"How I Became a Spy"

“How I Became a Spy,” by Deborah Hopkinson, is a World War II mystery with an exciting plot, factual details, believable/empathic characters, and examples of ciphers that will be fun to figure out with young readers.

Special Operations Executive agents (SOE), who volunteered to go to Europe as spies prior to the Allied Invasion, provide the informational backdrop of the novel. These brave souls sent back messages, ciphers, in code. Many of the agents were women, like Violette who’s fictionalized in Hopkinson’s book.

The main character is Bertie Bradshaw, a 13-year-old civil defense volunteer. His sidekick is his dog, Little Roo, trained to find victims in the rubble. The action kicks off when they happen onto a young woman lying in an alley. Bertie hurries to cover her with his coat, and takes off to report the incident. When officers go to find her, she’s disappeared.

So begins the complicated task of locating Violette before a double agent blows the whistle on the Allied Forces’ mission to invade France. This plan is hinted at in ciphers in Violette’s notebook, which Bertie finds on the street after he nearly runs into Eleanor on his bike. She’s a spunky American, just Bertie’s age, a key player in the spy caper, along with David, a Jewish pal of Bertie’s.

The three comprise a formidable team of sleuths in this fast-moving book that only slows when readers try to untangle the ciphers, a pleasant diversion that could turn into a family project. Hopkinson, a personal favorite, scores high marks with “How I Became a Spy,” chock full of references to Sherlock Holmes and direct quotes from the SOE agents’ manual. Get crackin’.

Third grade through seventh.