Top of page

volunteers in blue "event staff" shirts roll up brightly-colored National Book Festival posters
Volunteers prepare posters by artist Lisa Congdon for visitors at the Library of Congress National Book Festival, August 12, 2023. Photo by Shawn Miller/Library of Congress.

A Teen “Take” on the National Book Festival: Accidental Spies with John Lisle and Janet Wallach

Share this post:

This post was written by high school student Doug Schwartz, a participant in the Informal Learning Office’s 2023 summer teen internship program, and a teen volunteer at the National Book Festival. This is the first in a series of posts written by teen reporters sharing about their National Book Festival experiences.

When I walked into this year’s National Book Festival (NBF) presentation Accidental Spies: The Scientist and the Socialite with authors John Lisle and Janet Wallach, I wasn’t sure what to expect. After all, being a secret government agent doesn’t exactly seem like a job someone can accidentally fall into. However, after listening to Lisle and Wallach talk about their books, it soon became clear to me that a lot more goes into being a spy than just wearing expensive suits and using code names.

A headshot of a man in a suit with glasses.
John Lisle’s headshot for the National Book Festival. Photo credit: Photo credit: Emerald McIntyre

Lisle discussed his book “The Dirty Tricks Department”. In his book, he tells the previously untold story of scientist Stanley Lovell and the Office of Strategic Services’ (OSS) Research and Development Branch during World War II. Lovell, a Boston-based chemist, got sucked into the world of espionage out of sheer circumstance and was tasked with creating unique gadgets for the government. When Lisle first mentioned that Lovell was a gadget maker, I figured he meant tools like cyanide pills or silenced pistols. While I wasn’t wrong on that front, to my surprise, Lovell got a lot more creative. Stories of his outrageous inventions ranging from truth drugs to glowing foxes to the bat bombs reminiscent of something out of a Sunday morning cartoon captivated the audience and made me question what other outlandish tools spy agencies have dreamed up since!

A woman with white hair wearing a suit and writing in a notebook.
Janet Wallach in her headshot for the National Book Festival, as taken by Vance Jacobs.

Wallach’s book for the National Book Festival was “Flirting with Danger,” which tells the story of Marguerite Harrison. Harrison was born into a prominent Maryland family, and transformed from a flirtatious socialite into an excellent spy during World War I. Although Harrison wanted to join the war effort, she was initially rejected as a front-line journalist and a Naval spy on the basis of her gender. However, due in part to her nearly flawless German and ability to spy where men could not, Harrison became a vital cog in the Army’s newly formed intelligence department. After hearing about Harrison’s persistence, I was inspired by the lengths to which she went in order to support her country. And to top it all off, Harrison was incredibly successful, despite being one of the only women in a male-dominated field.

What stuck out most to me was the passion with which both authors researched their novels. Lisle shared how he stumbled upon Lovell’s story while researching his dissertation in the National Archives, but it wasn’t until he finished his research that he was really able to dive into this story. Wallach, on the other hand, stated she spent thirty years trying to unearth information on Harrison. Even hiring professional researchers wasn’t enough to do the trick. Nevertheless, both authors persisted until they were finally able to uncover the information needed to tell the stories they wanted to tell. Hearing the pride in both authors’ voices when they described how much work went into their research justified my belief that when an endeavor is worth pursuing, it doesn’t matter how difficult it may be. Currently, I am writing historical fiction short stories as a senior project, and although the process can be difficult, I was inspired by the work that Lisle and Wallach poured into their respective books. Throughout my own writing process, I have found the Library’s resources invaluable, and I encourage my peers to explore all it has to offer (If you or any middle and high school students you may know are interested in research, this link is a great place to start.). When I left the talk, not only did I understand how one could accidently become a spy, but I also had a newfound respect for the amount of work that goes into writing a historical book.

• 6:25 Wallach discusses how Harrison set her mind on becoming a spy and how she ended up with the Army’s intelligence department
• 7:12 Wallach talks about how Harrison’s excellent German
• 10:52 Lisle explains the basic duties of the OSS during WWII
• 15:30 Wallach explains her journey to try and find information about Harrison
• 19:05 Lisle talking about stumbling across Lovell’s name during his research
• 20:08 Lisle outlines about how he just had to follow up on Lovell’s story
• 27:46 Lisle discusses the unique gadgets Lovell invented (explaining bat bombs
• 28:59 Lisle lists several more of Lovell’s inventions

Discussion prompts for families after watching the NBF video:

  • If you were in Stanley Lovell’s shoes, what kinds of inventions would you create to help aid in the war effort?
  • Why do you think Janet Wallach had such a hard time finding information about Marguerite Harrison?
  • Imagine you were tasked with writing a historical book about a topic of your choosing. What would the topic be, and how would you go about researching it?
  • If history isn’t your thing, what subjects could you see yourself researching with the same intensity of Lisle and Wallach?

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.