Having just finished a terrific new book called J.R.R. Tolkien, by Alexandra and John Wallner (Holiday House), I was reminded about codes. I spent a good number of hours during my junior high days fashioning notes in Elvish and leaving them in my friends’ lockers. The runic writing fascinated me and, of course, the idea of having a means of communication that couldn’t be read if it fell into the wrong hands was … delicious. For many of the same reasons, codes have fascinated readers of all ages. You’ll find tie-ins for linguistics, mathematics, science, history, and social studies within these books.
In J.R.R. Tolkien, the Wallners have conceived of The Game of Imagination, laying out the timeline of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s life as squares on an illustrated game board, with a deck of playing cards that depicts his life from childhood to old age, when he wrote, “I am in fact a hobbit in all but size.” Called Ronald, the man whose imagination was filled with dragons, elves, and hobbits, the child was homeschooled and later public schooled, studying philology and making up his own language so his friends could write to each other in secret. During World War I, Tolkien learned Morse code as well as the language of signal flags and signal rockets. When he created Middle Earth, is it any wonder that he included language, runes, and Goblin code in his world view? Well-researched and well-written, this is a good biography for young readers of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
In the same week, I read The Romeo and Juliet Code by Phoebe Stone (Arthur A. Levine Books), convinced that codes were the theme of the week. Felicity Bathburn Budwig loves her parents dearly but she is bewildered because they’ve taken her on a ship to America and dropped her off to live with a family she’s never known. Then they leave without explanation. Felicity, or Fliss, has a vague idea that they’ve brought her to America because the Blitz has made London unsafe, but she is confused by the grandmother, uncle, and aunt who act coldly toward her father, their blood relative. Further complicating her search for understanding, her uncle regularly receives letters from her father that he won’t let her read. He locks himself in a room and then leaves with a folder under his arm, walking down the beach. Told in a convincing first-person voice, set in a believable locale in the months before Pearl Harbor was attacked, this page-turner is as involving as Fliss and Captain Derek’s furtive attempts to solve the mysteries that surround them. The code? Well, it’s at the heart of the mystery and the book’s title gives a better clue than I can. Highly recommended.
Code Talker by Joseph Bruchac, is being discussed on Anita Silvey’s Children’s Book-a-Day Almanac. Kii Yazhi is taken to a boarding school when is six years old, forced to give up his clothing, his language, and his culture. His teacher names him Ned Begay, so even Kii Yazhi’s name is lost. Except in secret. The children maintain their language in secret, remembering their names, not giving over their culture. When Ned is 16, and America is fighting in World War II, he enlists in the Marines. There he discovers that his Navajo language is being used by the American forces as an uncrackable code in the war in the Pacific against the Japanese. This is an excellent book of fiction that relies on many well-researched details to create a completely believable story. It’s also a book about pride in oneself, one’s culture, and one’s country.
Nathan Aaseng wrote the absorbing nonfiction book Navajo Code Talkers (Walker) in 1994 and it stands as one of the most popular books about this dignified group of 450 men who used their native language to foil the Japanese. The complexity of the Navajo language made it ideal for use as a code to protect the knowledge of troop movement throughout the Pacific islands. Working both behind the lines and in the front line, these men remained unsung heroes of the war for many years as the government hoped to protect the code. The University of Texas at Austin offers a good list of suggestions, along with supplementary information, for including this book in your classroom. Aaseng has an accessible writing style that helps make this book of high interest to those who enjoy reading about World War II, military strategy, and language.
Radio Rescue, written and illustrated by Lynne Barasch (Frances Foster/FS&G), tells the true story of the author’s father, who in 1923 at the age of 10 became the youngest licensed amateur wireless radio operator in the United States. His knowledge of Morse Code and his proficiency with the wireless set brought him to a time and place where he was able to provide information to rescue a family stranded in a Florida hurricane.
With a more visual code in mind, Blue Balliett created Chasing Vermeer, which uses pentominoes to provide clues within the illustrations by Brett Halquist. Sixth-graders Petra and Calder collide while on a museum field trip, sending them on a mystery-solving tour they weren’t anticipating. A thief has stolen a Vermeer painting en route to a Chicago museum. A series of clever newspaper ads alert the children and they’re soon embroiled in a plan to retrieve the painting before the thief destroys it. Involving for both visual and linguistic learners. A good book to read out loud to your class before they visit a museum. Would you like to get those visual learners involved in a more hands-on way? Wikipedia has an excellent article that will get you started incorporating pentominoes into your classroom. Scholastic, the book’s publisher, offers an online game.
For teen readers interested in code, they’ll find The Victorian Internet: the Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-Line Pioneers by Tom Standage to be fascinating. From Jean Antoine Nollet to Thomas Edison to Samuel F.B. Morse, there were a host of people moving communication forward to this era of cell phones and iPads. I dare you to resist this book once you’ve read the author’s own description:
“In the nineteenth century there were no televisions, aeroplanes, computers, or spacecraft; neither were there antibiotics, credit cards, microwave ovens, compact discs, or mobile phones.
“There was, however, an Internet.
“During Queen Victoria’s reign, a new communications technology was developed that allowed people to communicate almost instantly across great distances, in effect shrinking the world faster and further than ever before. A world-wide communications network whose cables spanned continents and oceans, it revolutionised business practice, gave rise to new forms of crime, and inundated its users with a deluge of information. Romances blossomed over the wires. Secret codes were devised by some users, and cracked by others. The benefits of the network were relentlessly hyped by its advocates, and dismissed by the sceptics. Governments and regulators tried and failed to control the new medium. Attitudes to everything from newsgathering to diplomacy had to be completely rethought. Meanwhile, out on the wires, a technological subculture with its own customs and vocabulary was establishing itself.” —Tom Standage, The Victorian Internet