“Spy School: Project X” might just be my favorite novel in the “Spy School” series by acclaimed children’s author Stuart Gibbs. It has all of the action and humor that the previous books in the series do, but in this one, Gibbs centers the plot on a disinformation campaign designed to put a target on our main character, Ben Ripley, who attends the CIA Academy of Espionage for school-aged potential agents.
Ben Ripley is a relatable main character in many ways. He’s not perfect; he admits that his combat skills are sub-par. What Ben excels at is the cerebral part of being a spy. He tells us, “I’m quite skilled at deducing what bad guys are plotting and then figuring out how to defeat them.” He goes on to inform us that, “Due to some extraordinary circumstances, I had managed to prevent evil organizations from dismantling the planet’s electrical grid, destroying the Panama Canal, assassinating the president of the United States, and melting Antarctica. And that was just in the spring semester.”
After narrowly escaping a series of explosions on campus, Ben realizes that he’s been targeted. Soon Ben learns that his evil nemesis, Murray Hill, has put out a twenty million dollar contract to kill him. He’s put out the word in the bad-guy-world, so multiple assassins are out to kill Ben, hoping, of course, to collect the reward. Luckily for Ben, he’s not alone. His good friends are with him, and they are determined to protect him and do what it takes to stop Murray Hill. Erica Hale, whose ancestors go back to the famous revolutionary, Nathan Hale, and whose family tree is filled with CIA agents (and one MI6 agent, her mother), is one of the best kid spies ever. But because Ben is her boyfriend, she is emotionally bereft that he’s in danger, which causes her to be a bit less than perfect. What Gibbs does is to present the lesson to readers that you don’t have to be perfect when you have a team; your mates are there for you if you make a mistake.
One of the qualities that kids and adults love about Gibbs’ writing is his unique humor. Some of the humor will be more easily accessible to adults, but there is plenty for kids to enjoy. One of the women assassins after Ben is Myrtle Combat, and when Ben’s best friend Zoe says that can’t be her real name, Erica responds. “Her real name is Prudence Buttercup, but that made her sound more like an interior decorator than an assassin. Lots of female assassins have pseudonyms: Dinah Mite, Barb Dwyer, Kay Ottic.”
To help locate Ben, Murray has created an internet conspiracy that Ben is a bad guy who is a danger to the world. Murray has taken every evil thing he himself has done and twisted it to appear as if Ben had done it. But Gibbs also demonstrates what happens to internet conspiracy theories — that they grow like wildfire and expand into craziness. One person posting online claims that Ben is a lizard-like alien who can shape-shift into human form to destroy our civilization, and the conspiracies expand from there. Murray Hill posts his outlandish claims on an internet site called The Truth. It’s a certainty that adults will pick up on the satiric reference.
This book would be a fabulous read aloud for many reasons, not the least of which is the opportunity for a good teacher or librarian to discuss with students how conspiracy theories work. Gibbs shares a lot through his brilliant example in the action of the story. One of Ben’s team members says that “The internet is the place where reason and logic go to die.” He says that there is a lot of accurate information there, but also a lot of disinformation. And people can’t tell the difference. “They think that the people who are telling the truth are lying to them and that the people who are lying to them are telling the truth.” And he says, “…once somebody believes something, getting them to admit that was a mistake is extremely difficult.” Erica then explains the term confirmation bias, wherein people look for information that supports what they believe and ignore any information to the contrary.
The ultimate irony, and the perfect plot twist, is when Ben and his friends finally get Murray to try to stop the conspiracy theory. The result is so real, so true, so believable, that we can only marvel and hope that children reading this novel grasp the concepts Gibbs so wisely demonstrates. I also adore Gibbs’ description of the fictional site his villain calls The Truth. “It was surprisingly rudimentary for a website with such a large reach, with crummy graphic design and a lousy interface. The homepage was simply the words “The Truth” followed by a short screed with abundant misspellings. The gist was that everyone in power was lying to the American people—the government, the media, scientists—and that only the people who ran The Truth could be trusted. The irony, of course, was that everything on the site was a lie.”
So Murray, posting as Q, er, X, starts the conspiracy theory, and Gibbs shows that once people believe something, it’s almost impossible to get them to realize that they’ve been had. How many folks are willing to admit they’ve been duped? The admission is almost like confessing that they’re either ignorant or stupid — like a relative of mine who tried to tell me doctors think that the COVID vaccinations are dangerous. When I replied that mainstream doctors, 99% or more of them, do NOT believe that and have gotten the vaccine themselves, he is unable to respond. He is unable to respond because on one level, he does know that fact. But he also had completely fed into the many conspiracy theories about our government, the media, and the scientists. After reading a few articles by pseudo-scientists, he thinks he knows more than the real scientists who do all the exhaustive testing. It’s an upside-down world, and Gibbs presents all these issues in a way that we should all hope kids might understand.
So get this book for your middle grade readers because they’ll love the characters and the nonstop action. And they will enjoy the twists and turns. But consider reading this book alongside your child and discussing some of the outlandish events which occur because of the conspiracy theory, which, outlandish as they are, are certainly not unrealistic or unlikely. As Gibbs writes in the “author’s note,” “every time I came up with something bizarre that conspiracy theorists could claim about Ben in this book, I would discover that real-life conspiracy theorists were claiming even more bizarre things.” He finally just used some real conspiracy theories in the book, including some that people really believe, such as the lizard-people from other planets who walk among us, planning to destroy our world. Seriously.
And just as I was writing this review, the news revealed the story about a Michigan man who was so far down the Q conspiracy tunnel, believing all the lies that the ultra right wing is promoting, that he killed his wife and family dog and attempted to murder his daughter. And that ain’t fiction.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, the publisher, for review purposes.