There Is No Place Where Espionage Is Not Possible

The Spy School series is a VERY popular series in my class library. It is a series that I need to make sure I purchase the newest book when it comes out. My students become exasperated when they have to wait for it. I should say, my male students become exasperated when they have to wait for it. My girls just aren’t that into it.

If you haven’t read Spy School, the books are a completely implausible, funny romp through the fast-paced world of espionage–all told through an eighth-grade protagonist. Stuart Gibbs’ website summarizes the premise best, so I’m just going to use his words:

Ben Ripley may only be in middle school, but he’s already pegged his dream job: C.I.A. or bust. So he’s thrilled when he’s recruited to the C.I.A.’s top secret Academy of Espionage. Only, it turns out, Ben hasn’t been brought in because the C.I.A. expects him to succeed. Instead, he’s been brought in as bait to catch a dangerous enemy agent. Now, Ben needs to step up his game before he ends up dead. Can he solve the crime, get the girl and save the day? Maybe not, but it’ll be fun to watch him try!

I first learned of the series about six years ago when one of my then seventh-grade boys was reading the books. In “normal” times, I greet my students at the door, clipboard and status sheet in hand, ask kids what they’re reading and what page they’re on. This process does a few things for me: 1) it eliminates reading logs which kids hate, 2) it allows me to check in with every student that day, 3) it allows me to start to form connections with kids. So this one particular day, my student–I’ll call him Ben–arrived to class with Spy School in hand. The cover looked interesting, I asked him if he liked it, and I got the typical grunt, and I didn’t think much about it. A couple of days later, he was reading Spy Camp. Then Evil Spy School. Then Ski Spy School. And it was at this point, I knew I needed to get this series.

So I did what I do when I’m purchasing for my classroom library, I went to an online used book store, and purchased Spy School. When it arrived a few weeks later (the downside to used books is media mail), I cracked it open and started reading. I was charmed by the voice and the escapades. In a word, it was just fun, escapist reading.

I liked that Ben isn’t the hero everyone thinks he is. At one point he even states, “‘I’m not playing! I really am stupid!’” I like that he’s often saved by Erica Hale–an incredibly smart, female classmate. I don’t like that Erica is portrayed as an ice princess. But she has her reasons, which slowly are revealed throughout the series. In many ways, Erica is far more complex than Ben.

When I booktalked the latest installment of Spy School, Spy School Revolution, to my class, Ben’s sister–I’ll call her Erica–said, “Oh! My brother reads all of those books.” I was thrilled to hear that Ben, now a senior in high school, was still following the middle grade series.

But it was her next comment that got me thinking. Erica stated very plainly, “I tried to read them, but I couldn’t get into it.”

Erica is an avid reader. She reads widely. She reads A LOT. She’s a Reader (with a capital R). So what’s going on with Spy School that was excluding her?

Then I started thinking about the kids who are reading Spy School, I realized they were all boys. The books get checked out of my library in September and passed around from boy to boy in homeroom, at lockers, during tutorial. This year looks a little different, and as soon as I booktalked Spy School Revolution, the boys went on Sora and either checked out or put a hold on the books in the series they haven’t read.

And yet, I can’t think of a single female student who has read this series. My girls love mysteries. They love plot-driven books. One of their favorites is Not If I Save You First by Ally Carter, which I would consider Spy School adjacent. I just book talked A Castle in the Clouds by Kerstin Gier–also something I would consider Spy School adjacent–and it flew off the shelf. There was so much demand, I asked our librarian to purchase it for Sora, which she did, and it was immediately checked out of Sora.

And this also brings up another interesting question for me: Why aren’t my boys (and girls) that into Charlie Thorne and the Last Equation by Staurt Gibbs?

Some heavy questions to ponder. I wish I had answers. I wish I were in a situation where I could have face to face reading conferences with my kids to ask them. But for now, my thinking and writing will have to suffice as I start to tease out some answers and write a few more blog posts about this.

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