- Reading Level: Middle Grades, ages 10-12
- Maturity Level: 4 (ages 10-12)
One-Sentence Summary: Young Hazel Kaplansky, imbibing the fear of the McCarthy era, is hot on the heels of a presumed spy when she begins to unravel several smaller mysteries that help her mature in her understanding of the complexities of life.
Hazel Kaplansky has come to the firm conviction that Mr. Jones, the gravedigger at the cemetery her parents own and run, is a Red spy. No doubt about it. Her friend Samuel tries to interject reasoned cautions into Hazel’s speculations, but he also good-naturedly joins in with her crazy stakeout ideas. At school, Hazel is a bit of a misfit; Samuel is as well, so they make a natural pairing. As the story progresses, Hazel begins to unravel a lot of smaller mysteries, including one about Samuel’s own past. She also gains a better understanding of the individual selves around her. As children near puberty and young adulthood, they also begin to understand the people in their lives as separate entities with their own passions, dislikes, quirks, and personalities—not just “Mom,” “Dad,” “the crazy old lady.” Blakemore shows Hazel’s growing awareness clearly and draws the reader right alongside.
Spy Catchers tackles an important part of history—one that can be hard to communicate to children. The atmosphere of fear, the rumor spreading, the snap judgments that filled that era of American history are not unique to the 1950s, though. And they’re certainly not uncommon among middle schoolers! This book raises good discussion questions: how we should handle rumors, how we treat people around us, how we let family background govern our understanding of a person, when we trust or don’t trust the government, and other related questions. Spy Catchers is part mystery, part historical fiction, and all character driven. A bit contemplative for a mystery, this is a good fit for avid readers who enjoy immersing themselves in the lives of literary characters.
Note for concerned parents: the reading level and subject matter in general make this a good fit for younger, advanced readers (third grade or so). That being said, Samuel’s past includes the fact that his parents weren’t married—this isn’t emphasized, but it does come out clearly enough that if your children aren’t ready to discuss the subject, hold this one in reserve a bit longer.
Cautions: Sexuality (reference to unmarried parents; see note above)
Overall Value: 3.5 (out of 5)
- Moral/worldview value: 3.5
- Artistic value: 3.5
Categories: Middle Grades, Historical Fiction, Mysteries
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