When you think of George Washington, you might think of his false teeth, or the quote attributed to him about never telling a lie, or chopping down that cherry tree. As improbable as those last two things are, it is true that he was a man of integrity who avoided scandal. So, it might surprise some of you to know that he was a Spymaster during the Revolutionary War. The American spy network in operation during the war was called the Culper Spy Ring and they provided Washington with information on the movements of the British troops. The spies in this network were protected by having pseudonyms, and were identified by numbers (Washington’s was 711) rather than names. They even used invisible ink to conceal their messages.
In honor of Presidents’ Day, originally held on the anniversary of George Washington’s birthday (February 22) but in 1971 moved to the third Monday in February, I thought I would highlight some YA books that I think George would have really enjoyed reading.
To assist him in his role as Spymaster, Washington might have found this book useful:
- Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers and Secret Writing by Paul B. Janeczko (Editor), Jenna Lareau (Illustrator) (2004) Janeczko gives middle grade aspiring codemakers and codebreakers everything they need for staging their own information exchanges–terminology; instructions for making simple devices; concrete advice (assemble a “spy toolkit,” using film-canister “vials” to store homemade invisible ink); and plenty of practice activities with answers at the back of the book accompanied by fascinating historical anecdotes and nice illustrations by LaReau.
For pure entertainment , Washington certainly would have wanted to read these:
- Don’t Turn Around by Michelle Gagnon (2012) Noa, 16, a victim of the foster care system, lives off the grid as a brilliant computer hacker to rival Lisbeth Salander from Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. When she wakes up on a table in a warehouse with an IV in her arm and no memory of how she got there, she joins up with rich teenager Peter, the leader of a hacker alliance, to figure out what’s going on. He ‘s been having his own problems after being threatened by a shady corporation. What they don’t realize is that Noa holds the key to a terrible secret, one that others would go to great lengths to kill her for. The second book in this projected trilogy, published this past August is Don’t Look Now.
- Blue Avenger Cracks the Code by Norma Howe (2000) Persuaded by his English teacher that the author of the plays attributed to Shakespeare is instead Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, the Blue Avenger, a.k.a. David Schumacher, a 16-year-old self-made superhero, quickly sets to work decoding Elizabethan anagrams and ciphers to solve this ages old mystery. This is the sequel to the funny The Adventures of Blue Avenger (1999).
- Chaos Code by Justin Richards (2007) Teenaged Matt must find his missing father, a brilliant archaeologist, who had been searching for an ancient code rumored to have brought down the Mayans, and possibly even Atlantis. A madman now has the code, and with the help of high tech computers to decipher it, is preparing to use the code for his own evil plan. Matt and his friend Robin travel the globe, fighting terrifying sand creatures and mercenaries in an effort to stop the chaos code from being fully reactivated and destroying the world
For fictional stories that are historically accurate, Washington definitely would have liked:
- Code Talker by Joseph Bruchac (2005) (2014 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults) When WWII broke out, sixteen-year-old Ned Begay, a student in a Navajos mission school that he hates, is recruited by the Marine Corps to use his native language to create a code the Japanese couldn’t break. Navajo is one of the hardest of all American Indian languages to learn, and only Navajos can speak it with complete fluency. Telling his story to his grandchildren, Ned relates his experiences in school, military training, and across the Pacific, on Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Guam, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa as he and a select group of Navajo code talkers created this unbreakable code.
- Code Named Verity by Elizabeth Wein (2012) (2013 Printz Honor book) In this harrowing and twisty tale set during WWII, Verity, caught by the Gestapo after her plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France, slowly doles out bits of confidential information in an effort avoid being tortured as a spy. Her riveting, unforgettable story is more than a listing of wireless codes or aircraft types. In the process of telling her story, she reveals her extraordinary friendship with fellow spy Maddie, the pilot who flew them to France, as well as the real details of the British War Effort.
And who can’t resist reading about themselves? To read more about his own exploits, Washington would have read:
- George Washington, Spymaster: How the Americans Outspied the British and Won the Revolutionary War by Thomas B. Allen. (2004) The compelling narrative in this nonfiction book written for middle grade readers, but also very entertaining for teens, reveals the surprising Spymaster role played by the first commander-in-chief, General George Washington in the Revolutionary War. It introduces readers to the elusive Culper Ring, uncovers a “mole” in the Sons of Liberty, and explains how invisible ink and even a clothesline were used to send secret messages. Washington’s own secret codebook is also published here for the first time. It’s a lot of fun to read and try to figure out the ciphers that Washington used. The book stands out because it’s small and without the cover looks like an old tract from that time period with a Colonial-era looking typeface.
- The Dark Game: True Spy Stories from Invisible Ink to CIA Moles by Paul B. Janeczko (2010) (2011 Excellence in Nonfiction Nominee)
Ever since George Washington used them to help defeat the British, spies and their networks have helped and hurt America at key moments in history. Here, the author probes such stories as that of Elizabeth Van Lew, an aristocrat whose hatred of slavery drove her to be one of the most successful spies in the Civil War; the “Choctaw code talkers,” Native Americans who were instrumental in sending secret messages during World War I; the staggering engineering behind a Cold War tunnel into East Berlin to tap Soviet phones (only to be compromised by a Soviet mole); and many more famous and less-known examples.
So, as you celebrate Presidents’ Day, put up your feet and check out some of George’s recommendations.
-Sharon Rawlins, currently reading Origin by Jessica Khoury