Washington’s Hidden Talent

Washington’s Hidden Talent

“Spymaster” is children’s book with adult appeal.

Move over 007. You were “outspied” more than 200 years ago, and not by some stirred-not-shaken martini drinker with a host of technological gadgets. We, in the colonies bested you. Or rather our leader and father of this fledgling nation did. His name was George Washington. And he was a “Spymaster.”

That is the essence of a novel by Thomas B. Allen entitled “George Washington, Spymaster.” On Monday, Allen spent the better part of Presidents’ Day in The Shops at Mount Vernon autographing copies of his book for customers who at times flowed out into the entry. The book remains on sale in the gift shop for $16.95.

“Before this book, Norman Polmar and I wrote other spy books,” said Allen who retired from National Geographic Magazine to become a freelance author. He has either authored or co-authored 35 books since he left the magazine in 1981.

“I was looking up something on the internet when I came across the use of intelligence in the American Revolution. That got me started,” he said.

“I had no idea of the extent of spying during the Revolutionary War. But when I told them at National Geographic what I had found, they were intrigued with developing a children’s book on the subject,” Allen said.

As stated on the fly leaf of his 149-page treatise, “It’s 1775, and General George Washington is in serious trouble. He has a ragtag army, a few muskets and some cannons, and no money to fight the world’s most powerful empire. His only hope of beating the British is to wage an invisible war — a war of spies and deception.”

As he warns, and entices, his readers, “You are about to enter the shadowy world of double agents and covert operations, of codes and ciphers — a world so secret that even the spymaster himself doesn’t know the identities of some of his agents.”

The whole design of the book is to give the reader the feel of an 18th-century book. The typeset in the book is the same as in Washington’s day except for some minor changes, according to Allen.

ONE OF THE GREATEST groups of supporters of the book are librarians. “When I spoke at their convention they told me that the reason they are pushing the book is because it brings history back to a narrative style,” he said.

“Kids are being turned off by textbooks and are losing interest in reading. Textbooks have abandoned narrative history,” Allen said.

“When you write for kids, you just write more carefully. You do not write down to them. Because of that a lot of adults also love this book,” he said.

That was evident as he sat at the table in the entrance to the gift shop. Even though it was past 3 p.m. and he had been sitting there signing since 11 a.m., customers kept coming to him raving about the book and getting his signature.

Allen has just completed another true spy book. Entitled “Black Spies in The Civil War,” it is set to be published in 2007. His prior spy books with Polmar are “Spy Book: The Encyclopedia of Espionage;” “Codename Downfall;” and “Merchants of Treason.”

Allen attributes a lot of his Washington Spymaster book’s success to having “a wonderful editor” and “great support from National Geographic.” It took about one year to write and was first issued in 2004.

Among his accomplishments are books on subjects ranging from military history to sharks. His first children’s book for National Geographic was “Remember Pearl Harbor: American and Japanese Survivors Tell Their Stories.”

A resident of Bethesda, Md., Allen is a founding member of the Writer’s Center. Spymaster is adorned with archival art and pen-and-ink sketches by acclaimed children’s illustrator Cheryl Harness.

On this, his 274th birthday, Washington’s skills as spymaster are still acclaimed as some of the best in the nation’s history. As noted by Allen, “Those skills were recognized by none other than Major George Beckwith, the head of British intelligence operations in America at the end of the war. Beckwith later noted: ‘Washington did not really outfight the British, he simply outspied us!’”