In this thrilling new series that Stuart Gibbs called “a must-read,” Edgar Award winner James Ponti brings together five kids from all over the world and transforms them into real-life spies—perfect for fans of Spy School and Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls.
Sara Martinez is a hacker. She recently broke into the New York City foster care system to expose her foster parents as cheats and lawbreakers. However, instead of being hailed as a hero, Sara finds herself facing years in a juvenile detention facility and banned from using computers for the same stretch of time. Enter Mother, a British spy who not only gets Sara released from jail but also offers her a chance to make a home for herself within a secret MI6 agency.
Operating out of a base in Scotland, the City Spies are five kids from various parts of the world. When they’re not attending the local boarding school, they’re honing their unique skills, such as sleight of hand, breaking and entering, observation, and explosives. All of these allow them to go places in the world of espionage where adults can’t.
Before she knows what she’s doing, Sarah is heading to Paris for an international youth summit, hacking into a rival school’s computer to prevent them from winning a million euros, dangling thirty feet off the side of a building, and trying to stop a villain...all while navigating the complex dynamics of her new team.
No one said saving the world was easy...
About the Author
James Ponti was born in Italy, raised in Florida, and went to college in California. After receiving a degree in screenwriting from the USC Film School, he began a career writing and producing television shows for the likes of Nickelodeon, Disney Channel, PBS, Spike TV, History Channel, and Golf Channel. James loves writing, travel, and the Boston Red Sox. He lives with his family in Maitland, Florida.
Read an Excerpt
Chapter 1: A Man Called Mother
1. A Man Called Mother
SARA LOOKED AT THE WATER stain on the wall and imagined it was an island. She wasn’t sure if that was because it actually looked like one or just because she so desperately wished she were in some tropical paradise far from Brooklyn and this tiny room on the eighth floor of Kings County Family Court.
She sat across the table from her public defender, a massive man in a rumpled suit named Randall Stubbs. His bulky frame hunched over as he scanned her file. “This doesn’t look good,” he muttered, because stating the obvious was apparently something they taught in law school. “You’re lucky they’ve made such a generous offer.”
“They have?” Sara asked, surprised. “What is it?”
He looked up from the file and said, “You plead guilty to all charges and get thirty months in juvenile detention.”
Two and a half years in juvie didn’t sound generous to Sara, but it probably wasn’t much worse than her last few foster homes. She was tough for a twelve-year-old. She could handle it.
“And, of course,” he added, “you won’t be allowed near a computer.”
This, however, was unacceptable.
“For how long?”
“For the duration of your sentence. Maybe longer as a condition of your release. That’ll be up to the judge.”
“But all I did was—”
“What?” he interrupted. “Hack into the computer network for the entire juvenile justice system of New York City? Is that what you were going to say? Because that’s not what I’d call an ‘all I did’ situation.”
“I know, but I was only trying to ...”
“It doesn’t matter what you were trying to do,” he said. “All that matters is what you did. You’re lucky you’re twelve. If you were thirteen, they probably would’ve bumped you up to a higher court to make an example out of you.”
The weight of this hit her hard, and for the first time she regretted her actions. Not because they were against the law. Legal or not, she had no doubt that she’d done the right thing. But she’d never considered that she could be banished from the one corner of the world that made sense to her. The only time Sara felt at home was when she was sitting at a computer keyboard.
“I’ll never hack again,” she said. “I promise.”
“Oh, you promise?” he responded sarcastically. “Maybe you can cross your heart and hope to die once we get in court. I’m sure that’ll fix everything.”
Sara struggled when it came to controlling her temper, a diagnosis confirmed by multiple counselors and at least two school psychologists. Still, she tried to keep cool as she looked at the man who was supposed to be helping her. She couldn’t risk angering him, because he was her only hope for a positive outcome. So she took a deep breath and counted to ten, a tip from one of those counselors whose name she’d long since forgotten.
“If I can’t use a computer,” she said, barely masking her desperation, “then I can’t do the one thing I’m good at. The thing that makes me special.”
“Yeah, well, you should’ve thought of that before you—”
She probably would’ve lost her temper right then and there if the door hadn’t suddenly flown open, and into the room stepped a man who was in every way the opposite of her attorney.
He was tall and thin with a thatch of unruly black hair. His suit was impeccable. His tie matched his pocket square. And he spoke with a British accent.
“Sorry to interrupt,” he said politely. “But I believe you’re in my seat.”
“You’ve got the wrong room,” grumbled Stubbs. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’m having a conference with my client.”
“Except, according to this Substitution of Counsel form, she’s my client,” the other man replied as he showed Stubbs a piece of paper. This brought an instant smile to Sara’s face.
Stubbs eyed the man. “That doesn’t make any sense. She can’t afford a fancy lawyer like you. She doesn’t have any money.”
“Of course she doesn’t have any money. She’s twelve. Twelve-year-olds don’t have money. They have bicycles and rucksacks. This one, however, also happens to have an attorney. This paper says I’ve been retained to represent Ms. Sara Maria Martinez.” He turned to her and smiled. “Is that you?”
“Brilliant. That means I’m in the right place.”
“Who retained you?” asked the public defender.
“An interested party,” said the man. “Beyond that, it’s not your concern. So if you’ll please leave, Sara and I have much to talk about. We’re due before a judge shortly.”
Stubbs mumbled to himself as he shoveled his papers into his briefcase. “I’m going to check this out.”
“There’s a lovely lady named Valerie who can help you,” said the British man. “She’s with the clerk of the court on the seventh floor.”
“I know where she is,” Stubbs snapped as he squeezed past the man into the hallway. He started to say something else, but instead just made a frustrated noise and stormed off.
Once Stubbs was gone, the new attorney closed the door and sat across from Sara. “I’ve never seen that before,” he marveled. “He literally left the room in a huff.”
She had no idea who might have hired an attorney for her, but she was certainly happy with the change. “I’ve never seen it either.”
“Now tell me,” he said as he popped open the latches of his briefcase. “Is it true? Did you hack into the computers of the city’s juvenile justice system?”
She hesitated to answer.
“You needn’t worry. Attorney-client privilege forbids me from telling anyone what you say in here. I just need to know if it’s true.”
She gave a slight nod. “Yes. It’s true.”
“Brilliant,” he said with a wink. He pulled a small computer from his briefcase and handed it to her. “I need you to do it again.”
“Do what again?” she asked.
“Hack into the juvenile justice database,” he said. “I need you to make me your attorney of record before Mr. Stubbs gets to the seventh floor and checks for himself.”
“You mean you’re not my attorney?” she asked.
“Never set foot in a law school,” he said conspiratorially. “So, chop-chop. I’ve got an associate who’s going to delay him in the hallway, but she’ll only be able to do that for so long.”
Sara’s head was spinning. She didn’t know what to think. “Listen, I don’t know who you are, but the court’s supposed to assign me a lawyer. A real one.”
“And the chap with the mustard stain on his tie is the one it assigned,” he replied, shaking his head. “I don’t know about you, but I’m not particularly impressed. Over the last nine years, that same court has assigned you to six foster families and nine schools. It’s been one botch job after another with them. What do you say we try something new?”
She looked at him and then at the computer. She was tempted, but she was also confused. “I don’t think—”
“What did he say would happen?” he interrupted. “I bet he’s already worked out a deal with the prosecutor.”
“Two and a half years in juvie and I’m banned from using a computer.”
He shook his head. “I can do better than that even without a law degree.”
For reasons she didn’t fully understand, Sara believed him. Maybe it was wishful thinking. Maybe it was desperation. Either way, she trusted her gut and started typing.
“Excellent,” he said. “You probably won’t regret this.”
“Probably?” She raised an eyebrow. “Shouldn’t you be trying to build up my confidence?”
“Only fools and liars speak with certainty about things beyond their control,” he replied. “But I’m optimistic, so I’d rate your chances around ... eighty-seven percent.”
Sara smiled and continued typing. “What kind of computer is this?”
“Bespoke,” he answered.
“I thought I knew all the computer companies, but I’ve never heard of that one.”
“It’s not a company,” he said. “?‘Bespoke’ means something has been tailor-made to the specific needs of an individual.”
“Someone made this for you?”
“Well, whoever ‘bespoke’ it really knew what they were doing.”
“Wait until you see the massive one,” he said. “You’re going to love it. That is, if we’re not both behind bars by the end of the day.”
Sara knew computers well, but she’d never seen one like this. It was fast and powerful, and she quickly shredded through the firewall that was supposed to protect the juvenile justice portal.
“They didn’t even fix the backdoor I used the other day,” she said in disbelief.
“Large institutions move slowly,” he said. “Hopefully large attorneys do too.”
It took her less than two minutes to reach the database for attorney assignments. She happily deleted the entry for Randall Stubbs and asked, “What’s your name?”
“Excellent question,” he said as he pulled three passports out of his briefcase. “Which sounds best?”
He read from the first one. “Croydon St. Vincent Marlborough the Third.” He gave a sour face. “Seems a bit excessive, don’t you think?”
She nodded. “Yes.”
“We’ll pass on that.” He read from the next. “Nigel Honeybuns.” This one made him snicker. “Honeybuns? I quite like that.” He tucked it into a pocket in his briefcase. “I think I’ll save that one for another time.”
“We’re kind of in a hurry,” she reminded him.
“Right, right, here we go,” he said, reading from the last one. “Gerald Anderson. That sounds like a proper barrister. Dull. Boring. Imminently forgettable. Which is exactly what we want. That’s my name, Gerald Anderson.”
He handed her the passport so she could check the spelling as she typed it into the database.
“I just click ‘update,’?” she said as she finished, “and we’re all set.”
He flashed a nervous smile and paused to listen. “No alarms.” He opened the door and leaned out into the hallway. “No one rushing in to arrest us. Very nice work, Sara.”
“Except now I have an attorney who’s never gone to law school.”
“I’ve watched a ton of courtroom dramas on the telly,” he said. “I can handle an appearance before a judge.”
“Don’t you mean ‘probably’?” she replied.
He smiled at this. “Right ... probably. First, though, I’ll need details about the hack.”
“I’m sure they’re all in there,” she said, pointing at the file.
“This only tells me what you did,” he replied. “I want to know the reason.”
“The lawyer, you know, the one who actually went to law school, said it didn’t matter why I did it.”
“It may not matter to him. It might not even matter to the judge. But it matters very much to me.”
She thought about her answer for a moment, trying to come up with the most straightforward way to tell it. She didn’t want to get upset. She hated showing emotions in front of anyone. “My most recent foster parents ...”
“Leonard and Deborah Clark?”
“Yeah, them,” she said with a sneer. “They like to take in more kids than they have room for because the state pays them by the kid. More kids mean more money, whether they spend it on us or not. No one really checks that. We were crammed into bedrooms that were too small. Rather than give everyone a meal, they put food in the middle of the table, so it looked like there was more than there was. They called it ‘family style,’ which is a joke because they treated us like anything but a family.
“A new kid named Gabriel came about a month ago. He was scared. Sad. Lonely. Everything you’d expect from a five-year-old. He liked me because we were the only Hispanic kids in the house.”
“You spoke Spanish to him?”
“Sometimes,” she said. “Until they made us stop. Mr. Clark told me, ‘You’re in America now, so speaking English is something you’re going to have to get used to.’?”
The lawyer shook his head. “And what did you say to that?”
“I pointed out that Puerto Rico was already part of America, that I’d spent almost my entire life in Brooklyn, and that if he really wanted to speak English well, he shouldn’t end sentences with prepositions.”
The man laughed. “Cheeky.”
“I’m not exactly sure what ‘cheeky’ means, but his cheeks turned red, so I guess so,” she replied.
“Did you get in trouble?” he asked.
She nodded, the humor of the moment gone. “I could handle his punishment, though. It was Gabriel who couldn’t.”
“Why was Gabriel punished?”
She paused and saw him studying her expression. He wanted to watch her eyes as she spoke.
“One night he wet his bed,” she answered, “and to punish him, they locked him in the hall closet. I could hear him crying. They didn’t care. They would’ve let him cry all night. So, I got up and let him out.”
“And then what happened?” he asked.
“Then they locked me in the closet with him. Told me I had to learn my place. So, I picked the lock from the inside and let us both out.” She was on the verge of tears, so she stopped for a moment.
“And then?” he prodded.
“They locked us outside on the roof. They left us there all night. It was cold. It was terrifying. The next morning, I went to school, got a pass to the computer lab, and started working. First I hacked the juvenile justice database to see how many kids had been sent to the Clarks. Then I hacked their bank accounts to show how much money they were taking in and where they were actually spending it.”
“You’re not being charged with hacking the bank,” he said, flipping through some pages.
She grinned. “Yeah, they dropped their complaint. I’m pretty sure they don’t want the world to find out that a twelve-year-old girl beat their security system.”
“Nice,” he said. “I might be able to use that later. What’d you do with this information once you’d gotten it?”
“I sent everything to my social worker,” she said. “And you know how stupid I am? When I saw the police coming up to the house, I thought they were going to arrest the two of them. For about forty-five seconds I was happy.”
“But they arrested you instead?”
“The Clarks even had the other kids line up on the porch so they would see me being led out of the house in handcuffs.” She closed her eyes tight, determined not to let a single tear fall. “They said, ‘This is what happens to criminals.’?”
He’d actually heard the story the night before, through a listening device. But he liked hearing stories twice. He wanted to see if they changed. That was always a good indicator of how truthful they were. Besides, seeing her face as she recalled it told him everything he needed to know.
“That’s a good reason,” he said. “I can work with that. I can make this a lot better.”
“Don’t you mean ‘probably’?” she asked.
He smiled warmly. “No, I’m certain I can. But I’ll need you to do something difficult. Something the reports in this file say you’re completely incapable of.”
“What’s that?” she asked.
“I need you to trust me,” he said. “No matter what I say or do, I need you to trust me.”
“How can I trust you?” she asked. “I don’t even know your name.”
“Sure you do. It’s Nigel Honeybuns. It’s Gerald Anderson. Sometimes it’s even Croydon St. Vincent Marlborough the Third. It all depends on the situation,” he said with a shrug. “But my friends and colleagues, and I do hope that’s a group you’ll soon consider yourself to be a part of, they all call me Mother.”
For the first time since she’d been arrested, Sara laughed.
“Mother? That’s an unusual name for a man.”
“True,” he said, smiling at her. “But I’m an unusual man, wouldn’t you say?”
Reading Group Guide
A Reading Group Guide to
By James Ponti
About the Book
Sara Martinez is a hacker. She recently broke into the New York City foster care system to expose her foster parents as cheats and lawbreakers. However, instead of being hailed as a hero, Sara finds herself facing years in a juvenile detention facility and banned from using computers for the same stretch of time. Enter Mother, a British spy who not only gets Sara released from jail but also offers her a chance to make a home for herself within a secret MI6 agency. Operating out of a base in Scotland, the City Spies are five kids from various cities all over the world. When they’re not attending the local boarding school, they’re honing their unique skills, which allow them to go places in the world of espionage where adults can’t.
1. As chapter one opens, readers meet Sara, a twelve-year-old hacker from Brooklyn waiting to learn her fate in Kings County Family Court. What are your predictions about the circumstances that have brought Sara to this place? Give examples from the text that led you to these conclusions.
2. Randall Stubbs, the public defender assigned to Sara, tells her, “‘It doesn’t matter what you were trying to do. All that matters is what you did.’” Do you agree with Stubbs’s assessment? Does knowing what inspired Sara’s actions make a difference, even if she ultimately broke the law? Explain your answers. Can you think of any examples where understanding someone’s intentions is as important as knowing the outcome?
3. Sara explains that it would be challenging to trust someone whose name you don’t really know. Gerald Anderson responds by saying, “‘It all depends on the situation . . . but my friends and colleagues, and I do hope that’s a group you’ll soon consider yourself to be a part of, they all call me Mother.” Are you surprised to find out that this is his nickname? Why might Mother be inclined to have his friends and colleagues call him by this moniker? What are some of the traits often associated with mothers that Mother might demonstrate?
4. Mother tells Sara that “‘Only fools and liars speak with certainty about things beyond their control.’” What do you think he means by this? How might you apply this advice to your own life?
5. Describe Sara. What are three things you find most interesting about her? Is she someone you could see yourself befriending? How do you think others who don’t know her well might view her? Explain your answers.
6. Consider how each City Spies member contributes to MI6. Why do you think they’re so eager to work there? What about their past experiences make them well suited for the job? Do you think there are different expectations put on them based on age? Do you think that’s fair or unfair? Explain your answers.
7. When Sara, Sydney, and Mother visit Sara’s former foster home to retrieve her things, Sara takes it upon herself to lock the Clarks on the roof as payback. Mother states, “‘That wasn’t part of the plan.’” Sara tells him that as the “alpha,” she gets to be in charge now that they’re operational. What are some of the lessons Mother learns about Sara from this practice mission? Does this foreshadow anything that happens later?
8. The Clarks will no longer have foster children under their care, and they are also being investigated by the New York Office of Children and Family Services. Mother tells Sara, “‘I know you’re not familiar with it, but this is what justice feels like. This is what we’re all about.’” Do you think justice is important to someone like Sara? Do you think there can be more than one form of justice? Explain your answers.
9. Sara’s new team initiates her first test. Why do you think the others find this necessary? What does Sara ultimately prove to them?
10. Though a part of her will always be Sara, how does transitioning to her new identity as “Brooklyn” allow Sara to reinvent herself? Can you think of any other benefits to this new identity? What would your code name be?
11. After meeting Olivia in Sydney, Australia where she’s about to be expelled from school, Olivia tells Mother, “‘You don’t have to be part of a group to understand that they’re being mistreated. Justice doesn’t require a membership card. Just a sense of right and wrong.’” Do you agree with this statement? Can you think of some creative ways you can fight for what you believe to be right? Share your ideas with others.
12. Discuss Kat’s reaction to Sara’s arrival. Do you think Kat’s behavior is appropriate? Why might this change be difficult for her?
13. Consider the individual City Spies: Which character did you like the most or the least? For what reasons? Whom did you feel was most similar to you? Explain your answers.
14. Mother tells his team, “‘You can’t look out if you stand out.’” Consider these “Motherisms,” or little sayings that Mother invents to help his team remember key spycraft principles. Can you think of any other useful tips that might assist the City Spies? What do you think are the biggest dangers? How can they work to try to avoid them?
15. Which parts of Sara’s life can you relate to? Which feel unique to her? What do you predict will be the most interesting changes in her life as she joins Mother and continues to assist the team?
16. How do Mother’s interventions profoundly impact and change the lives of each of his charges? Do you think being part of a team influences their behavior? What makes someone a good teammate? Explain your answers.
17. Why is learning that Mother is looking for his wife, Clementine, and his children important? What do you think motivates Clementine’s behavior? Why does she not want Mother to continue his search?
18. Describe some of the specific ways in which Umbra exercises its power. In your opinion, what makes this organization so dangerous? How does learning that they tried to kill Mother impact the City Spies? In what ways does this change their mission?
19. Sydney believes fighting injustice as a member of MI6 is an incredible opportunity and jumps at the chance to help train Brooklyn (Sara). What are the most important skills Sydney and the others can offer Brooklyn? What does Brooklyn ultimately prove to each of them? Explain your answers using examples from the text.
20. Considering the novel’s conclusion, what do you predict will happen in the next installment of the City Spies series?
1. Father Hurricane. Using the internet and library resources, find more information about the amazing contributions of Father Benito Viñes, the Jesuit priest who was the first person to successfully predict hurricanes. What are you most surprised to discover about him? What do you think Sara would have been most interested to learn?
2. Origin Cities. Each City Spy takes the name of their hometown as their code name. Your teacher will divide the class into five groups; each group will pick one of these cities and create an informational poster or travel brochure that includes important landmarks and historical facts. If interested, a sixth group can do the same for Kigali, which is where Paris lived before immigrating to France.
3. Spy Books. In City Spies, Mother mentions that he likes author Roald Dahl; in addition to being a writer, Dahl was a spy. With your classmates, study Dahl’s experiences and then discuss other famous spies in history. Brainstorm a list of qualities that make them good spies. List obstacles they encountered, and how they handled them. Would you make a good spy? Explain your answer.
4. Rainmakers. Rainmaking is a key plotline in City Spies. Research and investigate the different ways that people have attempted or succeeded at manufacturing rain. After looking more closely at this topic, stage a class debate in which you discuss the positives and negatives of trying to control nature.
5. Meteorology. Weather plays a central role in City Spies; the spies live in a weather station and compete for a weather-based prize. Research the basic elements of meteorology, and try your hand at measuring weather over a specific period of time. How will you interpret your results? What conclusions can you draw from them?
6. Table Magic. Rio is a talented magician, and much of magic relies on science. After exploring the topic, learn and practice some basic tabletop magic tricks that rely on science. Consider magnets or mathematical probabilities. Which components do you find most difficult to execute? Which are easiest? Does the experience impact your view of magic?
7. Stavros Prize. The schools in City Spies are competing for the fictional Stavros Prize, offering scientific solutions to environmental issues. Compete for your classroom Stavros Prize in a virtual science fair where you try to imagine green solution ideas. Consider studying real-life students who’ve come up with potential solutions for things like removing plastic from the ocean to inspire your own project.
8. Write Your Own Motherism. “Motherisms” are short sayings in rhyming phrases that Mother created to help the spies sharpen their craft. Write a few of your own Motherisms for life, school, hobbies, etc. Then turn them into posters to be hung in your classroom.
9. Speak to the Environment. Sydney gives a short speech about the environment at the Global Youth Summit on the Environment. She’s given a strict time limit of one minute, forty-five seconds. The length makes it harder for her to cover all that she wants to discuss. Write your own 105-second speech about the environment, and deliver it to your classmates. Think about whether you’re looking to inspire, educate, or alarm. What did you find most challenging? How did you work to keep your words concise and focused? What tone did you use? What was your goal?
10. Classroom Dossier. In the back of City Spies is a dossier of the main characters. Using the same format, write your own dossier description for your favorite character. When you’ve finished, combine your work with your classmates’ to make a classroom dossier that you can revisit for future books in the series.
11. Cover Story. Everywhere they go, the City Spies have to come up with cover identities. Create your own fake identity with a complete backstory. Include paragraphs to explain your process and why you’ve chosen these features and history.
This guide was created by Dr. Rose Brock in collaboration with James Ponti. Rose is an assistant professor in Library Science Department in the College of Education at Sam Houston State University and holds a Ph.D. in Library Science, specializing in children’s and young adult literature.
This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes. For more Simon & Schuster guides and classroom materials, please visit simonandschuster.net or simonandschuster.net/thebookpantry.