Book safe for Super Spies

What: A book safe, used as part of the secret agent mission for Kid 7’s birthday.

How: I found a book with very specific qualities. It had to be hardback, quite thick, quite large, and something we never wanted to read again and didn’t care if it was cut up. The last bit was the hardest. Though after I showed my husband the final product, he said “Hey, you should have asked me” and handed me a book he’d won as a quiz night prize that would also have been perfect. I’ve kept that one in case the kids want to make one of their own – because I made this one in secret, as part of the party preparations.

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It took ages to make that hole. I was disappointed at how small it turned out to be when I put the magnifying glasses in it.

The basic method is that you leave a block of pages untouched at the front to make the book appear normal. Then you use a Stanley trimmer or similar cutting knife to cut your hole, working your way down through the layers of pages until you have a hole of sufficient size. Once you have your hole, smear glue carefully around the outside of the book over all the pages that are part of the hole but not the “lid” pages. I didn’t think that would be enough, but once the glue dried the safe part held together quite well and you can still flick the first few chapters normally.

I kept the bits I cut out to make the clue for this activity. Several of the bits I’d cut out were chapter titles with numbers on them – “One”, “Eight”, “Eleven” etc. I used as many of those as I could find and wrote one letter on them each that would make a message when the pieces were laid out in number order. The messages were “In A Book” and the author’s surname (visible in Really Big Letters on the book’s spine).

When party time came, the kids earnt the envelopes with the clue messages by completing the disguise relay. Then they had to work out what the message was.  I had to help a little here as not all kids were solid readers. I also had to somewhat lay out the things that were obvious – such as these were pieces of a book, they should look where books are, maybe start with the books that are full of words like these pieces rather than the books that are mostly pictures, is there a book with “Douglass” on it? I was trying to get them to do as much of that process themselves as they could, but books that are full of nothing but words are a little new to this age group (as is that kind of logical processing of the obvious, though kids 9 and 11 were making the leaps themselves).

Eventually they saw the book they were looking for. Then I made them stop, think, work out if there was a way to get the book down safely without climbing up the bookshelves to grab it immediately (excitement is such a rush). They had to flop around dramatically because thinking was so hard and they couldn’t work out what to do, but eventually they realised that they were flopping on a handily-placed stepladder and used it. When they got the book down, they discovered that it was a book safe. Inside the book safe they found magnifying glasses (cheapies from an online party store), and a new clue page. I couldn’t fit quite enough magnifying glasses into the book, so I was standing ready with a bag to hand out the extras or make sure people got the colour they wanted if that was an issue (it mostly wasn’t, but I couldn’t be sure beforehand).

Code wheels for Super Spies

What: Code wheels made as part of the Secret Agent mission for Kid 7’s birthday.

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Codebreakers at work making their equipment. One day I’ll tell them about Bletchley Park.

How: The kids found a briefcase that contained code wheel sheets, split pins, scissors (they got to keep a pair each, I’d ordered a bulk pack from an education supplies online store), and a new code message written in rotary cipher (moved on 7 places for a 7th birthday). I got the code wheel sheets as a download from The Science Museum in the UK and printed them myself. They’re the kind that have two wheels that you have to cut out and attach together, so I needed to print them on something sturdier than normal printer paper but that would still go through our printer. That was tricker than I expected – I used to use 110gsm paper for that sort of thing but the local office supplies store only had 80gsm or 210gsm (which won’t feed through a printer). Eventually I found some fancy stuff used for printing wedding invites etc, and that mostly worked OK but was not as cheap as I’d thought it would be.

So then the kids happily went and sat in the loungeroom and cut out and assembled the code wheels. I thought that might be slower and more confusing, but they all did it quite easily. Kid 5’s age group might have been more erratic with the scissor precision, but the 6-7 year olds were perfectly fine and didn’t need explanation on how to make the wheels at all, just intuited it.

We ran into a problem though using the code wheels to translate the message. Remembering which wheel was code and which was decode was very tricky for the kids (though pretty straightforward for kid 9 and kid 11). I’d also gone seven places back instead of forwards. And the code wheel itself had lots of extra characters so wasn’t just a straight alphabetic rotation. Which would have been fine if I’d used the same code wheel to make the message. But I hadn’t – there are lots of online scripts to encode messages and I’d used one to write my rot-7 message so that I wouldn’t make any mistakes. The result was that the message didn’t actually translate. I had to redo it on the fly using a spare code wheel, and I did make at least one mistake. But eventually the group of us all worked out that the message said “Towel Up!”, and ran for the bathroom.

Spy gear gained and used in this exercise: scissors and codewheel.