A girl discovers her boarding school is actually an elite spy-training program, and she must learn the skills of the trade in order to find her mother in this action-packed middle grade debut.
After a botched escape plan from her boarding school, Abigail is stunned to discover the school is actually a cover for an elite spy ring called The Center, along with being training grounds for future spies. Even more shocking? Abigail’s mother is a top agent for The Center and she has gone MIA, with valuable information that many people would like to have—at any cost. Along with a former nemesis and charming boy from her grade, Abigail goes through a crash course in Spy Training 101, often with hilarious—and sometimes painful—results. But Abigail realizes she might be a better spy-in-training than she thought—and the answers to her mother’s whereabouts are a lot closer than she thinks…
New York City. Eight Months Ago. Where Things Take a Turn for the Weird.
Dear Abigail Hunter,
It is with great pleasure that we welcome you to the Smith School for Children’s class of 2019. We are confident you will contribute many amazing things to our school and community. Here at Smith we take our motto very seriously: Non tamen ad reddet. Not to take, but to give back. We strive each day to make the world a better place for our fellow human beings because this is what matters most.
Attached please find details regarding the start of the school year. Our travel office will be contacting you shortly to arrange transportation for you and your belongings to our beautiful Connecticut campus. We look forward to an exciting and rewarding year!
Headmaster, The Smith School for Children
The Smith School for Children? What? There has to be a mistake, because I go to Sweetbriar Montessori with Rowan and Ainsley and Blake and Alec, and we have plans. Next year, in eighth grade, there’s the epic three-day field trip to Washington, DC. And Blake and I trade lunch every day because he likes the kale chips and other inedible green things my mother packs for me. Speaking of my mother, “Mom! Get in here right now!” I yell.
My mother, the smart yet apparently forgetful Jennifer Hunter, appears in my bedroom doorway. She has a towel wrapped around her hair and one covering her torso. Her mouth is full of toothpaste.
“What?” she mumbles through the foam. “Are you on fire?”
I hold up the letter high so she is sure to get a good look at the Smith School crest and coat of arms, bright red and blue. (Also, why does a school for kids have a coat of arms?)
Mom squints. She’s vain, so she avoids wearing her reading glasses unless the situation calls for splinter removal. I clear my throat.
“Does the Smith School for Children ring a bell?” I shout. Mom freezes, a look of shock clouding her face. Toothpaste rolls down her chin. My stomach sinks. This letter is no mistake.
“Hold on,” my mother says. “I gotta spit.” She turns on her heel and leaves. She could have swallowed the toothpaste, but she’s angling for time. She needs a minute to determine the best way to tell me she’s sending me to boarding school and just kind of forgot to mention it.
I sit cross-legged on my bed. In my free hand, I hold a ceramic box I made in pottery this year. It’s glazed purple and orange and fits perfectly in my palm like a grenade. Not that I plan on throwing it or anything.
My mother returns in a white T-shirt, her long, wet hair dripping on the floor, a totally inappropriate smile plastered on her face. She eyes my pottery. The smile falters.
“Don’t you even think about throwing that at me,” she says, taking a seat on the end of my bed. “I’ll duck, it’ll smash on the wall, and what will you get?”
I put down the ceramic box. “Nothing,” I mutter.
“Exactly,” she says. “No upside. Just like when you ditched school with Ainsley to liberate the lemurs at the Central Park Zoo. There were police involved. No upside.”
“The lemurs were not happy,” I mumble. “And you’re dripping all over my bed.”
“I’m sorry you got the letter,” she says, frowning. “But since when do you pick up the mail?”
“I was trying to be helpful,” I say. “Didn’t you say it would be nice if I was more helpful? Besides, it was addressed to me.”
“The Smith School is the most prestigious boarding school in the country,” she says.
“I don’t care,” I say indignantly. “I’m not going.”
“You can wear skirts with little whales on them and polo shirts and things,” she says. “It’ll be a good fit. Lots of smart kids. Accomplished. You know.”
This is a ridiculous answer, even by Mom standards. I mean, how much can any kid accomplish by age twelve? The correct answer is . . . not much.
“Are you mad?” I ask. “I’ve never seen this place! I’ve never even heard of it until right now! I go to Sweetbriar Montessori. I have friends! I have plans!”
“The Smith School is really nice,” my mother offers. I pick up the ceramic box again. She shakes her head ever-so-slightly. I put it down.
“I don’t care if it’s nice,” I whine. “I’m not going.”
“You are.” Mom takes me by the shoulders and looks deep into my eyes. I hate when she does this. It’s mesmerizing, like she’s some kind of snake charmer, and although I’ve been her daughter for my whole life, I’m still powerless against it.
“You’re smart, Abigail,” she says. “But you need focus and discipline, and it’s my responsibility to find the place where that focusing and disciplining can happen. I need you to be safe.”
It’s true I sometimes get into trouble. For example, two months ago I rigged the student council elections and got caught mid-ballot-box-stuffing, but that was out of loyalty to Josh, who really wanted to win and probably wasn’t going to. So is loyalty bad? I think not.
The Sweetbriar principal has called me a chronic user of poor judgment. Usually he’s red in the face when he’s saying this, and my mother is sighing loudly in a chair in front of his desk.
“Boarding school?” I say again. For someone with a sharp tongue, I have a pathetically monosyllabic argument against boarding school. But to my credit, I’m in a state of shock, having just learned not five minutes ago that I will soon be disappeared into the green Connecticut landscape. I shake the letter at my mother.
“I will die in this prison,” I say. “I will shrivel up and disappear just like the Wicked Witch of the West. My creative self will be forever silenced. I cannot possibly go.”
Mom sits back and looks at me, a slight arch to one of her professionally engineered eyebrows.
“Plus, I hate polo shirts,” I add. “When have you ever seen me wear a polo shirt? And what sort of person wears marine life on her skirts? Wicked Witch of the West, Mom. Poof! Gone in a puff of smoke. The end of Abigail Hunter as you know her.”
“Steam,” Mom says.
“The Wicked Witch didn’t burn. She steamed.”
Whatever. I hug my knees to my chest, the defensive posture of a hedgehog under attack. Mom looks me up and down.
“Listen,” she says with a sigh. “This is going to be a complicated year. There are places I have to be and things that . . . need doing. I can’t be watching over you every second, pulling you back from the edge, intervening every time you take a wrong step. It just won’t work. Smith will challenge you and keep you focused. Give it a try. Please? For me?”
Mom has the most amazing violet eyes, and right now they tell me I ought to give in. This is the closest she will ever come to begging, and it doesn’t happen very often.
I love my mother. She’s fun and funny and treats me with respect even when I mess up, which is frequently. But she also failed to mention she was sending me to boarding school in September. So I wait to see what else she’s going to put on the table.
Mom stands up. She paces the short length of my narrow bedroom, thinking.
“Okay, how about winter break in Switzerland?” she says. “We can ski or build snowmen or, I don’t know, drink hot chocolate.”
I shake my head. I hate the snow. Besides, Mom drives on icy roads the same way she drives on not-icy roads: fast and terrifying.
“Tahiti?” she offers. “St. Barts? Galapagos? The Costa Rican cloud forest?”
Now she’s talking. “I’ll take Galapagos and that art history camp in Rome you said I was too young for.”
She eyes me. My heart races. The elusive victory is close, I can feel it. Mom puts her hands on her hips. A trickle of sweat runs down my back.
“Done,” she says finally. We shake hands. And while I’m ecstatically happy (I won!), I also know I’ve been had. Because just like that, I’m off to the Smith School for Children.
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A Reading Group Guide to
Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls
By Beth McMullen
About the Book
Abigail Hunter has her seventh-grade year at Sweetbriar Montessori all planned out—fun, friends, and field trips! Instead, she receives a letter that tells her she has been accepted into a highly respected New England prep school, only to find out it's nothing like what she was expecting. The Smith School for Children is also home to the ultra-secret Center, or Mrs. Smith's Spy School for Girls.
Abigail finds herself in the middle of a complex scheme she doesn't fully understand—information is strictly need-to-know. Along with a former nemesis and charming boy from her grade, Abigail goes through a crash course in Spy Training 101, often with hilarious—and sometimes painful—results. She is sent to California to lure her missing mother, an elite spy who has gone missing, out into the open. Soon Abigail realizes she might be a better spy-in-training than she thought—and the answers to her mother’s whereabouts are a lot closer than she thinks…
1. Consider the book’s cover art. In what ways do the images represent or symbolize the events that occur throughout the course of the book? What is the significance of the whales? Why are they depicted on Abigail’s skirt?
2. The title of the book is Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls, but the actual name of the school is The Smith School for Children. What impression does the title make and how does it shape your vision of this community and its students? Use examples from the book to support your answer.
3. Think about the cast of secondary characters: Izumi, Charlotte, Jennifer, Toby, Veronica, Mr. Roberts. Who did you like the most? The least? Why? Of all the characters, whom did you identify with the most and why?
4. The book is told in the first person by Abigail. If you could have a different character tell the story, who would you choose and why?
5. Action and adventure stories, as well as spy stories, are popular literary genres. Can you name other teen spies, from books, movies, or TV? In what ways does Abigail’s style and technique differ? What makes Abigail unique? Give examples to support your answer.
6. The setting of the story is at a private school in Connecticut, as well as in San Francisco and New York City. Do you think the Smith School for Girls could be a real place? Why? What does the author do to help you visualize each of these schools? Do you feel you know these places? Where else does Abigail spend her time in the story?
7. As Abigail begins to understand more about her mother, she realizes that her life is entirely different than she thought. Give some examples of events that happened in the story and how they are connected back to earlier events in Abigail’s life. How do the bits and pieces of Abigail’s past and present fit together?
8. What are some problems that Abigail faces as she is thrust into the unfamiliar role of a spy? What can you infer about her character as she takes on this new responsibility? How would you handle this new identity?
9. Despite the book’s title, Toby is a vital character in the story. How does the author treat gender norms, stereotypes, and cultures? Are there any gender stereotypes depicted in the story?
10. Throughout the story, the author uses phrases such as “cut to the chase,” “waiting for the other shoe to drop,” and “been to Timbuktu.” Why does the author do this and why is it important? Find other examples of phrases that are unique to a spy story.
11. Each chapter of the book has a heading in a who, what, when, where, or why format. Why does the author structure the chapters in this way?
12. Abigail is thought to be too young to be a spy. Do you agree or disagree? At what age should one be able to become a spy? What are the circumstances that lead to Abigail being used to find her mother?
13. Abigail’s mom, Jennifer, talks about self-reliance: “‘When things are really crazy,’ she’d say, ‘that’s when you need to have the most confidence in yourself and be bold even if it's scary.’” What does this mean? Find examples in the book that show how Abigail has to be self-reliant.
14. Abigail has to face a moral dilemma: save herself or save Suzie. What does Abigail end up doing? What is the important lesson that Abigail learns from this predicament?
15. How does Abigail grow and change over the course of the book? What are some life lessons that she has learned? Reread Chapters 23 and 25. What are the lessons here and what does Abigail want? Do you agree with her choice?
16. In the last chapter, Jennifer tells Abigail that “parents aren’t your destiny.” What is she trying to tell Abigail? Can you apply this advice to your own life?
17. Based on the events that happened in this story, predict what might happen for Abigail and her friends in the next book in the series.
1. Abigail had a crash course in spy training. If you had the opportunity to design and create a curriculum for spies, what would be in your beginning courses? Name your curriculum Spy Training 101 and include subjects such as disguises, secret codes, gadgets, chromatography, secret compartments, spy cameras, self-defense, etc. How might your classes include subjects such as chemistry, physics, computer science, engineering, physical education, problem solving, and teamwork? Make sure your curriculum has at least four different classes.
2. Cryptography and ciphers have long been a part of sending secret messages. Try the different secret codes on the CIA Kidzone website and decide which would be a good fit for Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls: https://www.cia.gov/kids-page/games/break-the-code. Using the different codes as a model, can you create a new code for the spy school?
3. Create a laser maze obstacle course for you and your friends. Using ideas from http://www.mykidsadventures.com/string-laser-maze/ and the catacombs from Mrs. Smith’s Spy School building, how would a laser maze work and what would it look like? Design your idea on paper and create a model to represent the maze in the catacombs.
4. Design a spy gadget, or turn an everyday item at home into a spy gadget.
5. Write a persuasive essay that convinces your parent or guardian that you should (or should not) be sent to boarding school. Be sure to keep in mind the following as you build your argument:
Align your interests to the person you’re trying to persuade
Use the same type of language as that person
Know your demographics—collect data from family and friends
“Quid pro quo”—I’ll do for you, if you do for me
6. The Frick Museum and the statue of Persephone are part of a clue left by Abigail’s mom. Using the virtual tour at the Frick Museum (http://www.frick.org/visit/virtual_tour), start at the Garden Court and recreate the trail that Abigail and her friends follow from the symbols that Abigail’s mom has left as a doodle. Create the doodle itself from the description in the book and from looking at the virtual rooms.
7. Latin phrases are used throughout Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls, such as “In loco parentis” (in place of a parent). What are some other Latin phrases that we encounter in our everyday lives or in everyday use? Can you find three to five phrases that you are familiar with? Start exploring with these helpful pages:
8. At the beginning of the book, Abigail receives a letter from The Smith School for Children. On the letterhead, there is a crest and a coat of arms (bright red and blue). Design the coat of arms and crest based on your reading of the story. What will it include? Be sure that your design is a symbol unique to the school and be sure to explain why you have included that symbol(s).
9. Try these other spy series:
Spy School series by Stuart Gibbs
Evil Spy School
Spy Ski School
Spy School Secret Service
Merits of Mischief series by T.R. Burns
The Bad Apple
A World of Trouble
Watch Your Step
Guide written in 2017 by Sharon Haupt, District Librarian, San Luis Coastal Unified School District.
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.
Beth McMullen is the author of the Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls series and several adult mysteries. Her books have heroes and bad guys, action and messy situations. An avid reader, she once missed her subway stop and rode the train all the way to Brooklyn because the book she was reading was that good. She lives in Northern California with her family, two cats and a parakeet named Zeus, who is sick of the cats eyeballing him like he’s dinner. Visit her at BethMcMullenBooks.com.
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