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City of Spies
Written by Susan Kim and Laurence Klavan; Illustrated by Pascal Dizin
First Second; $16.99
This column wraps up sort of an unplanned First Second Month for us, but the publisher isn’t the only thing City of Spies has in common with last week’s subject. It also shares the concept of kids fighting Nazis, though it’s presented in a completely different way from Resistance.
If you look at the cover to City of Spies and imagine that it’s about a couple of New York kids who like to pretend to be superheroes, I’ll understand. That’s what I thought too. That’s also why I bumped a few other books ahead of it in my reading pile. It looks fun – and I love the European look of the art – but I had a hard time getting excited to read what I presumed to be a story about a couple of bored kids who let their overactive imaginations get them into trouble. I should’ve trusted First Second more. Though I haven’t loved everything they’ve published as much as everything else, unoriginality has never been a problem for them. Susan Kim, Laurence Klavan, and Pascal Dizin have created a story with a lot more depth and emotion than I expected or even imagined.
It is indeed about a couple of New York City kids with too much time on their hands one summer. And they do get into some trouble chasing spies – or what they think are spies. But the story’s not some flighty, fanciful adventure. There are some heavy feelings at work all throughout the book that keep the plot grounded and make what’s going on feel important. If there are real Nazi spies running around New York stealing government secrets, Evelyn and Tony’s actions matter to the country. But even if it’s all in their heads, what they do will have a lasting impact on them and those around them.
Paranoia and spy-hunting after the break.
Evelyn is a wealthy, young girl whose mother died when she was younger still. Her father has been working his way through a string of subsequent wives ever since (as someone observes, “He keeps getting older; the wives stay the same age”) and Evelyn copes by making comics about herself as the sidekick to a superhero named Zirconium Man.
When her dad dumps Evelyn off to spend the summer in New York with her aunt while he honeymoons with his latest wife, it quickly becomes obvious that Aunt Lia isn’t ready for instant parenthood. A child of privilege herself, she spends her time throwing parties and dreaming of becoming a famous artist; a fantasy she thinks she’ll achieve by sleeping with the right gallery owners. She’s not mean, but her immaturity causes her to all but ignore Evelyn at first. Which is why Evelyn ends up spending a lot of time with Tony, the son of the building’s superintendent and the only other kid around.
The two of them get into the kind of mischief that you’d expect mostly unsupervised kids to get into in 1942 – dropping water balloons on apartment tenants and staff who’ve gathered outside for an air raid drill, for instance – but this soon turns more serious when they decide to contribute to the war effort by ferreting out German spies.
To be fair, Evelyn and Tony aren’t the only ones on the lookout. The city is positively buzzing with paranoia about foreign intruders. Propaganda posters hang on every wall and everyone’s being vigilant. One man, a beat cop named Brendan Hughes who’s assigned to Evelyn and Tony’s neighborhood, is particularly obsessed. Hughes was denied entry to the military because of his flat feet and is looking to make up for it by fighting the Nazi Menace here at home. To make matters more miserable for him, his brother is a big shot real spy-hunter at the FBI. So, when Evelyn and Tony approach Hughes with their suspicions about a possible spy, he’s more than willing to investigate. As you might guess though, the tip doesn’t pan out so well and there are ruined reputations and destroyed trust to deal with when the real spies show up.
City of Spies is a Young Adult book, but it’s full of heavy themes like responsibility, loyalty, patriotism, obsession, fear, trust, and self-worth. There’s also a bit of romance and it manages all of this with maturity and thought. Hughes has to figure out how to help his country without suspecting every jay-walker of having secret, nefarious motives. Lia must find her own value in order to become a real guardian to her niece. Evelyn in turn needs all the help she can get untangling her feelings about her absent father, coping with her still-powerful memories of her mother’s death (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the villain in her comics is an amorphous, unspeaking, cancerous-looking monster), and becoming the hero of her own story. It’s truly a beautiful, moving book. For both Young Adults and Old ones.
And it’s got tons of super-heroics and spy-smashing too.
Five out of five time-traveling zeppelin savers.