50 pages 1 hour read

James Ponti

City Spies

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2020

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Summary and Study Guide


City Spies is a middle-grade mystery-adventure spy novel written by James Ponti and originally published in 2020. James Ponti has since written three more novels in the series, including Golden Gate, Forbidden City, and City of the Dead. Ponti has a love for history and spy stories, and actively chooses to create a cast of diverse characters in his novels to challenge typical notions of friendship and family. He also battles misconceptions of autism by including characters who possess traits of autism but who are held up for their abilities and importance as part of a team. His novels feature child heroes overcoming adversity and discovering their strengths. City Spies has won several awards and appeared on several lists, including the Sunshine State Young Reader’s Award, the New York Public Library Best Books for Kids, the Virginia Readers’ Choice Award List, the New York Times Best Seller List, and more.

This guide uses the first Aladdin paperback version of the novel, published in 2021.

Plot Summary

City Spies begins as Sara Maria Martinez, soon to be called Brooklyn, is awaiting her sentence for the crime of hacking into the juvenile justice system’s files. Brooklyn did so to expose her foster parents’ crimes of hoarding children and money, and her case is almost immediately picked up by a man who calls himself Mother. Mother uses a fake ID to become Brooklyn’s new lawyer and manages to convince the judge in court that Brooklyn should come live with him at his disciplinary school and live her sentence out there. Brooklyn has no family and nothing to hold onto and takes the risk of trusting Mother.

Brooklyn soon meets Sydney, one of the children who works with Mother, and finds out that she is going to be trained to become a spy for MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Service. Brooklyn is thrilled that she will be able to use her hacking abilities to do good and fight for justice. Before leaving for Scotland, Brooklyn is given her first test: She must plant a nugget of distraction and sneak into her foster parent’s house to fetch her belongings. Brooklyn successfully devises a plan to lure them with the false prospect of money and they end up trapped on the roof while she and Sydney retrieve her shoebox. Brooklyn is overwhelmed with joy and anxiety, as she knows her life is about to change forever.

Mother tells Brooklyn the story of how he acquired a burn on his arm. While attempting to lure a major criminal using the prospect of rare art in Paris, Mother found a boy living in a factory there. The boy was resourceful and intelligent, managing to survive on his own. When Mother’s plan was discovered by the crime syndicate Umbra, they burned the factory with him inside. Paris saved Mother’s life, and in turn, Mother took Paris in. Similarly, Mother found Sydney in a boarding school fighting against racial injustice. Sydney was also alone. Both Rio and Kat were found while Mother was searching for his own children, and each was alone, but strong and ready to commit to the team. Mother believes that his wife defected to Umbra, the crime syndicate, and took his children with her. He searches for them constantly.

The girls and Mother fly from New York to Scotland. Upon their arrival, they split up, and Brooklyn is given the test of finding the meeting point in Edinburgh. Unbeknownst to everyone else, the other spy children, Rio, Paris, and Kat, have devised a plan to spy on Brooklyn before meeting her. Rio takes the lead for the mission and sets up the plan. As they watch Brooklyn make her way through the city, Paris watches as she appears to steal a watch from a jewelry counter. He is shocked and informs the others, and they all decide in advance that Brooklyn is a thief who cannot be trusted. Brooklyn and the others arrive at a castle-like home called Aisling, otherwise known as the FARM. Located on an airstrip, the base was used by famous meteorologist Benito Viñes to study hurricane patterns. Brooklyn meets Monty, the woman who works there and who shares Brooklyn’s love of computers, and the other children, Paris, Kat, and Rio. Over dinner, they confess to what they saw, expecting Mother to be horrified. Brooklyn explains that she noticed herself being spied on the moment she came out of the terminal and pretended to steal a watch to trick them. She successfully photographs each of them, embarrassing them all, but especially Rio, who led the mission. Rio holds a grudge for several weeks. Mother and Monty are impressed with Brooklyn’s wits and her desire to be part of the team. Brooklyn also figures out that she is a replacement for another girl named Charlotte who was also a hacker.

Brooklyn begins her spy training, which involves learning decoding patterns from Kat, deception from Rio, navigation from Paris, and physical training from Sydney. Each lesson gives Brooklyn more confidence and builds her relationship with the others, although Rio continues to remain distant. She meets Ben, the supercomputer at the FARM that is used for weather studies, cryptography, and hacking. Brooklyn has never seen anything so beautiful in her life. Soon, Mother announces Operation Willy Wonka, a spy mission for MI6 to protect a wealthy environmental activist and tech giant named Stavros Sinclair. Sinclair is holding a summit competition to encourage youth to develop solutions to climate change; the focus this year is on artificial rain. The spies’ job will be to protect Sinclair at all costs while observing and investigating his company to determine if it is associated with anything illegal. Their rival team is led by Charlotte. Brooklyn plans to hack Charlotte’s computer just enough to prevent her from winning and drawing attention to the spy group. They offer Charlotte the chance to use Ben for a day, and Brooklyn takes the opportunity to attach a key-logger to Charlotte’s laptop. Brooklyn soon finds out that Charlotte was asked to leave the team after it was discovered she was using her skills to steal from innocent people.

Meanwhile, a research laboratory in France has created a virus that is deadly upon exposure. The virus is transported by two MI6 agents, but they are killed along the way, and the vial containing the virus is stolen by the Purple Thumb. To prepare for a mission that is becoming increasingly dangerous, the group flies to the famous Pinewood Studios for three weeks of special training. Brooklyn is tasked with learning to climb a wall without any support, which she struggles to do as a result of her fear of heights after being locked on the roof at the foster home. The plan is to have her climb into the server room for Sinclair’s company and hack it. As all of this takes place, a criminal named Le Fantôme sits in his apartment and thinks about how the upcoming youth summit will change the world. On the train to Paris for the summit, Kat explains how she figured out that Sinclair owns each company that has been attacked by the Purple Thumb over the past few years. They cannot determine why Sinclair would want the virus, however.

When they arrive in Paris, they are taken to a secure inn called the Three Lions. The server room is in a different building, so Brooklyn and the other children are tasked with finding it. They discover a non-descript building called Asgard and Paris suggests using the city’s catacombs to access it from underneath.

Meanwhile, Mother goes to investigate Sinclair’s private art collection and finds the fake paintings that he used to lure Le Fantôme out years prior on the night of the factory fire, and the discovery alerts him to Sinclair’s affiliation with Umbra. The children search the catacombs, an experience that terrifies Brooklyn, and find a secret door leading into Asgard. It requires a security badge to enter and they return to the competition. Afterward, Paris notices Sinclair talking to a bodyguard that he recognizes from the night of the fire. He reports this to Mother, and the team determines that Sinclair is part of Umbra, and that his corporation is a cover for their illegal activities. When Mother returns to Sinclair’s art collection, he discovers the pieces being packed up to move and determines that Sinclair is preparing to leave the country.

Kat figures out how to get a key, and Brooklyn and Sydney use it to break into Asgard and hack the servers. While inside, they are found by two guards who tracked the ID badge. Paris arrived moments before their entrance and manages to distract the guards by tossing the ID badge to the ground while Brooklyn and Sydney hide underneath the floor. Afterward, they meet everyone else at the Eiffel Tower. The team realizes that the Purple Thumb might be Sinclair himself, attacking his own company. The next morning at the announcement of the winners, several MI6 agents are present, along with the children. Having successfully lured dozens of agents to one location, Umbra plans to expose them to the virus so they may take it back to their agencies and destroy them from within. Sydney and Mother figure this out, and Sydney uses her speech to send a message to the others. Brooklyn faces her fears and scales a high wall, entering the ventilation room just as a criminal named The Professor is about to unleash the virus. She kicks him in the back and takes the vial, threatening to throw it if he hurts her. Then, she uses a trick she learned from Rio to pretend to throw the vial, distracting the Professor.

She escapes, but he chases her all the way to the Three Lions Inn. There, she finds nobody to help her, until a woman comes out of the shadows and knocks The Professor out with a feather dart. Brooklyn realizes she is Mother’s long-lost wife who is still working for MI6, not Umbra. The woman tells Brooklyn to urge Mother to stop searching for his children and passes her a flash drive to give to him. Brooklyn uses a tunnel to reach the British Embassy and falls asleep from exhaustion. When she wakes, she reports the news to Mother, who immediately checks the drive and finds a picture of his two children, smiling and healthy. The Professor is arrested, and Sinclair is put under observation. The group decides to change their name from the MI6-dubbed Project Neverland to City Spies. Kat gives Brooklyn a heartfelt hug, and Rio compliments her contributions to the mission. Despite his wife’s wishes, Mother continues searching for his children. Brooklyn decides to help in his quest and visits him one afternoon in his tower. She sees the look of longing in his face as he stares out the window, and gifts him a snow globe that was gifted to her by her abuela as a young child. The snow globe acted as an anchor for Brooklyn and a beacon of hope that she would one day find her family. She gives it to Mother in the hopes that it will help him find his. When Mother insists that he cannot keep such a precious item, Brooklyn insists, as she has found own her family with Mother, Monty, and the children.

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By James Ponti