18.Jan.2011 The Spy’s Guidebook (Usborne)

Yesterday I was invited to give a public talk about one of the books that inspired me from the distant past. I had to decline the offer because of the timing but it got me thinking about what that book might be.

Rummaging around my old children’s books I managed to find the one.

Usborne’s The Spy’s Guidebook.

I loved this book as a kid. I must have read it hundreds of times – and for some reason I have two copies. One quite battered and loved to death, and the other in much better condition. Opening it after all these years brought back a flood of memories.

The Spy’s Guidebook was, I think, three single titles in a series compiled into one thick volume.

(As an aside, there was another ‘detective’-oriented series – one volume of which, Catching Crooks, I managed to leave with my teddy in a bag by the side of the road on a trip to Canberra one school holidays. I was distraught and I remember, when we got home, my mum and dad vainly calling the police to see if it had been handed in. Being the 70s, it had and a few days later there was a amusing puff piece in the Daily Telegraph about the police finding my bag with Catching Crooks in it. I really should find and scan that clipping)

But back to the Spy’s Guidebook. As a kid this book was like stepping into a world where the walk between your house and your best friends’ houses was filled with danger and, of course, many opportunities to try out the stealthy tricks from the book. We’d make secret code wheels, write messages in invisible ink, try to move without being noticed. The quirky illustrations and raincoated spies, straight out of Spy vs Spy, help make the book so approachable and engaging.

I don’t buy the idea that this sort of ‘childhood secret club‘ behaviour has disappeared with the omnipresence of portable games and digital intrusions or squeezed out by the revoting concept of ‘tweens’. Some of this ‘secret club’ behaviour has just migrated to the web and to these communication devices themselves – I wish I’d had a iPod Touch or DS as a kid – we could have done some awesome codebreaking and crazy adventuring with them! And I’m always amazed by the imaginative worlds even the most cotton-wooled kid manages to conjure up out of the most meagre of raw materials. You see this happening with kids at the park everyday – if you look.

It seems that the Spy’s Guidebook is still in print although apparently it was revised in the 1990s when it came with a CDROM (!!). But I’m pleased I have a late 19070s copy to pass on to my kids and I hope they get as much from it as I did. If you see a copy in a secondhand store, grab it. It really is an excellent read.

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