________________ CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 18 . . . . January 15, 2010


Mysterious Messages: A History of Codes and Ciphers.

Gary Blackwood.
New York, NY: Dutton Children's Books (Distributed in Canada by Penguin Canada), 2009.
170 pp., hardcover, $21.00.
ISBN 978-0-525-47960-4.

Subject Headings:
Ciphers-History-Juvenile literature.
Cryptography-History-Juvenile fiction

Grades 5-10 / Age 10-15.

Review by Jonine Bergen.

***½ /4


The military-mind Spartans also developed the world's first apparatus for enciphering and deciphering messages. In typical no-frill Spartan fashion, it consisted of only two simple elements: a wooden staff or baton called a scytale (sit-a-lee), and a long strip of leather or parchment. The sender wrapped the strip around the scytale in a spiral, then printed his message on it. When the strip was unwrapped, it seemed to contain a meaningless string of letters -- until the receiver wrapped it around another staff of the same size.


Wars, intrigue and diplomacy have one thing in common according the Blackwood. For each to be successful, one must look behind the curtain to see what strings the wizard on the other side is pulling while making sure no one is able to see what strings are being pulled by you. To be a successful "puppet-master." one needs to use ciphers and codes.

     Blackwood, in his book, Mysterious Messages, credibly argues that secret codes, and the breaking of these codes, have been pivotal to many famous historical events. Indeed, ciphers and codes, Blackwood insists, have been used for as long as people have been communicating. To prove his point, he takes his readers on a journey through the timeline of history, starting at 1500 BCE in Sumer and travelling through to the United States in 1976, describing the different codes and secret messages of the ages.

     Blackwood's experience as an author and his enthusiasm for the subject have combined to create an interestingly interactive book -- and, if the reader learns something while engrossed in the mysterious world of ciphers, so much the better. Through the study of ciphers, he teaches a little history, introduces the biographies of many famous people and tickles the imagination of readers whose curiosity will not allow them to turn a page with a mystery unsolved.

     Each chapter focuses on a pivotal episode along Blackwood's historical timeline. The description of the event is light and entertaining. My reader, for example, was fascinated that Histiaeus, a Greek who lived in Persia, shaved the head of one of his slaves, tattooed his message on the scalp and waited for the hair to grow back before sending the slave to Greece with his message.

     The explanation of the codes and ciphers, however, can be dense, though still digestible through Blackwood's chatty style. The numerous drawings of artifacts, portraits and charts also aid the reader in decoding the text. The sidebars, sprinkled through the chapters, focus on the specific cryptography method used in the pivotal event and provide historical examples and ciphers for the reader to decode. Jason Henry can be commended for the design and illustrations of Mysterious Messages. The scrapbook feeling Henry has imbued the text with gives the reader the feeling of having a spy's codebook in hand.

     To further tease his reader, Blackwood includes a different secret message running across the bottom of the pages of each chapter. The method to solve the cipher, though provided in the book, is not necessarily explained within the chapter in which it is found.

     The physical design and illustrations of Mysterious Messages are user-friendly for readers who have had some previous experience with nonfiction text. Bibliographical references, an index, a glossary and other sources are provided at the end of the book as access points for the dabbler. I suspect, however, Blackwood's prose will be enjoyed most by readers who commit to reading this nonfiction book from beginning to end.

     It is worth noting, the sophistication of the language, the choice of quotes, and the format of Mysterious Messages suggests this book should be for an older reader than the look and presentation suggest. The topic is highly interesting for students -- boys particularly -- aged seven and up. However, the writing is more appropriate for advanced readers aged 10 and up.

     My co-reader was a 10-year-old boy. He loved the book initially, but, as the codes became more complex, he stopped trying the codes and simply read the book. I also had a 16-year-old girl read it out of curiosity. She also found the histories interesting and particularly enjoyed the quotes interspersed within the text. This book has proved so popular, in fact, that I had a hard time getting it back to complete this review. The message sent by this fact is not mysterious; this book is a worthwhile addition to a library's shelves - but it may need a book talk to help build the interest. Mysterious Messages is a must-read for the budding puppet-masters of junior high -- or for those children who wants to keep their messages out of the hands of pesky siblings.

Highly Recommended.

Jonine Bergen is a teacher and librarian in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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