hunter.” 
  • Christopher Marlowe was “murdered at the age of twenty-nine” because of his work as a secret agent. 
  • Several people who were caught spying were hanged.  
  • Mary, the Queen of Scots, used secret messages in an attempt to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I. “The Queen of Scots was tried, found guilty largely on the basis of the deciphered message, and beheaded.” The other people involved were “bowelled alive and quartered.”  
  • The British caught Nathan Hale spying. When he was found guilty of espionage, he was “hanged from the limb of an apple tree.”  
  • A British spy was captured with papers that contained details of a conspiracy. He was “hanged by the Americans.” 
  • During World War I, “a German submarine had torpedoed the Lusitania, a British passenger ship. Twelve hundred people drowned.”  

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • During World War II, a Polish cipher “was so desperate to read Germany’s Enigma-enciphered messages that it hired a psychic to try to make sense of them.”  

Spiritual Content 

  • In the 1500s, a man from Germany believed that “if you wrapped up your message in a picture of the person you were sending it to, buried it under the threshold of the house, and said the proper incantation, it would be delivered telepathically by a network of angels.”  
  • Since Queen Elizabeth embraced Protestantism, “the

Kelsey the Spy

Kelsey can’t resist collecting secrets in her spy notebook just like her hero, Harriet the Spy. When she learns Leo has been hiding something from the group, she writes his secret in her notebook as well. But when the notebook goes missing, everything she’s collected about classmates, friends, and family could be revealed to the world! After receiving a ransom note, Kelsey tries to solve the mystery on her own. But soon she realizes she needs help from everyone in the Curious Cat Spy Club in order to rescue her notebook, help a homesick 130-year-old Aldabra tortoise, and unmask a thief. 

When Kelsey’s notebook of secrets disappears, she is consumed with fear that the secrets will be revealed and someone will be hurt. When one of her secrets goes public, Kelsey is convinced that the thief must be stopped. Kelsey’s fear and worry drive much of her actions, but the constant reminders of the dangers of keeping secrets becomes annoying. While Kelsey’s concerns are justified, Kelsey’s inner monologue may frustrate readers. 

The story’s focus is on Kelsey’s stolen notebook, which doesn’t allow room for the other subplots to be adequately explored. For example, a lost dog that Kelsey is hoping to find only appears twice and the encounter is so short that it does nothing to add to the story. Part of the story includes interesting facts about an Aldabra tortoise, but animal-loving readers will wish that more time was devoted to the tortoise. Even though the animal aspect of Kelsey the Spy reinforces the theme of not keeping secrets, the subplot lacks depth.  

Readers will relate to Kelsey’s friendship problems. As Kelsey struggles with finding the notebook thief, she also has a difficult time with the changing nature of her friendships. When Kelsey’s friends are too busy to spend time with her, Kelsey gets frustrated. Kelsey finally talks to her friends about how she feels, which allows them to work through their problems. In the end, she realizes that friendships change, “rising and falling, then coming back together stronger than ever.” 

Kelsey the Spy has an inquisitive protagonist who helps put on a fundraiser for a local shelter. Kelsey is a typical preteen that many readers will relate to. However, the plot tackles too much—Kelsey’s brother who is sneaking around, a lost dog, the missing notebook, and the tortoise who needs a new home. Because of the many subplots, the story jumps around a lot. Kelsey the Spy does have some fun elements to keep readers engaged. Plus, it teaches important lessons about teamwork, friendship, and the dangers of keeping secrets. Even though Kelsey the Spy is the third book in the series, it can also be read as a standalone. Middle-grade mystery-loving readers should also read the Friday Barns Series by R.A. Spratt. 

Sexual Content 

  • While spying on her brother, Kelsey sees her friend’s mom. “The sheriff and Mrs. Morales are both divorced and went to high school together so they’re good friends. . . the sheriff kisses her—a big, fat kiss on the lips that lasts a very long time.” 

Violence 

  • None 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • OMG is used often. Oh my god is used once. 
  • Kelsey says drat three times. 
  • Kelsey’s friend calls a classmate a “slimy snake.” Later she calls someone else a jerk. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Anna Strong and the Revolutionary War Culper Spy Ring

Travel back in time to the American Revolution in this thrilling third book of the Spy on History series. Discover the secret Culper Ring, a network of American spies fighting against the British redcoats. Meet historical figures like George Washington and the soon-to-be-infamous Benedict Arnold. Also meet Anna Strong, an unsung heroine who found ingenious ways to communicate top-secret messages to her fellow spies—helping to free the American colonies from British rule.

Your mission: Decode Anna Strong’s hidden message and discover the secret assignment she undertook for the Culper Ring. There are clues embedded in the book’s text and illustrations, plus spy craft materials, including a cipher wheel in an envelope at the beginning of the book. 

Anna Strong and the Revolutionary War Culper Spy Ring allows readers to step back into history and play the part of a Culper spy. The story focuses on Anna and her role as a spy during the Revolutionary War. Even though Anna was often fearful, her bravery allowed George Washington to receive important wartime intelligence that was critical in winning the war. Focusing on Anna allows the reader to see how the war affected men, women, and children.  

Anna’s story is fast-paced, full of suspense, and jam-packed with historical information. In addition, the book’s format is visually appealing. Every page has a graphic element, including pictures that are drawn in black, white, and red. Plus, most of the pages have a quote set apart from the other text. These quotes are printed in large fonts and help break up the text. The graphic elements are essential because hidden in the pictures and text are clues and codes. Readers will use a cipher wheel, a pigpen code, and other methods to decipher Anna’s letter to Caleb Brewster, another spy. 

Readers will enjoy using the spy tools and finding clues throughout the story. However, the lack of direction makes this task difficult. The first page of the book has a map of the Culper Spy Ring. The top of the map has a coded question that is easy to miss. Without the essential question, the clues are just a collection of random words. Parents may want to read the answer key that appears at the end of the book so they can assist young readers in finding and understanding the clues.   

Anna Strong and the Revolutionary War Culper Spy Ring will appeal to readers who love ciphers, history, spies, and mystery. Plus, it gives recognition to many of the spies who helped win the American Revolution. The well-written story will keep readers’ attention and the hidden clues will make them feel like they are a part of history. Readers who want to learn more about women’s role in the Revolutionary War should also read Susanna’s Midnight Ride by Libby Carty McNamee. If you’re looking for more historical facts about the Culper Spies, George Washington’s Spies by Claudia Friddell will give you the inside scoop.  

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • British soldiers knock on Anna’s door in the middle of the night. Anna and her children watched as “one of the soldiers stepped behind her husband and roughly bound his hands.” Anna’s husband was arrested and taken prisoner on a prison ship. 
  • Anna goes to see her husband on the prison ship. When she gets there, the ship smelled “of death. The eyes of the prisoners were sunken, and their faces were taut with hunger.” When Anna sees her husband, “his hands and feet [were] in iron shackles, she saw the same look of starvation and mistreatment beginning to hollow his features.” 
  • Nathan Hale was spying for George Washington. When he got caught, “Nathan was identified as a spy within days and executed almost immediately after he was captured.”  
  • Benedict Arnold was sent into a battle where he “received a terrible leg wound.” 
  • One night, a British soldier is caught sneaking around outside of Anna’s house. Caleb, Anna’s friend, sees him and, “Just as [the soldier] began to dismount from his horse, Caleb burst from the hedge. . . Anna heard a series of thumps as Caleb struck the man, blow after blow.” Anna was afraid Caleb “was going to kill him” but the soldier runs off.  
  • John André, a British soldier, was captured. “André was charged and hanged as a spy.”  

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • One of the spies would go into the city and, when passing the British checkpoints, he bribes the solders with liquor. 
  • When a group of patriots took over a fort, the men helped “themselves to the fort’s liquor stores.” 

Language   

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

The Underground Abductor: An Abolitionist Tale about Harriet Tubman

Meet Underground Railroad abductor Harriet Tubman in this installment of the New York Times bestselling graphic novel series!

Araminta Ross was an enslaved woman born in Delaware. After years of backbreaking labor and the constant threat of being sold and separated from her family, she escaped and traveled north to freedom. Once there, she changed her name to Harriet Tubman. As an “abductor” on the Underground Railroad, she risked her life helping countless enslaved people escape to freedom.

Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales are graphic novels that tell the thrilling, shocking, gruesome, and TRUE stories of American history. Read them all—if you dare!  

The book begins on the execution block, where Nathan Hale is about to be hung for spying. The executioner and a British soldier decide to let Nathan Hale tell a story before he dies. Occasionally, the executioner and soldier break into the story to ask questions or make comments. Sometimes this adds comic relief and other times, the comments mirror what the reader is probably thinking. 

Nathan Hale begins Harriet Tubman’s story when she was six years old. When Harriet was young, a head injury caused her to repeatedly fall asleep without warning. This condition lasted for the rest of her life. Despite this, Harriet risked her life to bring her family and others to freedom. Harriet was one of the few people who was an abductor: “the first person in. Someone who ventured deep into slave territory and made first contact with these to be rescued.” Harriet’s bravery and determination helped hundreds of people escape slavery. Once the Civil War began, Harriet continued to fight for freedom. During the Civil War, Harriet built a spy ring, baked pies to sell to soldiers, and was also a nurse. 

Since Frederick Douglass appears several times, his life story is also summarized over three pages. Fredrick Douglass knew the key to freedom was being able to read, so he taught others to read. However, his master believed, “A slave should know nothing but how to obey his master! If you teach that slave to read, there will be no keeping him! He’ll become unmanageable—discontent and unhappy!” Despite being forbidden to read, Frederick Douglass learned anyways. Fredrick eventually began writing. Frederick Douglass also encouraged slaves to get a gun, so Harriet did.  

The Underground Abductor brings history to life in graphic novel format. The panels are drawn using shades of gray with purple accents. Even though the illustrations show the cruelty inflicted upon slaves, none of the illustrations are graphic. However, many of the slave owners have angry faces, and slaves are seen chained together, whipped, and hiding from slave hunters. Most of the text is in the form of conversations and the words appear in quote bubbles. The story uses easy vocabulary and short sentences that keep the action moving at a quick pace.  

The story of Harriet Tubman highlights the importance of fighting for what you believe. Harriet’s dedication and willingness to put herself in danger is admirable. Through Harriet’s experiences, readers will begin to understand the harsh conditions that slaves had to contend with during the 1800s. While the content may be upsetting, The Underground Abductor will help readers understand America’s past, and learn about the people who fought so everyone could be free. Plus, the book’s format makes it perfect for reluctant readers. Readers who would like to learn more about the Underground Railroad should also read Long Road to Freedom by Kate Messner.  

Sexual Content 

  • None  

Violence 

  • Harriet is sent to help care for a baby. When the baby starts to cry, the woman whips Harriet. The whipping occurs several times and is included in the illustrations.  
  • Someone tells a story about a “woman [who] died in prison before they could hang her.” 
  • Nat Turner received a vision from God. Nat said, “I am told to slay all the whites we encounter, without regard to age or sex.” Nat Turner and other slaves “moved from house to house, killing everyone inside. . . By the time they were stopped, Nat Turner and his followers had killed sixty people—men, women, and children.” Many of the slaves who were part of Nat’s group were executed or killed by mobs and militias.
  • When a slave tries to escape, the bossman throws a weight at him. The weight hits Harriet in the head. Her mother says, “‘Look at all this blood!’ Harriet’s skull is split open and her brains were showing. ‘There’s a hole in her scarf. . . The missin’ scrap is still in her head.’” The scene is illustrated over two pages. After the accident, Harriet would fall asleep without notice. 
  • A ship’s captain was found helping runaway slaves. The man was fined and sent to jail for a year. “They branded his hand with an ‘S.S’—for slave stealer.” 
  • During his time at a plantation, Frederick Douglass says “an overseer shot a slave.” Frederick was also “beaten and starved.” Because Frederick displeased his master, he was sent to a slave-breaker, who is “a master so cruel, he breaks a slave’s will.” 
  • Getting to the north where slaves could be free was difficult. Often runaway slaves died. “Slaves hopping trains lost limbs if they jumped wrong. Stowaways on northbound ships were smoked out or suffocated like rats. Slaves who were captured were…whipped, beaten, branded—often on the face, and in some cases, hobbled.” 
  • It was also dangerous for whites to help runaway slaves. One man was “sentenced to five years of hard labor. He died after two. . .” Another “was beaten and thrown from a train while trying to rescue a slave. . .”
  • When Harriet got a terrible tooth ache, she knew the tooth needed to come out. Someone held a rock against the tooth and “hit the rock with the pistol butt.”  
  • When a man wanted to go back to his master, Harriet held a gun to his head. She said she would shoot “anybody who puts the group at risk.” The man continued the journey with the others.  
  • A runaway slave was captured. A white man shackled his hands and lashed him to a tree. The slave was then whipped.  
  • John Brown, his sons, and other men raided a house owned by slave catchers. The slave catchers were “hacked to death with broadswords.” Then they moved on to other houses. “Five pro-slavers had been slashed to death.” 
  • During another raid, “two of John Brown’s sons died.” Other raiders “were killed” and “the rest—including John Brown—were captured and executed.” 
  • During the Civil War, soldiers from the north plundered mansions and then burned them down. They also burned a town’s mill, a bridge, and anything else that would catch fire. The scene is illustrated over three pages.   

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • When leading runaway slaves north, a baby starts to cry. The baby is given paregoric, “it’s a drug, a tincture of opium.” 

Language   

  • When Harriet was six, she was rented out to work for a weaver. The woman sent Harriet home because, she “is stupid, useless, and no good to us.”  
  • The executioner says “holy smokes” once. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • Nat Turner was a religions man who received visions. He was “deeply religious. He was a Christina. His mother taught him that one day he would become a prophet.” 
  • Harriet knew how to talk to God, and she asked that her master would have a change of heart and not sell any of her siblings. 
  • Harriet prays to God about her master, Mr. Brodess. Harriet says, “Lord, if you ain’t never gonna change that man’s heart. . . kill him, Lord, take him out of the way.” The next day Mr. Brodess dies. 
  • When someone says Harriet is crazy, a man defends her. He says Harriet has “a direct line to God.” 
  • Often Harriet stops and prays to the Lord for guidance. 

Spy Files: Codes and Ciphers

Sneak into the secret lives of spies with this fascinating series about the world’s security services—with agent profiles, information on technology, and events that changed the world. Codes and Ciphers is packed full of interesting information beginning with the difference between a code and cipher, and how they were first developed.  

Codes and Ciphers uses a fun format that breaks up information into small, manageable parts. Each two-page spread changes topics and each page has only one to three short paragraphs plus photo captions. Each page has illustrations including historical photos, drawings, and illustrations of spy technology. Plus, some pages have an infographic titled “Top Secret” which gives additional information on spying. While the format will appeal to many readers, the large font and short paragraphs don’t allow each topic to be explored in detail. Readers who want to learn more in-depth information about codes and ciphers should check out Top Secret by Paul B. Janeczko. 

The wide range of spy information, which includes a lot of historical stories such as information on the World War II Navajo Code Talkers, is extremely interesting. Plus, readers will learn how to make their own codes, ciphers, and invisible ink. The book ends with a two-page glossary and an index. Codes and Ciphers will entertain readers and introduce many interesting facts. Spy-loving readers who want to add a little spy humor to their reading should sneak to the library and search for the Mac B. Kid Spy Series by Mac Barnett. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • None 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Rebel Spy

Rebellious Frannie Tasker knows little about the war between England and its thirteen colonies until a shipwreck off her home in Grand Bahama Island presents an unthinkable opportunity. The body of a young woman floating in the sea gives Frannie the chance to escape her brutal stepfather—and she takes it.

Assuming the identity of the drowned Emmeline Coates, Frannie is rescued by a British merchant ship and sails with the crew to New York. For the next three years, Frannie lives a lie as Miss Coates, swept up in a courtship by a dashing British lieutenant. But after witnessing the darker side of the war, she realizes that her position gives her power. Soon she’s eavesdropping on British officers, risking everything to pass information on to George Washington’s Culper spy ring as agent 355. Frannie believes in the fight for American liberty—but what will it cost her? Inspired by the true “355,” Rebel Spy is rich in historical detail and intrigue. 

Rebel Spy was inspired by the true “355,” who was part of the Culper spy ring. However, 355’s identity has never been discovered, and Frannie is completely fictional. Frannie is a complex character whose stepfather, Sewel, is a tyrant. In order to escape Sewel’s abuse, Frannie makes a desperate move and assumes a dead woman’s identity. While on a ship sailing to New York, Frannie witnesses the British soldiers’ savage nature. These events lead Frannie to believe that “tyranny was wrong. Abuse was wrong. And power ought never be misused.” Frannie struggles between her desire to live a comfortable life as a lady and her belief that no one should be forced to live under a tyrant’s rule. 

As the events of the war unfold, readers will learn how the war affected the entire world, not just the colonies. Because Frannie is living the life of a Loyalist, she becomes friends with many people who believe the Rebels deserve their fate. While the cruelties of war are not glossed over, many of the Loyalists and British soldiers were good people fighting for what they believed was right. However, Frannie helps the Rebel cause because she is convinced that, “Access to life, liberty, and happiness should be equal to all. We should all have a say in deciding our own fates.” Even so, Frannie points out that women will not have this ability even if the Rebels win the war. Instead, they are controlled by their fathers or husbands. 

While Frannie’s story is interesting, she is slightly self-absorbed and doesn’t think about how her actions will impact others. For example, Frannie allows Duncan, a British officer, to court her and she has every intention of marrying him. Frannie claims to care for Duncan, but she often spies on Duncan and relays important information to the Rebels. Frannie never considers how her actions will affect Duncan. Since Frannie’s life is full of lies and deceit, she does not always come across as a sympathetic character.  

Full of danger, suspense, and interesting facts about the Revolutionary War, Rebel Spy will please readers who enjoy historical fiction. While Frannie is not necessarily a relatable character, readers will empathize with her struggle as a young woman living in colonial America. From Frannie’s experiences, readers will learn that “reading will strengthen your expression. Words have power. Learn them and that power becomes yours.” To learn more about how women played a pivotal role in the Revolutionary War, check out Susanna’s Midnight Ride by Libby Carty McNamee. 

Sexual Content 

  • When Frannie was a child, her mother was falsely accused of “having relations with men—some of them enslaved men—and she became a woman of ill fame. . . People crossed the road when they saw her. They hissed ‘filthy strumpet’ and ‘bloody doxy.’ They threw eggs and rubbish at our shop.” In order to survive, Frannie’s mother ended up “doing just what she’d been accused of.”  
  • The captain of the ship “brought the shore’s enjoyment to the Ambrosia—the ‘shore’s enjoyments’ being libations and women.” 
  • While sailing toward the colonies, Frannie meets a man. After dancing, Frannie “threw my arms around his neck, and kissed him. Asa pulled me in tight, his lips parting, his tongue sweeping against mine, and suddenly time disappeared. There was nothing beyond our mouths, gently searching.”  
  • On a different night, Frannie and Asa again kiss. Frannie often gets distracted by “Asa’s lips, which turned me liquid, and his chest, which was a perfect place for me to rest my head.” 
  • Frannie goes out on a midnight errand and sees “brothels and molly houses—brothels catering to men who favored men. Places where the orphaned and destitute often ended up. Where I might’ve ended up, if not for Miss Coates.” 
  • After a servant, Malcom, and Frannie are out most of the night, Malcom’s mother sees them. Malcom’s mother assumes they “snuck away to—” Malcom and Frannie do not correct his mother’s assumption because “the truth is. . . well, it’s worse.” 
  • Frannie’s guardian has arranged for her to court Lieutenant Duncan. After a brief conversation with him, Frannie felt “a velvety heat spreading through me. One thing I couldn’t deny: my body knew exactly how it felt about Lieutenant Duncan.” 
  • The British officers would board with the colonists. However, the officers were less than kind. One woman said, “A girl of barely twenty was got with child by a redcoat who breaks bread with her and her husband every night. Another has been told she will never bear children—she was savaged by five men, redcoats all.”  
  • Frannie is attracted to Duncan, who is courting her. When he leaned close to her, “his lips brushed my cheek, sending waves of heat down my center. He had yet to kiss me. I was so desperate for it to happen. . .” 
  • When Duncan kisses Frannie for the first time, she describes, “He was perfect. His kisses gentle, soft, warm. Desire struck me, and I stepped closer and clutched his arm.” 
  • Frannie gets upset that Asa isn’t “fighting” for her. After a brief argument Asa “wrapped me in his arms and kissed me. Deeply. Passionately. For blissful moments, we clung to each other like we’d only breathe again if we became one.” 
  • Frannie goes to talk to another spy. When the spy goes inside, a man on the street calls, “What’s wrong with us, trollop? We got the same parts he’s got!” 
  • When Duncan gets sent away, he goes to say goodbye to Frannie. “Alone in the dim entryway, we had kissed. It felt like our mouths were discussing something complicated and trying to reach an understanding.” 

Violence 

  • After Frannie backtalks to her stepfather, Sewel, he orders Frannie to go into the ocean even though a shark is nearby. Frannie “was praying for God’s protection as I lowered myself into the water, inch by terrible inch. And crying, too, though crying only ever turned him wickeder.” 
  • Sewel is a convicted murderer. He was “fighting in a tavern over a spilt drink and kill[ed] somebody. . . By reciting a Bible verse and getting the brand, he was saved from swinging by a rope round his neck.”  
  • While out to sea, a ship gets stuck on a reef. Frannie grabs the boat’s paddles in order to go help. Sewel orders her to stop rowing. When she doesn’t, Frannie attests, “something slammed into my back. The breath drove out of me. I flew forward, cracking my head on the keel. The world flashed white and went black.” 
  • After hitting Frannie, Sewel grabs her. “He leaned down, bringing his face close to mine. I kicked and thrashed, but he held me by the neck. . . His hand shot under my shirt and squeezed, hard.” Sewel tells Frannie, “You’ll learn and you will obey me.” 
  • In order to get away from Sewel, Frannie “reached back and swung the oar with every bit of strength in me. The paddle struck Sewel between the shoulder blades with a deep thud. . . Sewel flew forward and plunged into the foamy water. He disappeared without a splash, the sea swallowing him whole.” Another boater rescues Sewel. 
  • Before Frannie’s mother died, Sewel would hit her. After Frannie’s mother dies, Sewel announces that he is going to take Frannie as his new wife.  
  • While traveling to the colonies, two sailors disagree with who is right – the British or the Rebels. The two men get into a fight. “Hackett lunged at him – so fast, a blur – but suddenly everything seemed slow, like it was happening under water. He slammed into Lane and drove him back. . . Lane and Hackett grappled and swung, the sounds of their blows horrible.” The men are bruised, but not seriously injured. 
  • A sailor threatens Frannie, demanding that she give him jewels. The Sailor says, “Fail me and see if ‘old buzzard’ don’t slice you open gullet to gizzard, then dance a gig on your entrails.” 
  • The British come aboard the Ambrosia and force men to join the army. When Asa refuses to volunteer, two soldiers “tacked Asa to the deck, the sound of bone and muscle against wood thunderous. Asa kept struggling even as men piled on him. Then two men slipped cudgels from their belts and swung them.” Asa is beaten until he is bloody. Then, he is “dragged off the Ambrosia.” Asa’s beating is described over a page.  
  • While out on a midnight errand, Malcolm accompanies Frannie. A man “rammed into Malcom. He flew back and crashed into the dirt.” When the man holds a knife to Malcolm’s neck, Frannie “pulled my pocket watch over my head and threw myself on the man’s back. I slammed the hard silver into his ear as I came down. He yelled and rolled away, the knife falling from his hand.” Frannie and Malcom escape. The scene is described over three pages. 
  • While in a tavern, Lieutenant Duncan takes a soldier outside and “there was a grunt. The sound of a body thudding against brick.” Lieutenant Duncan warns the soldier to watch his mouth. 
  • When Frannie’s stepfather, Sewel, finds her, he kills one of the servants, Malcom. Frannie finds his body “lying in the dirt.” Malcom’s mother “pressed her hands to his neck, trying to stop the blood that poured out of him. So much blood. It was everywhere.” Malcom dies. 
  • Frannie has a plan to meet Sewel and frame him for spying. However, when she meets him, he kidnaps her and takes her out on a skiff. In order to get away, Frannie “dove at him, aiming the knife at his neck. . . The blade sank into his shoulder. He roared with pain and swung, his fist crashing into my temple.” In retaliation, Sewel tries to strangle her. A patrol of redcoats approaches the skiff. 
  • When Sewel sees the redcoats, he shoots. “The marines fired back, raising a thunderous noise. Wood popped and shattered all around [Frannie]. The skiff shuddered and shook.” When Sewel refuses to stand down and instead grabs his rifle. The redcoats fire. “Cracks exploded into the night. His body jerked back. His shoulder tore off. His hand disappeared in a bloody spray. Other pieces of him burst and broke.” Sewel is killed and Frannie is taken prisoner. The scene with the soldiers is described over three pages. 
  • When Frannie is imprisoned on a boat, she learns that a starving prisoner was “bayoneted through the gut for trying to filch a piece of bread.” 
  • When the Rebels found a major spying for the British, the traitor is “sentenced to death by hanging.” 
  • On a rainy night, Frannie jumps off the prison ship and into the ocean. As she swam away, Frannie “sensed the bullets slicing around me, but I kept going, even when one found my calf and bit.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Frannie’s stepfather is a drunk who often drinks rum.  
  • After being found on the beach half drowned, Frannie is offered laudanum, which she refuses. However, when she is offered a drink, Frannie “drank it half down before my throat lit with burning coals. It was watered rum—and not much watered.” 
  • During meals, Frannie and other adults are served wine. Alcohol is also served at parties. 
  • When Frannie takes on Emmie’s identity, her friends celebrate Emmie’s birthday by sharing a bottle of “spirits.” The girls get drunk.  
  • When Frannie gets upset, Duncan wants her to take laudanum. She refuses it. 
  • When Duncan’s uncle gets upset, he is given laudanum to calm him down. 
  • When Duncan and Frannie get engaged, they have a celebration and drink champagne. 

Language   

  • Lord is used as an exclamation infrequently. 
  • Frannie calls a sailor an “old hellhound.” 
  • Damn is used three times. Hell is used once. 
  • A sailor says that he is his father’s “bastard.” 
  • Frannie injures a man who attacked a servant. Afterward, the man calls Frannie a bitch.  
  • Bloody is used as profanity several times. For example, a soldier says, “bloody hell.” 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • Frannie occasionally prays. For example, when a storm is near, Frannie “saw thick clouds bunching on the horizon and whispered a quick prayer they’d stay there.” 
  • In the past, Frannie’s stepfather, Sewel, was almost killed. He said, “God looked out for drunks, fools, and sailors.” Frannie thinks, “God must’ve loved Sewel fierce ‘cause he was all three.” 
  • Sewel tells Frannie, “Lying’s a terrible sin. An abomination unto the Lord.” 
  • When Frannie sees a dead girl laying on the beach, she takes the girl’s clothes and the girl’s identity. When a sailor finds her, he says, “Unnatural, a lass surviving such a trial. God’s had a hand in this.” Someone replies, “or the devil.” 
  • After taking Emmeline Coates’ identity, Frannie “prayed for God’s forgiveness.” 
  • Frannie reads a pamphlet written by Thomas Paine, who wrote, “all men were born of equal power and no one could be born to preference. The Bible supported this notion, he wrote, which made kings and monarchies ungodly and wrong.” 
  • When Duncan reprimanded Frannie, she thinks, “it was a wife’s duty to obey. He for God and she for him. . . that was the proper order of things.” 
  • One of the servants tells Frannie, “I pray for you . . . Every night, I pray you find your place.” 

The Usborne Book of Secret Codes

With this book of crafty codes, you can discover ways of sending top-secret messages that will leave snoopers completely baffled. Many of the codes are based on those used by real spies. There are nifty gadgets and lots of hints on how to keep your enemy stumped. As you learn new codes, you can follow a thrilling story involving undercover agents and secret code experts.

As readers learn about codes, they can also follow the story of “The Tomb of the Cursed Tongues.” Follow Agent A as she decodes messages that will help her uncover the fiendish activities of Agent X. In order to distinguish Agent A’s story from informational text, the story is typed in italics. If you get stumped, the answers appear at the back of the book. While Agent A’s story isn’t detailed, readers will have fun decoding messages and trying to solve the mystery.

The Usborne Book of Secret Codes explains each type of code in detail and gives examples that readers will be eager to decode. The book covers 15 types of secret codes including pigpen code, Morse Code, code wheel, and technobabble. Readers will also learn about the history of codes and how some code makers hid their messages. For example, “While working for the army, a military spy disguised himself as a butterfly collector. The patterns he drew of butterfly wings were, in fact, tiny plans of the enemy’s strategies.”

To add to the book’s fun, each page has large colorful illustrations that follow Agent A’s story. Plus, there are many examples of secret codes that readers can try to solve. The book includes simple directions to help readers create invisible writing, a code strip, a code wheel, and other spy codes. The large illustrations break up the text into short paragraphs that will appeal to even the most reluctant reader. The fun format will engage readers and give them many opportunities to interact with the text.

The Usborne Book of Secret Codes will teach readers about the fascinating ways that spies have hidden codes. The interactive book is perfect for readers who want to learn about spycraft. However, readers who want to learn more about the history of codes will want to add Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers, and Secret Writing by Paul B. Janeczko to their reading list. Also consider Anna Strong and the Revolutionary War Culper Spy Ring by Enigma Alverti & Laura Terry; it comes with a spycraft kit that readers use to decipher the different codes in the book, and readers will have fun interacting with the story and seeing if they can solve the puzzles by the end of the book.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • None

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

Team BFF: Race to the Finish!

Sophia and her friends are BFF’s. Together they work on coding projects, eat cookies, and have impromptu dance parties. They are excited to participate in their first robot hackathon. They hope to show off their coding skills. But when Sophia’s parents need her to babysit instead of attending the hackathon, everything may change. Without Sophia, the team will be disqualified. When Sofia tells her friends, will they have her back or will it destroy their friendship?

The second installment of the Girls Who Code series focuses on Sophia’s struggle with balancing home responsibilities with her coding club responsibilities. Readers will be able to relate to Sophia’s struggle to tell her friends bad news—she won’t be able to participate in the hackathon. The friends in the story not only brainstorm how to build a robot, they also show the importance of helping each other. The diverse cast of characters are young girls who have a variety of interests (cooking, drama, and fashion), but come together because of their love of coding.

Team BFF, Race to the Finish is told from Sophia’s point of view, which allows the reader to understand Sophia’s feelings of not being noticed by her family. The reader will get a small glimpse into the life of a large, Hispanic family. Sophia’s family not only makes traditional Spanish food but also uses Spanish in their everyday interactions.

Sophia is also struggling to understand her feelings for a boy. She has a crush but is tongue-tied every time she sees the boy. As Sophia and the boy interact, she wonders how to navigate a boy-girl relationship. Team BFF, Race to the Finish is an easy to read story that shows smart girls in everyday situations. Sophia’s struggle is highly relatable, interesting, and will capture many readers’ interest.

Sexual Content

  • Sophia has a crush on a boy and when they talk, Sophia talked even though “butterflies in my stomach were zooming around like crazy. . . It was silly to feel weird around him.”
  • While walking with Sophia, Sammy “reached for my hand. I let him take it, even though it was a sweaty mess—but his was too.”

Violence

  • None

Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

Charlotte Spies For Justice: A Civil War Survival Story

Twelve-year-old Charlotte lives on a plantation in Richmond, Virginia, where the American Civil War is raging. All around her, citizens and the Confederate army are fighting to protect slavery — the very thing Charlotte wishes would end. When she overhears the plantation owner conspiring against the Confederates, Charlotte knows she must help. Maybe together they can help the Union win the war and end slavery. Helping a spy is dangerous work, but Charlotte is willing to risk everything to fight for what is right — justice for all people.  

Charlotte Spies For Freedom is full of action and suspense that focuses on the heroic deeds of many historical events. While Charlotte is fictional, she is a relatable character who shows bravery despite her fear. Several times, Charlotte visits Libby prison. Even though the story shows the harsh conditions of Libby prison and includes the death of several Union soldiers, no gruesome details are given. However, the story highlights Charlotte’s fear of being caught and harmed. Despite her fear, Charlotte is willing to risk her life to help the Union cause. She says, “I’m willing to give my life away if it helps free my people.”  

Even though Charlotte is a fictional character, many of the book’s characters are based on real people. This includes Elizabeth Van Lew, who gathered important information to pass along to the Union Army. Readers will be fascinated with the different ways Elizabeth Van Lew used to send messages, including using invisible ink and ciphers. She also hides messages in hollowed-out eggs, the heels of boots, and loaves of bread. Several times, Charlotte comments on Elizabeth Van Lew’s “odd” behavior; the author’s note explains that Elizabeth Van Lew’s strange behavior was another way she disguised her activities.  

Another historical spy is Mister McNiven. Despite being surrounded by war, Mister McNiven greets Charlotte each morning by saying, “It’s a good day to be alive.” At first, Charlotte doesn’t understand his optimism. However, she soon realizes Mister McNiven believes this because “he knew he was doing something important. He hoped for a better tomorrow and he was doing his part.” 

To make the story easy to follow, each chapter begins with Charlotte’s location and the date. Every ten to seventeen pages there is a black-and-white illustration that focuses on Charlotte’s activities. One illustration shows a Confederate soldier hitting Charlotte. The back of the book contains an author’s note that goes into more detail about the historical facts of Elizabeth Van Lew, a glossary, and three response questions to help readers connect to the reading material. 

Charlotte Spies For Freedom is an engaging story that shows how ordinary people were willing to lay down their lives to fight for the freedom of all people. The story, which uses kid-friendly descriptions, is both educational and entertaining. Since the story is full of danger and action, it will appeal to a wide audience. Readers interested in historical fiction can also learn about the Underground Railroad by reading Long Road to Freedom by Kate Messner. 

Sexual Content 

  • None

Violence 

  • Charlotte goes to a prison holding Union prisoners. While there, she sees “a dead Union soldier. . . I caught a glimpse of his face. I could tell he had been beaten.” 
  • While delivering food to the prisoners, a Confederate soldier named Robert points a gun at Charlotte. Robert “walked toward me, put the barrel of his gun in my face, and cocked it.”  Another soldier, Erasmus Ross appears and grabs Charlotte’s face. “He squeezed even harder, and a sharp pain shot through my jaw.” Ross drags Charlotte outside. 
  • In order to protect Charlotte, Ross takes her outside and tells her, “I’m going to get you out of here, but I have to hit you.” He proceeds to backhand her. “It hurt, but not nearly as much as it should have. . . Mister Ross gave me a shove so hard it sent me to my knees.” As she was leaving, “a shot rang out behind me. I could only hope that Mister Ross had fired into the air.” 
  • After a prison break, Confederate soldiers “recaptured forty-eight Union soldiers. . . Two of them drowned.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • Some people called Elizabeth Van Lew “Crazy Bet.” 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

The Real Spy’s Guide to Becoming a Spy

Created by the founding executive director of the International Spy Museum, who is also a former operative in the CIA’s Clandestine Service, this is the official handbook for kids who dream of one day becoming a spy or working in the intelligence field.

Have you ever wondered what spies really do? What kind of training is involved? Do you have to go to a special school or take a polygraph test? How do you live your “cover?” How does your work life affect your relationships with your friends and family? Is there danger involved?

This fascinating, fact-filled book answers these questions and more while providing a historical timeline, definitions of key terms, suggestions for further reading, an index, quizzes, and exercises to see if you have the right spy stuff. 

The Real Spy’s Guide to Becoming a Spy is packed full of interesting information about the spy world and it explains why spies are important. “Every country wants to know what other countries—both friends and enemies—are doing and how it might affect their national interests.” Readers will learn about the world of spies through fun infographics that include spy terms, job descriptions, true stories, and quizzes. Readers will also learn about common spy myths and what a spy’s life is really like.  

Readers will also learn about other jobs within the spy world, such as people who create spy science and technology, a case officer, and an intelligence analyst. In addition, the book explains what qualities spies need and what steps to take in order to become a spy. While a spy’s life isn’t as exciting as James Bond portrays it, readers will still enjoy learning about dead drops, listening devices, and ciphers. After taking the quizzes, readers will know if a spy’s life is for them.   

The book’s conversational tone and graphic elements give the story an interesting flair. Every page has some type of graphic element including black and white illustrations, “Spy Speak” glossaries, lists, and/or bold red titles. Breaking up the text with these graphic elements makes the reading more enjoyable and presents facts in a way that makes them easy to remember. Even though the book’s topic is serious and the importance of intelligence gathering is highlighted, the book will not fail to entertain readers interested in the world of spies.  

As a former CIA operations officer and the founding executive director of the International Spy Museum, Peter Earnest uses his knowledge to teach readers about becoming a spy. By the end of reading The Real Spy’s Guide to Becoming a Spy, readers will have a better understanding of the spy world and if they have what it takes to go undercover. Readers who want to jump into the exciting, but the fictional world of a group of young spies should read the City Spies Series by James Ponti.  

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • A timeline titled “How Long Have Spies Been Around?” includes spies who were executed for espionage. For example, “Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed in the United States for espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union. . . The Rosenbergs were members of an atomic spy ring whose espionage helped the USSR develop its own nuclear bomb.” 
  • “A defector from Russian intelligence dies of radiation poisoning in London.” The defector believed the Russian president planned his assassination. 
  • Sometimes countries kill enemy leaders. “This is called targeted killing, rather than assassination.” 
  • In order to stop terrorist attacks, President Bush declared “war on terror. . . Armed drones have also been used to attack terrorist strongholds and kill terrorist leaders. The terrorists also rely on their own intelligence capabilities and covert tradecraft to plan and carry out their deadly activities.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • When the KGB suspected that one of its operatives was working for the British, they gave him a truth serum.  

Language   

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Before Takeoff

This is an evening like any other in the Atlanta airport. Sixteen-year-old James and eighteen-year-old Michelle are both on a layover when their paths cross. They are drawn to something nobody else seems to notice: “a blinking green light that will soon cause all hell to break loose.” While James is hesitant to do anything, an impulsive Michelle reaches her hand toward it. When she realizes that “it’s not just a light, but a button,” she presses down.  

Impossible events begin almost immediately. One end of the airport jumps to ninety degrees while snow falls at the other. Explosions, tornados, and rushing rivers spring out of nowhere. To make matters worse, nobody can locate an exit, glass windows refuse to break, cell phone calls aren’t going through, and anytime someone tries to text “something about the events at the airport, [their] words turn into a string of emojis” that are indecipherable.  

As James and Michelle search for their families inside the airport, the mayhem keeps getting worse, and people are quick to form groups and turn on one another. Michelle realizes that she caused this—that the green button must be responsible for this madness—and that she needs to destroy it before it’s too late. 

Before Takeoff is told in omniscient third person, taking the reader inside the minds of James, Michelle, and countless people throughout the airport. Occasionally, the story will make references to things that will happen after the narrative is over. These tactics allow for a better understanding of the grand scope of this situation, as readers are privy to knowledge and events that the main characters are not. The narrative occasionally makes remarks that are informal and playful, at one point describing a series of fights that break out as a “Hunger Games-esque/Battle Royale fiasco.” This is a way of demonstrating an awareness of the absurdity of the plot and inviting the reader to just go along with it.  

Unfortunately, Before Takeoff ‘s perspective makes it difficult for the reader to get an intimate understanding of James and Michelle. There are so many glimpses into the heads of so many people that it becomes easy to feel detached from the two main characters. Readers may find it difficult to care about them. In addition, as their ordeal stretches on, the plot drags because readers are not given much incentive to be invested in the characters or the outcome. 

From the start, readers know that James and Michelle will reunite with their families and successfully put an end to what is going on. Their romantic connection is also predictable. The narrative tries to make a point about human nature. Particularly, it focuses on how quick people are to grow hostile towards each other in chaotic situations, how they “succumb to their biases . . . blame the people they know the least about.” However, it fails to set itself apart in any way from countless other stories that have made comments about the same phenomena. Unfortunately, Before Takeoff’s enticing premise falls flat. Since the characters are hard to care for and the storyline is so predictable, the book is not worth reading unless the reader is an avid fan of fantastical survival stories. While the writing is often witty, getting through the whole story ultimately feels like a chore.  

Sexual Content 

  • Michelle remembers an old boyfriend and how they snuck around “finding places to make out, finding new places to press their bodies together.” 
  • During a conversation with James about love, Michelle muses, “‘I’d be content with something simpler than love… A perfect sexual relationship, sure.’” 
  • James has not cried in a long time, but  “he came close a few times during those weeks when [a classmate] refused to talk to him after they’d hooked up.” Later, the book implies that they did not have sex, as James lists it as something he would like to do before he dies. 
  • Michelle and James enter an airport shop to get dry clothes to change into. Michelle tells James not to look, and “reaches back to unclip her bra right as James forces himself to stare at a wall.” 
  • Michelle tells James,‘“the boy’s I’ve been with . . . forget gradients of sexuality; we’re talking intimacy here, lie-in-the-dark-and-talk-about-deep-shit intimacy—they’ve all asked some sort of question related to numbers. . . How many other times did you do this.” James reiterates that “sex or making out or whatever” shouldn’t be quantified by how many people you’ve done those things with. 
  • James and Michelle kiss passionately in a closet. There is a skip in time and the two are described as still being in the closet and “still clothed and mostly chaste . . . closely attuned to the joys of the physical.” 
  • An airline employee named Rosa remembers going to a frat party where guys were “walking around shirtless, thinking that the display alone would get them laid.” 
  • James and Michelle dance at one point, and “it doesn’t take long for sex to enter [their] minds.” Their bodies are pressed together and James wonders if Michelle “can feel him start to harden.” 
  • While dancing, Michelle “can feel [James’] erection any time their hips meet. Her hand dips below the waistband of his jeans.” A new commotion interrupts them before they can go further. 
  • A woman reminisces over a lost love, and how “every now and then, during, sex, she’ll still picture [his] face instead of her husband’s.”  

Violence 

  • Two men have a confrontation, and a man named Taha attempts to diffuse the situation. When one man attempts to hit the other, Taha instead “catches the blow directly on the nose, and that sound carries towards James, as does the sound of the back of Taha’s head when it lands against the floor. . . There’s a splatter of blood on the tile.” This leaves Taha unconscious. This whole altercation takes place over two pages. 
  • There are two explosions of ambiguous cause. The first one “ripples the air and shakes the walls, sending several people to the ground.” The second is described as “knocking a few more things to the ground, handing out another dozen concussions or so.” 
  • James and his family lived in Humboldt Park “when the shootings were bad.”  
  • The narrative states that in Concourse A, “A Hunger Games-esque/Battle Royale fiasco has broken out, and since we have weak constitutions . . . we shall pass over the events that take place there for the remainder of this narration.” 
  • A man named Joseph accuses Taha of knowing something about what’s going on at the airport. Joseph intimidates him and jabs a finger at his chest. Before it makes contact, “Taha has grabbed it with one hand and Joseph’s wrist with his other hand, then twisted so that Joseph’s arm is behind his back and his finger is some slight pressure away from breaking.” Taha lets Joseph go after insisting he has no right to accuse him of anything. 
  • An airline employee unsuccessfully attempts to break through a window to escape, swinging a chair at it and punching it in frustration. The narrative notes a stream of blood leaking “from between his clenched knuckles, his skin cracked from the efforts to break free.” 
  • A vaguely described curse passes through the airport causing many people to “merely stop breathing, quietly passing from this life without a bang or a whimper.” 
  • During a commotion, “fistfights [start] to merge, an almost cartoon-like cloud of punches and kicks and curses.” 
  • It is stated at one point that “a handful of other people die in the unspoken battles of the A gates” due to the violence that has broken out there. 
  • People are trampled in stampedes. At one point, people who are unable to get out of the way are “[bracing] themselves for uncaring boots. They curl up in balls and protect their heads.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • James recalls that he often gets stuck looking at mirrors “in the midst of anxiety-ridden afternoons and drug-addled nights.” 
  • “Two white twentysomethings named Brad and Chad, buzzing off their earlier choice to pair shots of Jameson with twenty ounce beers” run around the airport during the chaos. 
  • “The smell of filth and alcohol” is described as coming from stranded passengers. 
  • At one point, a couple of people are noted to be smoking cigars. 
  • James and Michelle get drunk on unspecified alcoholic beverages during a salsa party that breaks out. 

Language 

  • Profanity is used rather frequently, both in the narration and dialogue.  Profanity includes ass, asshole, fuck, shit, bullshit, damn, and goddamn.  
  • Michelle often uses the French swear word “putain,” which translates to whore, bitch, and slut. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual 

  • James recalls being pulled over for not using a blinker and how the cop made him and his friend get out of the car and “only because he found nothing else, and they deferred to him like he was God, did they get back in.” 
  • A woman was “begging the God she stopped believing in when she was fourteen that she’ll see her kids again.” 
  • James thinks about God and going to church with his friend Marcus. James at one point “believed in God even though he never saw evidence of Him, other than what the preacher at church would say.”  
  • A congregation of people gather on their knees, “whispering their prayers in a dozen languages.” 

Escape from Falaise

After their plan to rescue the Prince of Gallica has gone horribly wrong, Will Treaty and his apprentice, Maddie, are being held captive at the Chateau des Falaises in Gallica. The dangerous baron, Lassigny, is intent on keeping them—and the prince—no matter what. But Will and Maddie are determined to escape.

If they ever want to return to their home, they’ll have to find ways to outwit the baron and get outside the locked tower. When friends from home endeavor to find their own way to help, it seems escape is closer than ever. But the dirty tricks of the baron are no laughing matter.

Facing dangerous threats, battles with knights, and a new and risky plot to save the prince, the odds are stacked against them. But the Rangers will use all the tools of their trade to save themselves and save the day.

Escape from Falaise concludes the story arc that began in The Missing Prince. In this installment, Horace and Halt join in the effort to free Maddie and Will. Even though the two Rangers successfully escape the castle, they go back in to finish their mission—free the Gallican prince, Giles. The story highlights the qualities of an honorable leader by using Lassigny and the Gallican king to demonstrate examples of abuse of power. The political intrigue is interesting and introduces a new twist to the Royal Ranger Series.

 One positive aspect of the story is that the Rangers go out of their way to avoid killing someone. For example, Lassigny’s guards use deadly force to try to stop Maddie and Giles from escaping the castle. Despite this, Will and Halt try to incapacitate the guards instead of killing them. Another positive aspect of the story is the camaraderie and respect among the rangers. Even though Maddie is significantly younger than Will and Halt, both men listen to her and take her opinion into consideration. Plus, they trust her to save Giles even though she must do it alone.

Readers who fell in love with the characters in the Ranger’s Apprentice Series will enjoy seeing them in a new light. While the story focuses on Maddie’s role as a ranger, Halt, Horace, and Will play a major role in the story’s plot. Because the Royal Ranger Series is an extension of the Ranger’s Apprentice Series readers will want to read it before they jump into Flanagan’s companion series, the Brotherband Chronicles. If you’re looking for a book series with honorable characters who demonstrate loyalty, courage, and perseverance, all of Flanagan’s series will hit the mark.

 Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • Armand, one of the king’s senior officers, is “unpopular among the servants” because he “wasn’t above physical punishment for those who attracted his anger. He was free with his fist when it came to the male servants and had been known to lash out at some of the female staff with the short riding whip he always carried.”
  • Armand and Maddie have a duel. Maddie “let fly with two rapid shots, smashing the lead-weighted hardwood arrowhead into the heavy iron helmet. . .” During the fight, Maddie uses her arrows repeatedly. “Three massive blows slammed against Armand’s helmet, deafening him, blurring his sight and hurling him sideways to the right. . .” Maddies’ horse Bumper charges Armand’s roan “shoving him upward and sideways.” Armand falls of the horse, ending the battle.
  • To escape from captivity, Halt, Will and Maddie hide in a stable. When the stablemaster is about to see them, “an iron-hard arm clamped around his throat from behind. The stablemaster gave a short, startled gasp. . .He struggled wildly for a minute or so, but Halt’s grip was relentless, tightening further and further, cutting off the air to the man’s lungs.” When the stablemaster is unconscious, Halt ties him up.
  • While trying to leave the castle, a solider attempts to stop Halt, but his horse Tug “set his shoulder and thudded into the man, knocking the halberd from his grasp, and sending him crashing against the stone wall . . .Fortunately for the guard, he was wearing chain mail and a helmet, as his head slammed into the stonework. His eyes glazed and he slid down the wall, semiconscious.”
  • When Will and Maddie escape, Lassigny gets angry and orders someone to flog several of the soldiers.
  • Maddie sneaks into Lassigny’s castle to free Giles, who is being held captive. While they are sneaking out of the castle, Maddie uses her sling to incapacitate two guards. “The smooth, round stone slammed into the guard’s forehead . . . He gave a startled grunt, threw out his arms and crashed over. . .” Then Maddie throws a stone at the other guard. “The impact of the stone on the man’s head. . . was sickening. Like his comrade, the guard threw out his arms and collapsed backward onto the floor.” Maddie checks the men, who are unconscious but breathing.
  • When Giles is moaning in fear, Maddie “drew back a hand and slapped him hard across the cheek. Instantly, he sat up, his eyes wide-open. . . The moaning stopped.” Later, to escape, Maddie hit Giles again, knocking him unconscious.
  • As Maddie and Giles are escaping the castle, soldiers spot them. Halt shoots at the men. “Maddie saw another guard on the battlement go down.”
  • When Lassigny and his soldiers start leaving the castle, Will and Halt shoot arrows. “The results were devastation. The three riders in the front rank behind Lassigny were plucked from their saddles. Two of them lay where they fell.”
  • Lassigny challenges Horace to a “fair combat.” Lassigny charges Horace. “Lassigny, prepared to resist an upward flick, was caught unprepared for the powerful downward force of Horace’s stroke. The point of his lance was hammered violently down, so that it slammed into the ground. . .Then the lance shaft could bend no further and it shivered into splinters, and he fell, crashing down on his back.”
  • Lassigny recovers and attacks Horace with his sword. When Horace “delivered stroke after stroke,” Lassigny’s arm “was numbed by the impact and his knees buckled beneath him, forcing him to give ground.” After Lassigny gives up, Horace turns his back. Lassigny’s “face was a mask of hatred as he stepped towards Horace’s unprotected back, raising the dagger for a treacherous killing stroke. The three Rangers shot within the same heartbeat. Three arrows thudded into Lassigny, the force of the triple impact hurling him sideways.” The scene is described over five pages.
  • The king orders his brother to be executed for treason.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • During a meal, alcohol is served, but “Maddie didn’t drink alcohol, and Will only imbibed sparingly.”
  • At another meal, alcohol is served. “Will signaled that he would have a glass. Maddie opted for water.”
  • When Will and Maddie are being held prisoner in the castle, they are served wine.
  • When Maddie sneaks the prince out of the castle, she waits for two men to move off the stairs. The men “were sitting and passing a flask of wine back and forth.”
  • While eating with the king, wine is served.

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

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