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Forbidden City

Book #3 of City Spies


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About The Book

In this third “thrilling” (Kirkus Reviews) installment in the New York Times bestselling series from Edgar Award winner James Ponti, the young group of spies help a fellow agent in another international adventure perfect for fans of Spy School and Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls.

After taking down a mole within their organization, the City Spies are ready for their next mission—once again using their unique skills and ability to infiltrate places adults can’t. The sinister Umbra has their sights set on recruiting a North Korean nuclear physicist by any means necessary, and the City Spies plan to keep an eye on his son by sending Paris to the chess prodigy’s tournaments in Moscow and Beijing.

Meanwhile, Sydney’s embedded as a junior reporter for a teen lifestyle site as she follows the daughter of a British billionaire on tour with the biggest act on her father’s music label to uncover what links both the band and the billionaire have to a recent threat from an old Soviet missile base.

From a daring break-in at one of London’s most exclusive homes to a dangerous undercover mission to a desperate search and rescue operation on the streets of Beijing, the City Spies have their work cut out for them on their most dangerous mission yet.


Chapter 1: Billionaires’ Row 1. Billionaires’ Row
IT WAS DARK, AND AS Paris looked out at the traffic, he caught a glimpse of his own reflection in the window. There was nothing remarkable about his face. No feature or quirk someone would notice or remember. He’d been born in Rwanda, grew up in Paris, lived in Scotland, and was now in London. And in each of those locations, he’d learned to blend in and disappear. This was an important quality because Paris wasn’t just a schoolboy. He was also a spy. Blending in was essential.

Unlike spies in movies, whose modes of transportation ranged from jet packs and mini-submarines to bulletproof Aston Martins tricked out with rocket launchers, he was headed to his latest mission on a city bus. The number seventy to South Kensington to be precise. That was the problem with being undercover and underage—you always needed somebody else to give you a ride.

“This is pathetic,” he said, turning to Kat, who was sitting next to him. “Absolutely pathetic.”

“What is?” she asked.

He looked around to make sure no one was listening and then leaned in to whisper, “We’re about to break into one of the most expensive homes in London to steal a priceless work of art, and our getaway car is a bright red double-decker bus that does a max speed of five miles an hour.”

Kat laughed, which only frustrated him.

“First of all, we’re not stealing it, we’re returning it,” she answered in an equally hushed tone. “Or have you forgotten about the little treasure that’s been sewn into the lining of your jacket? Second, once you’ve put it back, why would anyone bother to chase us? Logic dictates that our getaway vehicle is irrelevant.”

He nodded reluctantly and admitted, “Okay… you may have a point there.”

“Of course I do,” she replied. “Your problem is that you think being a spy is like being in an action movie.”

“It’s not?”

“No. It’s like eating in the lunch hall at school.”

“How do you figure that?” Paris asked.

“You pretend you belong and hope nobody notices you while you figure things out,” she said. “Not to mention there’s a decent chance the food’s been poisoned.”

He chuckled and saw that they were nearing their stop at Notting Hill Gate. “Finally, this is us.”

He stood up to leave, but she stayed put, blocking his way.

“I’m not moving until you say it,” she said firmly.

Paris was the alpha, which meant he was in charge now that they were in the field. It also meant he was the one who was supposed to say the phrase that officially started the mission. It was as much a good-luck ritual as it was an operational command.

“Here?” he replied. “On the bus?”

“Don’t knock the bus,” she said. “James Bond was named after one just like this.”

“What do you mean?”

“When Ian Fleming was writing the first Bond book, he lived out in Kent and had to ride the bus back and forth to London,” she explained.

“And?” he replied, not getting the connection.

“The bus from Kent to Victoria was number double oh seven.”

“You’re joking,” he said.

“No. That’s where he got the name. And if the bus is good enough for Ian and James, it’s good enough for you and me.”

“Well, if you put it that way.” He flashed a sly smile and said, “This operation is hot. We are a go.”

Paris and Kat were part of the City Spies, an experimental team of five undercover agents, aged twelve to fifteen, who MI6 used when they had a mission in which adult agents would stand out. In this instance, they were about to crash the sweet sixteen party of a London socialite named Tabitha Banks.

The British Secret Intelligence Service wasn’t really interested in the birthday girl, but they were fascinated by her father. Reginald Banks was a multibillionaire whose business dealings sometimes involved nefarious underworld characters and shadowy figures from foreign intelligence agencies. MI6 desperately needed to get an agent into his home, and this party offered a rare opportunity to access the highly secure mansion located on Kensington Palace Gardens, one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in the world.

“Testing comms, one, two, three,” Paris said as they walked away from the bus stop. “Can you hear me?”

He was using a covert communication device that looked like an everyday earbud to speak with team members monitoring the situation from a nearby safe house.

“Roger that, we hear you loud and clear,” replied Mother, the MI6 agent in charge of the team.

“How about me?” asked Kat, testing her comms device.

“Perfect,” Mother replied. “We are ready to rock and roll. We’ve got Brooklyn on the computer, and Sydney is…” There was a pause as Mother turned to Sydney. “What exactly are you doing?”

She gave him a look as if the answer were obvious. “I’m standing by just in case,” she replied.

“We have Sydney standing by… just in case,” Mother continued. “Although, technically, she’s pacing more than standing.”

“Relax, Syd,” Paris said confidently. “We’ve got this.”

“She’s not pacing because she’s worried about the mission,” Brooklyn pointed out. “She’s pacing because she’s jealous that she’s not the one doing it.”

This brought a round of laughs, and Sydney didn’t even bother to disagree. She always wanted to be the alpha and hated it when she missed out on the action.

“Just remember that I’m here if you need me,” she offered. “Ready and willing.”

“Good to know,” said Paris.

“We’ve almost reached the guard gate at the end of the street,” Kat said. “Any last words of wisdom?”

“Yes,” answered Mother, who cleared his throat and paused dramatically before saying, “This mission is fraught, so don’t get caught.”

He liked to use rhyming couplets, nicknamed Motherisms, to remind the team of important elements of spycraft. This one left Kat and Paris completely uninspired.

“Seriously?” Kat replied.

“Is that the best you’ve got?” asked Paris.

“Well, I could’ve pointed out that if you get caught, it will not only involve the Metropolitan Police, but quite likely the prime minister, the head of MI6, the foreign secretary, the French ambassador, and the president of Nepal,” said Mother. “But I didn’t want to overwhelm you, and it’s exceedingly difficult to make all that rhyme.”

“Fair points all,” said Paris.

“Oh, there is one more thing, Paris,” interjected Brooklyn.

“What’s that?” he replied.

“Try to remember that your microphone is very sensitive,” she said.

“Okay, but why am I remembering that?”

“Because it will blow out our headsets if you squeal too loudly when KB5 take the stage,” she said, eliciting more laughter.

“You are so very funny,” Paris replied. “Trust me, if I scream, it will be because I’m in musical agony. Although, calling what they do music is an offense to everyone from Beethoven to the Beatles.”

KB5 was a British boy band whose heartthrob members had their pictures plastered on bedroom walls around the globe. Despite Paris’s opinion of their musical ability, they regularly performed in sold-out arenas bursting with screaming fans. Tonight, however, they were playing a private concert for Tabitha’s birthday. This was an advantage of having Reginald Banks for a father. Not only was he one of the richest people in the United Kingdom, but he also created KB5 and owned the record label that produced their albums.

“I like their music,” Sydney offered. “It’s not too late if you want to swap roles.”

“I would gladly do so,” said Paris, “if only Australia had built their embassy on Kensington Palace Gardens.”

Nicknamed Billionaires’ Row, Kensington Palace Gardens was home to business tycoons, royal family members, foreign embassies, and the residences of several ambassadors. It was a half-mile long and protected at both ends by guard gates with armed police officers. For any outsiders who still didn’t get the hint, there were even signs that read NO PHOTOGRAPHY.

Sir Reg, as he was known in the tabloids, couldn’t just hold a concert in his backyard without the approval of his very powerful and extremely private neighbors. So, he’d come up with a brilliant solution and opened up the celebration to all the young people who lived on the street. Since no parent wanted to face the wrath of a furious teen or tween who’d missed out on the party of the decade, permission was granted.

Invitations were also extended to the children of embassy workers, which is when MI6 saw an opportunity. As good fortune would have it, Kensington Palace Gardens was home to the ambassador of France and the embassy of Nepal, Paris and Kat’s home countries. Some favors were called in and their names were added to the guest list.

For Paris, this meant swapping identities yet again, something he’d done countless times during his five years with MI6. As he approached the guardhouse, he flipped a mental switch and became someone else, like an actor stepping onto the stage in a West End play. Until the curtain fell on this little drama, he’d be Antoine Tremblay, the fifteen-year-old son of the second secretary for cultural affairs.

“Which embassy?” asked a guard.

“France,” replied Paris.

The guard motioned him to a row of tables marked with flags representing the different countries. Here, the young guests were screened to make sure no overzealous KB5 fans were able to sneak into the party. Paris went to the table with the French tricolor and smiled at the man dressed in a sharp black suit.

“Invitation and identification,” said the man.

Paris handed him two flawless forgeries: an official-looking invitation to the party, complete with a security hologram, and a French diplomatic ID for Antoine Tremblay.

“Bonsoir, Antoine,” the man said, slipping into French to test him. “Ça va?”

“Oui, ça va bien,” Paris replied naturally.

The guard checked his name off a list on a clipboard.

“Comment vous aimez KB Cinq?” asked the guard to see if he was excited about seeing KB5.

One of the keys to being undercover was not lying when it wasn’t necessary. The more honest you were about specific things, the more believable you were overall. So rather than pretending to be excited about a boy band he detested, Paris answered truthfully. “Disons, j’aime beaucoup mieux le gâteau d’anniversaire.” Let’s just say I’m more excited about the birthday cake.

The man laughed and handed him a red wristband. “Put this on now and don’t take it off until you leave for the night.”

“Merci beaucoup,” replied Paris.

At a nearby table, Kat answered similar questions in a mix of Nepali and English.

Unlike the other kids who eagerly hurried toward the party, Paris and Kat took their time as they walked down the street. They’d been trained to study the landscape surrounding any mission and make mental notes of key details like the locations of security cameras and the fact that one of the streetlights was out. They looked for escape routes and potential hiding places. They also marveled at the mansions.

“Wow!” Paris said when they reached the one belonging to Sir Reg. “It looks even bigger than I imagined. The pictures don’t do it justice.”

“No kidding,” said Kat. “You’re going to need GPS just to find your way around in there.”

The two of them had studied everything they could about the house, including photographs, blueprints, and video from a BBC show about London’s finest estates. The building was three stories tall and a showcase of Italian Renaissance architecture with thirty-eight rooms, including an indoor swimming pool, home cinema, and gymnasium.

It was also home to museum-quality art. There was a large Picasso that hung in the entryway, a pair of Van Gogh sketches in the living room, a Rodin statue in the garden, and an ornate Fabergé egg, known as the “Pearl of Russia,” that sat on the mantel above the fireplace in Sir Reg’s private office.

Or at least that’s what he thought.

In reality, it was a high-quality fake that contained a tiny hidden microphone British Intelligence had used to eavesdrop on his business meetings for nearly three years. The actual Fabergé egg—worth nearly five million pounds—was currently nestled inside a secret pocket sewn into Paris’s jacket.

The Pearl of Russia was one of fifty jeweled eggs handcrafted over a period of three decades for Tsars Alexander III and Nicholas II. Each year they’d given them as Easter presents to their wives and mothers. Paris’s assignment was to sneak the real egg back into the office and replace it before the fake was exposed. This was necessary because Sir Reg had recently announced that he was loaning it to a museum in Moscow, where it would no doubt be examined by experts who would uncover the microphone. MI6 couldn’t let that happen.

“We’ve arrived,” Paris announced to the others in the safe house.

“How are the access points?” asked Mother.

“The walkway gate is manned by staff directing everyone to go around the house to the party in back,” answered Paris. “But the gate for the driveway is wide open. The tour bus and equipment trucks for KB5 have blocked it so it can’t shut.”

“What about the house?” asked Mother.

“Two guards at each door,” said Kat. “Judging by the holster bulges underneath their jackets, I’d say they’re all armed.”

“If there was only one per door, you might be able to pull off a diversion and distract the guard long enough to slip in,” said Mother. “But with two, the main floor is a no-go. That means you’ll need to enter the house through the alternate route.”

Paris and Kat both turned their attention to the roof.

“Looks like someone’s going to be playing Santa Claus,” said Kat.

Paris gave her a raised eyebrow and replied, “Ho, ho, ho.”

Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide for

Forbidden City

By James Ponti

About the Book

After taking down a mole within their organization, the City Spies are ready for their next mission—once again using their unique skills and abilities to infiltrate places adults can’t. The sinister Umbra has their sights set on recruiting a North Korean nuclear physicist by any means necessary, and the City Spies plan to keep an eye on his son by sending Paris to the chess prodigy’s tournaments in Moscow and Beijing.
Meanwhile, Sydney’s embedded as a junior reporter for a teen lifestyle site as she follows the daughter of a British billionaire on tour with the biggest act on her father’s music label to uncover what links both the band and the billionaire have to a recent threat from an old Soviet missile base.
From a daring break-in at one of London’s most exclusive homes to a dangerous undercover mission to a desperate search and rescue operation on the streets of Beijing, the City Spies have their work cut out for them on their most daring mission yet.

Discussion Questions

1. As Forbidden City opens, readers learn that while Paris was born in Rwanda, grew up in Paris, and now lives in the UK, he has learned to “blend in and disappear.” Why is this skill such an essential one for someone like him?

2. Kat reminds readers that while spies in movies may have extravagant getaway vehicles, she and Paris are utilizing a bright red double-decker bus to escape from their job. Do you find this unusual? What can be learned about the reality of their work from this conversation? In what ways does riding on a classic London bus connect with the larger lore of espionage?

3. While discussing the fictional British boy band KB5, Paris tells Brooklyn that “calling what they do music is an offense to everyone from Beethoven to the Beatles.” Do you feel his assessment is appropriate? Why or why not? From your reading, what did you discover about the group? Do you believe teen stars are judged too harshly?

4. Consider the mission to return the Fabergé egg to Sir Reginald Banks’s home. In what ways is this assignment particularly unique?

5. In Forbidden City, Brooklyn isn’t actively included in most of the mission, due to her academic struggles and her need to attend a summer program to catch up. Why does this decision make her doubt her place on the team and in their family?

6. In Forbidden City, Umbra, a global crime syndicate, is once again engaged in terroristic activities and is working with billionaire Sir Reg. What continues to make Umbra and their associates so dangerous to the City Spies and to the world at large? Why do you think individuals like Sir Reg are willing to work with organizations like this one?

7. For this mission, Paris serves as the alpha, or leader, at the beginning and remains an essential operative throughout. What skills or strengths does he bring to the operation? Based on textual examples, are there any specific ways he proves he was the right choice?

8. This installment of the City Spies series focuses on self-identity or how these young people view themselves individually and their roles in the larger group. What examples from Forbidden City can you find that supports this statement? What are some specific ways in which the members of the City Spies have a greater self-awareness of who they are?

9. Consider Sydney’s assignment to serve as a reporter for All Roads Lead to Audrey as a means of staying close and monitoring the activities of Sir Reg by shadowing his daughter Tabitha. Do you see Sydney as the best candidate for this part of the mission? What important skills does Sydney have to offer? What might be the biggest obstacles for such an assignment?

10. At school, Brooklyn befriends Charlotte, a classmate that once lived at FARM and was a member of the City Spies before she was removed. What makes this new friendship so complicated?

11. Given what you know about this mission and the City Spies in general, why is it so vital for the young spies to maintain their secrecy?

12. In your opinion, what makes the Sorokin family such dangerous individuals? Offer specific examples from the novel to support your position.

13. Based on what you learn through reading Forbidden City and your impressions from other books in the series, who is your favorite spy on the team or the character you identify with most? What is it about this specific character that makes you admire them?

14. While discussing her former life at FARM and the espionage and missions in which she played a part, Charlotte tells Brooklyn, “‘Sometimes I miss the excitement . . . it was fun being in on a secret. I miss being friends with everyone. I miss that terribly.’” What can be inferred by Charlotte’s confession? Why does learning that Mother has adopted the City Spies wound her?

15. In Forbidden City, part of their mission requires a visit to China, where Mother and Paris visit both the Great Wall and Bird’s Nest Stadium (officially known as Beijing National Stadium). Compare and contrast these two architectural structures. What do you believe these two treasures of China symbolize?

16. In the novel, readers discover that Jin-sun, a prominent North Korean nuclear physicist, wants to defect from his country with his son, Dae-jung. Considering the danger and consequences of such an action, why would an individual risk doing so? What does Jin-sun hope to gain for himself and his child?

17. Considering the conclusion of Forbidden City, what do you predict will happen in the next installment of City Spies?

Extension Activities

RUSSIA—A part of the mission the City Spies undertake in Forbidden City lands some of the team in Russia, a country filled with renowned cities, buildings, and locales.

Using library and internet resources, have students learn more about landmarks in Russia, specifically selecting an architectural work (examples include but aren’t limited to St. Basil’s Cathedral, Gorky Park, Red Square, and the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg), researching it, and sharing with the group their favorite findings.

CARTOGRAPHY—In Forbidden City, one of the important plot points is the purposeful use of maps created by the USSR during the Cold War to expedite the nefarious endeavors by Umbra and their allies. Use the following article by National Geographic to learn more about how these maps were created and used by the military and their spy network: After reading, lead a discussion on what was learned and how these maps play a role in the novel, being sure to discuss why maps and mapmaking are still important.

ROBERT BURNS—At the beginning of the novel, Brooklyn shares her frustrations with having to master understanding the poetry of Robert Burns. Ask students to learn more about poet Robert Burns and what role he played as a writer and in Scottish history. Share examples of Burns’s work and let students find passages they find interesting, confusing, or inspiring.

FABERGÉ EGGS—Paris is tasked with breaking into a home to swap a counterfeit Fabergé egg being used for surveillance by MI6 with the real one, before the treasure is loaned out to a museum in Moscow. Using library and internet resources, have students research to learn more about the history of Fabergé eggs, being sure to discover the following: What is their connection to Russian history? What makes them rare and priceless? What makes these jeweled eggs so mysterious and legendary? Why would a reproduction used for surveillance likely be discovered?

KENSINGTON PALACE GARDENS—The first mission for the City Spies brings them to the home of Sir Reg, nestled in Kensington Palace Gardens, one of the most exclusive and expensive neighborhoods and streets in the world. Have your students investigate to learn more about what makes this street so unique. After their research, ask them to create a pro/con list of residing in such a place.

MATRYOSHKA DOLLS—These nesting dolls have a fascinating history. Using the library and internet resources, ask students to discover more about these dolls, being sure to learn more about their origin, design, history, cultural significance, and references in popular culture.

CRYPTOGRAPHY—Cryptography plays an essential role in the City Spies series and specifically the missions in Forbidden City. Have readers work with a partner to learn more about cryptography to discover what it is, who uses it, and how it’s used. After allowing for exploring and learning, have the pairs share what they discovered.

CHESS—Paris is vital to the mission in Forbidden City, due to his chess-playing skills that land him a spot at the Around the World international chess tournament featured in the novel. Ask students to research more about children and chess competitions, focusing on how players qualify, where tournaments are hosted for young people, and additional inquiries of their choice. Have them share their most interesting discoveries with the group.

This guide was created by Dr. Rose Brock in collaboration with James Ponti. Rose is an associate 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 or

About The Author

Elena Seibert Photography

James Ponti is the New York Times bestselling author of four middle grade book series: The Sherlock Society following a group of young detectives; City Spies, about an unlikely squad of five kids from around the world who form an elite MI6 Spy Team; the Edgar Award–winning Framed! series, about a pair of tweens who solve mysteries in Washington, DC; and the Dead City trilogy, about a secret society that polices the undead living beneath Manhattan. His books have appeared on more than fifteen different state award lists, and he is the founder of a writers group known as the Renegades of Middle Grade. James is also an Emmy–nominated television writer and producer who has worked for many networks including Nickelodeon, Disney Channel, PBS, History, and Spike TV, as well as NBC Sports. He lives with his family in Orlando, Florida. Find out more at

Product Details

  • Publisher: Aladdin (January 10, 2023)
  • Length: 464 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781534479227
  • Ages: 8 - 12

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