I Spy Something Awkward, a guest post by James Ponti
My name is Ponti. James Ponti.
I write the City Spies series about five kids from around the globe who’ve been adopted by a British secret agent and raised as a family of spies. The fourth book in the series, City of the Dead, launches February seventh and follows the team on a mission to London, Berlin, Cairo, and the Valley of the Kings.
So far in the books, I’ve written about cyberattacks and codebreaking, double agents and deadly viruses. My characters have scaled a building in Paris, thwarted a hijacking on the high seas, and battled the bad guys in Moscow and Beijing. When I meet young readers, many want to know how I know so much about the world of espionage. The most daring will even ask, “Have you ever been a spy?”
The question isn’t as ridiculous as it sounds.
Before writing about chocolate factories and giant peaches, Roald Dahl was a British secret agent during World War II. Ian Fleming, Graham Greene, and John le Carré were also spies who worked in the shadows before writing about it. Their personal experiences imbued their works with an aroma of authenticity. I’m sure it also helped them come up with ideas while staring at the blank page. (Or perhaps they hammered out their early drafts on microfiche.)
I don’t have that luxury.
There is no CIA, NSA, or FBI experience for me to call upon. (Although I do have a AAA card that comes in handy when I have car trouble.) And it’s not just the fact that I’ve never been a spy or covert agent of any kind. It’s that I am, in every way, clandestinely challenged. I’m clumsy, not debonair. Squeamish, not steadfast. The only self-defense training I ever received was when an older brother instructed me to run away if a fistfight seemed imminent. James Bond and I share a first name and there ends our list of similarities.
I’m not the only one. I’m good friends with a number of authors who write excellent middle grade spy fiction. While Roald, Ian, Graham, and John might’ve sipped shaken-not-stirred-martinis at a members’ only London supper club, I regularly hop onto zooms with Stuart Gibbs (Spy School), Christina Diaz Gonzalez (Concealed), Beth McMullen (Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls), and Rebecca Barone (Unbreakable: The Spies Who Cracked the Nazi Code). Sometimes we even get together at book festivals and stay up late in the hotel bar regaling each other with stories of missed deadlines and revenge fantasies about people who leave one-star reviews on Goodreads. (“You see, madam,” he said coolly, a Walther PPK tucked into the holster beneath his dinner jacket. “The book read like it was written for kids because IT WAS ACTUALLY WRITTEN FOR KIDS!”)
None of us were ever spies. But there is one thing we all were: AWKWARD.
That’s our secret, the special sauce of how we write spy novels. Yes, the Cold War was filled with treachery, deception, and outright villainy. But so was the seventh grade. Middle school is like a James Bond movie with apps instead of gadgets. Here, Blofeld doesn’t have an island fortress with a giant laser beam. His name is Xander and he plays lacrosse.
When you’re awkward, bookish, and socially inept, navigating the cafeteria is like being dropped behind enemy lines. To avoid the crossfire, you have to decipher clues, adopt alternate identities, and create fictional backstories like, “I got that scar from a shark attack that happened while I was surfing.” (This was an actual story used by my best friend in junior high. And no, it never worked.) So, while Ian Fleming could look back on his time working on Operation Mincemeat (an amazing D-Day ploy that’s definitely worth looking up), I’ve had to make do with memories of Operation Mystery Meat and other lunch line deceptions.
Stuart actually began writing Spy School while he was still an elementary student, the wishful dream of becoming James Bond, Jr. I was fully into adulthood before I came up with City Spies. My son did his junior year of college in England at the University of Exeter. My wife and I went to visit him and spent an unforgettable week traveling around London and Paris. Hands down, my favorite part was my wife’s absolute delight at seeing landmarks like Buckingham Palace and the Eiffel Tower. I wanted to capture her excitement and put it on the page.
And that’s what led me back to my covert career in middle school survival. I quickly realized that I could tap into that tween angst and anxiety and repurpose it as action and adventure set against a backdrop of the world’s greatest cities.
Introspective questions like “Who am I?” and “Where do I fit in?” can feel overwhelming when you’re alone in your bedroom. But when asked while trying to elude an evil villain chasing you through Alcatraz, they are both exciting and therapeutic.
Still, I needed to balance my emotional connection to the characters with the nuts and bolts of real-world espionage. I have spent the past five years researching as much as I could about the world of spies. I’ve read books, watched documentaries, and interviewed experts about topics as varied as Egyptology, top secret Soviet mapmaking, and the best place to hide if your marine research vessel is overtaken by terrorists. (FYI, it’s the stern thruster machine room in case you ever find yourself in that predicament.)
Although Covid often made it impossible, I’ve traveled to many of the locations in the City Spies books. I examined the cellblocks on Alcatraz, explored the hidden alleyways in Edinburgh, and took an incredible behind the scenes tour of the New York Public Library. (You’ll have to wait until the end of book 5 to see that, but it is totally worth it.)
I even planned the mission in City Spies Forbidden City with the former Deputy Director of the CIA. Yes, you read that right. One of America’s leading spymasters helped plot a book about tween and teen spies. It just happens to be my luck that his wife is a librarian and a fan.
My book tour for City of the Dead goes through Washington and we’re planning on having dinner together. We’ll talk spies real and imagined and discuss the coldblooded similarities between KGB assassins and on-line book reviewers. It’s a long way from the school cafeteria and I guarantee the food will be worlds better.
Who am I?
My name is Ponti. James Ponti. I am awkward, goofy, and if I’m being completely honest, a little scared of lizards. There’s absolutely no way that I was ever a real-life spy.
At least, that’s what I tell people.
Watch the book trailer for City of the Dead
Meet the author
James Ponti grew up in [REDACTED], where he dreamed of [REDACTED]. He loves pasta, laughing at funny stories, and going to [REDACTED]. One of his absolute favorite things to do is travel with his family, and it was during a trip to London and Paris that he got the idea for City Spies. He’s now lives in [REDACTED] and is the New York Times Bestselling author of three middle grade book series. Find out more at JamesPonti.com.
About City of the Dead
In this fourth installment in the New York Times bestselling series from Edgar Award winner James Ponti, the young group of spies go codebreaking in Cairo in another international adventure perfect for fans of Spy School and Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls.
Codename Kathmandu, better known as Kat, loves logic and order, has a favorite eight-digit number, and can spot a pattern from a mile away. So when a series of cyberattacks hits key locations in London while the spies are testing security for the British Museum, it’s clear that Kat’s skill for finding reason in what seems like randomness makes her the perfect candidate to lead the job.
And while the team follows the deciphered messages to Egypt and the ancient City of the Dead to discover who is behind the attacks and why, Kat soon realizes that there’s another layer to the mystery.
With more players, more clues, and involving higher levels of British Intelligence than ever before, this mission is one of the most complex that the group has faced to date. And it’s also going to bring about a change to the City Spies…
Publication date: 02/07/2023
Series: City Spies Series #4
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years
Filed under: Guest Post
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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