Review: The Unbreakable Code

The Unbreakable Code, written by Sara Hoagland Hunter and illustrated by Julia Miner.

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About:In World War II, the Americans needed a code that couldn’t be broken by the Japanese – and they recruited a group of Navaho to develop one. This book tells the story of the Navajo code talkers, put together out of interviews with many of the surviving code talkers, and framed in fiction as a grandfather telling his grandson not to be afraid to move to a new home. It’s an important part of American and WWII history, a discussion of how codes, languages and alphabets intertwine, and a clear portrait of what advantages cultural differences can bring to a multicultural society. It also tells clearly and effectively of the sadnesses of war, the punishments applied to Native Americans who tried to hold onto their culture and some of the barriers they faced to acceptance. The reading level is quite high and the themes quite strong, so I’d put this book at at age level of say 5-10 years old, despite it being a picture book with stunning illustrations.

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“The code had to be simple and fast. We would have only one chance to send each message. After that, the Japanese would be tracing our location to bomb us or trying to record the code.”

Good things:

  • Positive indigenous contribution to society
  • Central characters are Native American
  • War descriptions effective but without undue emphasis on the terrible
  • Places the code talkers in cultural and historical context
  • Talks about language and codes and how the code was developed
  • Promotes the use and value of indigenous language
  • Includes the basic code used by the code talkers
  • Beautiful oil painting illustrations
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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.

Rear view glasses for Super Spies

What: rear view glasses, found as part of the Mission during Kid 7’s spy-themed birthday party. And a message in mirror writing, to solve using the glasses.

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The pre-prepared glasses that Daddy and I stuck together.

How: I looked for rear view glasses online but couldn’t find any cheap enough to order in party quantities. Kid 6 had a pair from a school book club set, and I’d made some once as a kids activity at a science museum. So I knew the rough idea. I ended up ordering a bunch of kid-sized sunglasses from an online party goods store, and a bunch of small craft mirrors from a big box craft store, and assembling them myself. I did consider getting the kids to do it, but thought it might be a bit slow/tricky for a group of six and seven year olds to manage themselves. Maybe nine to eleven year olds would have been fine with it. The problem with self-assembly is that the bits don’t quite match up in size and shape – the glasses have too much curve in them (you want them to be quite flat rather than following the line of a face), the mirrors are too big to fit inside the frame and at the same time too small to see effectively in – that sort of thing. I tried superglue but couldn’t get the mirrors to stick well enough to the frames, so ended up using double-sided sticky tape. Which was mostly a temporary solution, but held together well enough to get through the party.

The kids found the glasses all ready for them in a box in the bathroom, and gleefully put them on. I’ve found with these that they are really tricky to use the first time, and then the second time it’s a lot easier. It takes a little practice working out how to focus on the mirror and make sense of what you’re seeing, and then how to turn your head so you can choose what to look at. The kids had fun trying them out. Some got it, some didn’t, but the idea was Super Cool (and it was sunglasses which are automatically cool) so that was all right then.

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Where do you write a message in mirror writing? On the mirror, of course.

Also in the bathroom, on the mirror, was this big message, in code. Well, in mirror writing. Which doesn’t seem like a tricky code, but given that several of the kids are still working through the first hundred sight words list and can’t immediately recognise words when they see them, and some are not reliable at identifying mirrored and flipped letters like b/d/p/q, mirror writing *was* tricky. I made it a little trickier by breaking up the words and using multiple colours so that even the kids who would normally recognise the words on sight didn’t just immediately know what the message was, and that seemed to even up the speed a bit or at least slow down the faster ones. Trying to read the message with the glasses was a bit tricky for the kids, but being in the bathroom there was another option. Several of the cabinets had mirrored doors, and there’s a mirror on the bathroom door, and if you move the various mirrors around you could get it so the letters were all the right way without having to use the glasses. The message was written with some pens I found that are specifically for use on mirrors, glass and bathtubs and the like. They go on like oil pastels and wash off easily.

The Spy Party

This week my posts are all about the spy-themed birthday party we did for Kid 7. Today’s post is the overview, then I’ll have a couple of posts on some specific activities, and then the all-important cake post.

Kid 7 has been certain they wanted a spy-themed party for several months. Turns out spy stuff is Not In Fashion at the moment, so I ended up having to source a lot of things randomly. The party also coincided with my not working for six weeks, which was great for having time to do it and crap for having the money to pay for it. I still probably spent a bit – some things I planned for and bought well ahead of time, and some I could have saved more on if I’d planned them well ahead of time too! The other thing that we HAD to have at the party was a treasure hunt. So – the party ended up being a Super Spy Mission for all our budding secret agents. I have this thing about party bags – I hate them. I’ve managed to mostly avoid having them until now, despite there being a strong cultural expectation around them. But this year they were necessary. So I made them an integral part of the mission, and the kids earnt and then used Every Darn Thing that went in their bag. Including the bag itself.

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The disguise relay that kicked off the active part of the mission.

Here’s how the mission went down:

  1. The kids needed a Secret Bag. So they were given little baby singlets with the bottoms pre-cut, that they had to tie knots in to make the bags. The kid 5-to-7s did struggle a little with this – many of them haven’t had much practice with knots, and even with the singlets being small there’s still a lot of knots to tie. Thankfully I had a kid 11 and kid 9 who were pretty on top of it and helped a lot. In hindsight another bag method would have been more practical. But this was knots and “things that don’t look like bags”.
  2. The Disguise Relay. I assembled three piles of clothing – each with an adult button-up-shirt, a pair of pants, a tie, a hat and a pair of shoes. The kids got in teams, split in two for the relay back and forth. The first kid has to get dressed in the clothes, then run to where the other half of their team is, take the clothes off and the next person has to get dressed and run back. This was totally hilarious. I encouraged teams to help their team-mates with the dressing and undressing, and the team that did this best (turning clothes right side out, untangling pants etc) ended up winning. If you try this, I recommend using adult shorts rather than adult pants, as we had some issues with the pant legs just being too long for safe running with kids of this height. Also funny to see how many kids would put on the shoes first and then try and get the pants on. The winning team got an envelope of clue papers, and the team that came second got another envelope of clue papers.
  3. The envelope messages, when solved, led them to a book-safe with magnifying glasses for everyone (cheapies from an online party store), and a clue page. The clue page was written in “First Letter Of The Word” code. A random piece of weird text, but if you take the first letter of each word it makes a message. Most of the kids didn’t have the reading skills to be able to do that in their heads, so I gave them highlighters so that they could mark off the first letter and then try and read it. That meant about half of them could get it. This clue led them to…
  4. a briefcase in the dining room. Which was locked. I pointed out that they’d need two three-digit numbers to open the briefcase, and asked them if they still had the previous code sheet. Someone found it, and eventually they worked out that written very very small in the corners were some numbers. So they read the numbers with their magnifying glasses and opened the briefcase.
  5. Inside the briefcase was everything they needed to make rotary code wheels. They sat down peacefully together and made them, and after a few hiccups the group of us all worked out that the message said “Towel Up!” and ran for the bathroom.
  6. In the bathroom they found a box of rear view glasses, and a message in mirror writing (actually on the mirror!) that they had to read with the glasses. That sent them to…
  7. the barbeque outside, where they found a bag of little carabiner-keychain compasses, and a message in chalk: 12mE, 5mN. Some of them knew enough about abbreviations to work out what this meant, and as a group they managed to get the ideas of metres, east and North. They then tried implementing it as a group, which meant kids wandering across a wide range of positions. I encouraged the ones that were closest so that they mostly got into the right spot, next to…
  8. the clothes dryer. Where I’d hidden the birthday cake. The original plan had been to have the cake fully visible inside the dryer (unplugged to avoid accidents!), but the cake tray didn’t fit so it was hidden under a box on top of the dryer instead. Kid 9 was definitely better at looking for possibilities like that than the Kid 6s.

Overall, I think the mission worked. It was a bit of a juggle to guess how hard to make it, and this was definitely too hard for a couple of the kids (particularly the ones who are very behind in their reading ability) but it was about right for the birthday child and almost trivial for the Kid 9 and Kid 11, so I’m going to call it well-enough-aimed.

Total loot for each kid: spy bag with code wheel, scissors, compass, magnifying glass and rear-view glasses.