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Paired Texts: WWII and Cold War Espionage

How I Became a Spy, by Deborah Hopkinson, The Lady is a Spy, by Don Mitchell, and Spies: The Secret Showdown Between America and Russia, by Marc Favreau

· Teachers

It's always exciting to run across three texts, one fiction and two non-fiction, that pair so neatly together and could be used to teach 8th grade WWII history standards, specifically S2.C8.PO2-4, and ELA standards.

How I Became A Spy: A Mystery of WWII London, by Deborah Hopkinson

The first , How I Became a Spy, is a fiction book that would be a LOT of fun to teach! On his first time out as an air-raid messenger, Bertie forgets his civil defense volunteer badge and his torch (flashlight). He bumps into Eleanor, an American girl, and warns her to take cover. When the bombing is over, his dog, Little Roo, finds a woman slumped in the street and although Bertie pumps his legs on his bicycle as fast as he can, by the time he reports her and convinces rescuers to come to where he knows he left the woman lying...she's disappeared!

He later discovers the link between Eleanor and the woman, who's not a victim of an air raid that night but a spy who's on the run. She passed her encrypted diary to Eleanor, who dropped it the night of the air raid...and Bertie picked it up! The kids have to decrypt the codes to discover the woman's mission and help her catch a mole who's been betraying British spies assisting the French Resistance to the Nazi's.

There are four "Spy Practice" activities built into the book, with an answer key in the back. They're on pages: 37 (Substitution Cipher); 71 (Caesar Shift Cipher); 179 (Atbash Cipher); and 249 (Mixed Alphabet Cipher Using a Key Word or Phrase).

Students could easily tackle these simple codes as they read. I even found a decoder wheel online that's almost identical to the one referenced in the book (p. 156-7). Students can cut out and make one of their own so they can decode the diary along with the main characters.


Older students, 8th graders, would do well making connections with a math lesson on a frequency cipher, contained in the Fun with Ciphers handout. It's a real-world application of a frequency table!

The Lady is a Spy: Virginia Hall, World War II Hero of the French Resistance, by Don Mitchell

The second book, The Lady is a Spy: Virginia Hall, World War II Hero of the French Resistance, is a non-fiction history that would work well with the first story.


The emphasis in this true story is more on disguises, as Virginia Hall, with her hollow foot and leg (amputated after a hunting accident), was a master of keeping her true identity hidden. She was an American who worked for both the US and British spy networks during WWII and her unstoppable spirit was truly remarkable. It's an excellent introduction for American students to the French Resistance, as well.

Spies: The Secret Showdown between America and Russia, by Marc Favreau

The third book, Spies: The Secret Showdown Between American and Russia, by Marc Favreau, also non-fiction, is a compilation of 10 short articles, or case studies, of actual spy cases during the Cold War. Now, this book jumps a bit forward in history -- the previous two books were set in WWII, while these spy stories are set during the Cold War, immediately after WWII.

However, each non-fiction narrative is short enough to be photocopied and shared with your class. You could do a whole-class reading of one short, such as the 10-page Prologue, "Seeing Ghosts," or distribute copies of different articles to table groups of 4 to 5 students and have students scaffold each others' reading and comprehension.

If you choose to go the table group route, which I highly recommend, be prepared to ask each group to make a short class presentation on their article including 2-3 big take-aways from the reading, and ask the class to take notes on each.

There's a Prologue that acts as an excellent introduction to the Cold War, and would work well (at only 10 pages) as a whole class-read, before breaking into table groups.

The articles include:

1. The Defector: Elizabeth Bentley, 21 pages

2. The Spy Hunters: FBI Agent Robert Lamphere and Meredith Gardner, 17 pages

3. The Double: George Blake, 19 pages

4. Capital of the Cold War: William Harvey and George Blake, 22 pages

5. The Pilot: Francis Gary Powers, 22 pages

6. Missiles: Janet Chisolm and Oleg Penkovsky, 22 pages

7. Moscow Rules: Marti Peterson, 17 pages

8. War Games: Oleg Gordievsky, 18 pages

9. The Year of the Spy: Edward Lee Howard and Vitaly Yurchenko, 20 pages

10. The Man Without a Face: Markus Wolf, 19 pages

There is also an excellent Epilogue, "Mole Hunt," which wraps up all 10 case studies. The book features "Key Facts" pages about both the KGB and the CIA, and there are short, 4-page articles about "Russian Espionage Since the End of the Cold War" and "The CIA Since the End of the Cold War." Both are excellent resources for advancing your curriculum beyond the Cold War into the 21st Century Social Studies Common Core standards.

There is also a 3-page Cold War Timeline with 30 key events from February 1946 to June-November 1989. There is a 9-page "Cold War Glossary," starting with "arms race" and ending with "Warsaw Pact" and a 5-page "Glossary of Key Espionage Techniques" which is fascinating to read!

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