CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 9 . . . . December 22, 2006
Successful spies need a rare combination of daring and caution. They need to be physically fit, and they need to be smart, creative, and able to follow directions “to the letter.” Most important of all, they need to have the right personality for the job. Award-winning author of trade books for children, Helaine Becker (Boredom Blasters, Are You Psychic?, Mama to Likes Mambo) asks spy hopefuls, “Do You Have What It Takes?” to be a Young Operative Undercover (Y.O.U.)? In this clever, fun, easy to follow, step by step, everything you need to know “training” guide, Becker appeals to the hidden detective in all of us. Me, a secret agent? She assures aspiring spies that it is possible - “Yes, You!” Her book, appropriate for late elementary/middle school age readers, will intrigue the curious and those with inquiring minds who like to get at the facts, piece clues together, and solve problems.
Secret Agent Y.O.U. has a look-over-your-shoulder feel to it as, at each page turn, there seems to be someone going “psst” in your ear. Becker’s sense of humour and her playfulness with words (“For Your Spies Only,” “Mission Invisible,” “Rock and Mole”) are matched by Dave Whamond’s madcap and hilarious, full-colour “spy art” cartoon illustrations of suspicious eyes and shady-looking characters popping out everywhere from such unsuspecting places as chapter titles, garbage cans, letter slots, luggage compartments, and dark alleys. The overall effect reinforces the “Top Secret” tone of the book’s offbeat look at the spyworld.
Becker has a chatty, conversational style that is engaging and invites participation and discovery. As the “spy master,” she informs, entertains, challenges, encourages, and guides “agents-in-training” on a personable, one-on-one basis. She divides the training sessions into six main areas that focus on what she considers to be the essential tools and techniques of the spy trade:
1.Orientation and Spy Readiness that consists of an entrance exam (“not everyone is cut out to be a spy”) and an introduction to the spy world and its jargon.
2.Physical Fitness, a chapter of “missions” that singles out how to build endurance, strength, agility, co-ordination, and flexibility in order to become a “super snoop.”
3.The Art of Disguise which reveals hot tips on how to conceal your identity and have a cover story not only using code names, changes of clothing, and hairstyle, but finding out how to create fake blood, bruises, warts, and moles.
4. Surveillance which emphasizes how to observe and recognize details, boost your memory, and collect information without being detected.
5. Cryptology, probably the most fun chapter (even though none of the pages in this chapter are numbered) discloses how to encrypt and crack codes from simple to ultra-tough!
6. Communication, Spy-Style which gives a “confidential communiqué” and briefing on how to use invisible ink, develop a secret handshake, and create secret passwords.
From spy-trainee to becoming a secret agent, Y.O.U, graduates are offered one final mission at the end of their training and that is, to become a sleeper agent, an assignment that Becker cautions is critical to the security of the world, but one that I.C.U. Headquarters knows “you can handle.” The instructions are simple: “…go about your day-to-day business,” be “an ordinary kid,” “stay fit, maintain your mental sharpness in school, keep your eyes open,” and “stay ready” for when “we will need to call upon your talents.”
The format of Secret Agent Y.O.U. makes for easy reading. There is a table of contents (a.k.a. “Concealed Inside”) printed on a locked briefcase cunningly illustrated with peculiar characters (one is headless) trying to tamper with the “confidential” information within. Chapter titles (and subheadings) in bold yellow, red, and blue letters (shaded in black) are catchy, for example, “Training Mission: Y.O.U.,” “A Peek at Surveillance,” and “Cryptology 101: Authorized Personnel Only.” A comprehensive and useful index lists most if not all of the spy topics covered in the book, and a “Mission Answers” section allows “spies-in-training” to see how they did on challenges and quizzes.
The book is jam-packed with information (maybe too much at times?). However, highly artistic and quirky layouts that isolate key facts and mission instructions in brightly coloured boxes and speech balloons and on eye-catching clipboards and memo notes make the text more inviting and appealing by allowing “trainees” to absorb the words in chunks. Although there is no glossary, two sections in the first chapter, “Talk the Talk” and “Spy World” introduce spy lingo and the spy network team of agents in the form of a quiz. Did you know that a cobbler is a spy who creates false passports and other documents?
While Secret Agent Y.O.U. can be enjoyed alone, there are a few activities and assignments that require the assistance of friends, fellow “agents-in-training,” or an adult advisor. In particular, “The Jittery Jewel Thief Affair” which has an extensive list of instructions, including the use of batteries, wires, and a coat hanger, would work best in the classroom under teacher guidance just to make sure that innocent fingers don’t get an unnecessary jolt from electrical currents.
Becker certainly and skillfully gives readers, as promised, the inside scoop on secret codes, disguises, surveillance, and much, much more. However, there is one “blemish” that disturbs this reviewer. According to Becker, her book is for those who have proven that they are spy material by passing the “Spy School Entrance Exam” which is an entitlement for would-be spies to continue with their “training.” Intrepret this to mean that those who score favourably are “permitted” to go on reading the book. If “would-be-spies” don’t answer Question 1 correctly by using a separate sheet of paper to record their answers, Becker tells them that they “automatically FAIL.” Since this is a tongue-in-cheek training “manual” and Becker certainly encourages “trainees” to build and work on weaknesses, perhaps in a second edition or reprinting, those who FAIL to follow instructions in Question 1 of the exam (that is, “use a separate piece of paper to record your answers”) will be given a second chance.
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