Friday, February 26, 2021

Break the Code, Elizebeth!

Code Breaker, Spy Hunter: How Elizebeth Friedman Changed the Course of Two World Wars 
by Laurie Wallmark; illus. by Brooke Smart 
48 pages; ages 7-11
Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2021

theme: STEM, biography, codes

Elizebeth Smith Friedman, a cryptanalyst with a stellar reputation, agreed to work with the FBI on their top-secret project.

Once she broke the codes, she uncovered a ring of German spies. Pretty good for someone  who got into code breaking by accident. You see, Elizebeth loved languages. She majored in English, studied Greek and Latin, and wanted to work in literature. Instead, she was hired to look for secret codes in Shakespeare’s plays. She liked playing around with codes, and became so good at code breaking that, during WWI the US government hired her to decode enemy messages. When WWII came around, the US still didn’t have a code breaking unit – so Elizebeth had to create one.

What I like about this book: I like how Laurie Wallmark includes quotes from Elizabeth throughout the book. And the glimpses into her private life – like dinner parties with invitations written in code. And the Back Matter (of course): more information about codes and ciphers with a hands-on “Crack the Code!” activity. There’s also information about modern cryptography (fancy name for code breaking), a timeline, and bibliography. There’s even “front matter” on the end pages. This is a fun book to explore, and each time you do, you’ll find more.

Laurie is one of the authors who contributed to the book, Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep. In it, she says that writing about women in STEM lets her combine your two passions - STEM and equal
opportunities for all. So I had to ask her One Question:

Me: With so many unsung women in STEM fields, how did you decide to write about Elizebeth Friedman?

: I keep an ongoing list of possible women in STEM I might want to write about. With each book, I want to find something that makes that person stand out a little bit extra. In Elizebeth’s case, it’s that unlike most scientists and mathematicians, she wasn’t interested in those fields as a child. Instead, she loved books and studying languages. In fact, she majored in English in college. I thought it would be interesting to discover how a person with her background came to be so accomplished in such a technical field like cryptography.

Beyond the Books: Be a code breaker!

Try your hand at these codes. Back in elementary school I sent many message using the pig pen code. Here are three codes to try.

Send a message in Morse Code. It’s like old-school texting, a code used to send messages through wires or over radio (sound) or using flashing lights (sight). Here’s the secret code. All you need is a flashlight or clicker.

Make up a secret code you and your friends can use. Think about using numbers, letters, symbols (like hieroglyphics or runes…).


Want More? In April, National Geographic's Children's Books is releasing Top Secret, by Crispin Boyer. It's filled with everything you want to know about spies, codes, and classified cases. Plus, there’s lots of hands-on activities. You can “go to” Spy School, learn codes, and check out “tools of the tradecraft.” 

Laurie is a member of #STEAMTeam2021. She's written a slew of books about women in STEM. You can find out more about her at her website.

Today we're joining Perfect Picture Book Friday, an event where bloggers share great picture books at Susanna Leonard Hill's website. Review copy provided by Blue Slip Media.


  1. I would love to share this with a class as there is something for everyone in it. Another great female STEM biography.

  2. Laurie writes about "dead women in STEM" so masterfully! I think I have all of her books. And this one is going to find its way to my shelves, too. Great review!

  3. Young people will really have fun with this biography. There are so many takeaways and projects to explore. Look forward to checking this out -- I loved the Bletchley Circle code breakers.

  4. Sue, great review of Laurie's fun book. I really liked your activities.