Monday, August 08, 2022

MMGM: Agent Most Wanted and 12 to 22

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday
and #IMWAYR day 

Purnell, Sonia. Agent Most Wanted:The Never-Before-Told Story of the Most Dangerous Spy of World War II
August 9th 2022 by Viking Books for Young Readers
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

The world was different for a woman born in 1902. Virginia Hall was expected to marry well and restore her family's fortunes, but for an intelligent and curious girl, this didn't seem like a great idea. There were options available for her that were not available for my grandmother, born in 1893 in a very rural area. Hall was able to attend Radcliffe college, but got bored and switched to Barnard College in New York. She loved all of the excitement there, and because of her family background and wealth, was able to go to Paris to study. She learned a lot of languages, as well as European culture, geography, and politic. She was able to continue her studies at George Washington University, and wanted to join the State Department as a diplomat. Even though she had such fantastic credentials, at the time only six of the 1,500 foreign service posts were filled by women. She decided she would get in through the back door, and got hired in a secretarial role. She served in Poland and then in Turkey, where she loved to hike and hunt. Unfortunately, during one of these expeditions, her gun went off and she shot herself in the foot. With medicine being what it was, she ended up losing her leg below the knee.

Undeterred (which I think is the word that best defines Hall!), she applied for a job as a diplomat in 1936, fearing that things were tense in Europe and that she would be able to help. Even pleas on her behalf to President Roosevelt, who himself overcame mobility issues, went unheard. By 1940, she signed up with the French artillery, and drove an ambulance. When she was due to head back to London, she met British agent George Bellows who was very impressed with her qualifications, and thought she would make a great spy. He gave her the number of someone to contact, but she waited quite a while to do so. Eventually, she was hired and sent on a mission to Lyon. 

What Hall accomplished as an agent is phenomenal, and reading about all of her escapades will be an absolutel treat for my World War II fans who are used to the details of battle. Hall's work was more nuanced and suspenseful, and reading about her one on one interactions and personal encounters with dangerous situations is much  more pulse pounding to me than battlefield descriptions-- if you are in the field with a gun and bombs dropping on you, it seems to me that you go into that with a certain fatal outlook. Hall's success was completely dependent on her skills in reading a situation, her background knowledge, and her expertise. The worst moment was when she misread Father Robert Alesch, who turned out to be a German spy, and had to escape over the Pyrenees on foot! 

Most impressively, Hall continued to work right up until the CIA forced her to retire at age 60. She set up safe houses in Spain, she got an award but had to be given it privately because she was still an active operative, and was one of the first women officers in the CIA. At almost every turn, she was passed over or given poor reviews just because she was a woman, yet it didn't stop her. She had more combat experience than five former directors! To me, her perseverance in continuing to work despite the roadblocks that were deliberately put in her way is the most impressive part of her career. She was eventually recognized as being "an undisputed heroine of World War II" but the CIA, which admitted that they did not use her talents well. 

I had previously read The Lady Is a Spy: Virginia Hall, World War II Hero of the French Resistance by Don Mitchell, and found that book, while informative, to be somewhat less engaging for pleasure reading. Agent Most Wanted, on the other hand, was a brisk page turner that kept me making notes on all of the incredible work that Hall did. Purnell also makes it abundantly clear the obstacles that Hall faced because of her gender and her mobility challenges. 

My only quibble with the book, which I am definitely purchasing and which will circulate very well, is that Hall's picture should have been on the cover of the book instead of the generic YA looking silhouette with flowing hair. The cover strikes me as a continuing roadblock to female accomplishment-- it only counts if we are romantically pretty WHILE we are changing the world!

Calonita, Jen. 12 to 22
August 16th 2022 by Delacorte Press
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

N.B. If you are an old person like me, before you read this book, watch the Taylor Swift 22 video. Decent song, really, with just a bit of a nasal, robotic, autotuned tone at some points that was hard to escape in the 2010s. The song figures laregely in the book, so it's good to be familiar with it. 

Harper is a bit obsessed with TikTok videos by Blake Riley, and has even tried making some of her own, showing how to recreate music video looks with inexpensive makeup. Even though she's not allowed to post them on social media until she's 13 (her mother works for a local college on social media and is smart about this!), she enjoys doing them. Her best friend, Ava, indulges her, but really wants Harper to get permission to run a dogwalking business with her. Harper's parents won't let her babysit or have any jobs until she is 14. She's tried to show them that she is responsible, taking care of her own dog and helping with her two year old sister, Reese. For her 12 and 1/2 birthday (she was born around Thanksgiving, so her mother feels bad), her parents give her permission to post on social media. Right around this time, she also finds out that Celia, who used to be her friend and is now wildly popular, has invited both her and Ava to her birthday party at the exclusive and very fun Sugar Crazy restaurant. Harper's a little confused, but is feeling good because her video has gotten a lot of likes. When information comes up about the invitation that makes Harper feel awful, she makes a wish using a "Happy Birthday" filter on her phone... and wakes up the next morning to find she is 22! She's visiting home and very confused. Reese, who is now 12, picks up on this more than her parents do, and is soon planning on driving into the city with Harper to help her with her job. Harper is not only a famous social media influencer but works for Blake Riley's cosmetics company as a marketing expert even though she didn't go to college. She has her own apartment, and technology ten years in the future is kind of cook-- phones live in peoples' ears, cars drive themselves, and SkyMail will deliver packages to you by drone in fifteen minutes! The one odd thing is that Celia works with Harper, and the two have a shared TikTok account where they post; Harper thinks that the content is pretty shabby. There's a huge launch going on at a baseball stadium, and Harper is struggling to keep up with what she needs to do to help Blake get ready for it, with Reese's help. When she finds out that Celia is trying to sabotage Blake's success and that she herself instigated this attack, Harper has to find out what happened at Celia's long ago party to make things right. Will she be able to contact Ava, mend their friendship, and return to the past so she can live life differently?
Strengths: Last year, the 6th graders created locker biographies in language arts class, and I'd look at a few each morning. So many of my students want to be social media stars, even though I suspect they don't fully understand how much work that would be. Harper's trajectory makes sense, and seeing her magically travel ten years into the future is very fun. Brody's Addie Bell's Shortcut to Growing Up and Mlynowski's Gimme a Call both address this, and really, it's a trope I'd love to see more of! TikTok is one platform that I haven't had any desire to pursue, but I know my students are quite enthralled, so it's a perfect snapshot of 2022. Celia is an interesting character who just barely makes sense in Harper's life, which puts Harper's whole future in a very tenuous place. I liked the twists and turns this took when Harper met people from the past, and especially loved how she was able to navigate her life at 22 with the help of Alexa and her baby sister. What a great, light summer read!
Weaknesses: I never buy tween fame on the internet, but it's wish fulfillment at its finest. After 16 years of blogging, I have a hard time believing that Harper would get so many followers so quickly. 
What I really think: I'm a sucker for alternate future tales; can I travel back to 1979 right now and NOT major in Latin? Because I would in a heartbeat. Tween readers will be wild about all of the social media success that Harper has, and hopefully take away a little life lesson as well. Calonita's vision of life ten years in the future is really fun, and I hope to still have this book on the shelves in 2032 so students can see how reality compares! Definitely purchasing, since this author's 2007 Secrets of My Hollywood Life series still circulates!


  1. I love stories about strong women during WWII. Agents Most Wanted sounds like a must read for me! Reminds me of an adult book I read. She certainly didn't let her disability get in her way and she made such a huge difference! Thanks for the review.

  2. Anonymous6:34 PM EDT

    I have always found Virginia Hall to be fascinating! Thanks for sharing this book. Agree about having her pic on the cover. When I first saw your review, I thought it was a book of fiction.

  3. What a fascinating story. I really enjoy books centered around WWII as do a lot of students I've known. I will also be looking fro a copy of 12 to 22 after I spend some time tracking down and watching the Taylor Swift video. Thanks for another great post for MMGM.

  4. Both of these books look excellent, Karen! Agent Most Wanted sounds like a fascinating and gripping read—I wasn't familiar with Virginia Hall before, but it sounds like she was fearless, being such a successful and determined spy in spite of so many barriers. 12 to 22 sounds like a great read as well, and I am sure it will appeal to so many young readers—the cover literally looks like a TikTok video! Thanks so much for the wonderful reviews!

    (P.S. I don't think your post is showing on the #IMWAYR roundup, just FYI.)

  5. Agent Most Wanted sounds like a must read for me. What a great story. I don't find TikToc very enthralling, but it might be a fun book. Thanks for the post.