“Traveling the Globe with the City Spies”
I love to travel and I love to write, so it’s not surprising that the characters in my books do a fair amount of globetrotting. In the first four City Spies adventures, the team has been to London, Paris, San Francisco, Moscow, Beijing, and Cairo. My hope is that in addition to providing exciting backdrops for the stories to unfold, these locales also spark an interest in readers for faraway places.
I research each of them thoroughly and try to visit them in person when I can. (Covid made this impossible for books 3 and 4.) I do this research not only for accuracy, but also inspiration. An unexpected detail about a location can help bring the story to life and provide a boost to the plot. (For example, while working on this book, I learned that an anti-tank rocket was once fired at MI6 headquarters and bounced off!)
Many educators have told me they use the books to “take their students” to the same locations as the City Spies, which fills my heart with joy. One way you can do that is on my website. There is a page (https://www.jamesponti.com/explore) that features the locations from the books and includes research photographs, maps, and travel videos that I’ve made for each one.
With the release of Mission Manhattan on February 6th, I thought I’d tell you about four of the locations that play important roles in the story. (I visited all of them in person with one exception – just like that rocket, I am unable to get inside MI6 headquarters.) In some instances, I was given special tours and in others I acted like the characters and snuck around hoping not to get caught. Along the way, I took hundreds of photos, a few of which I’ve included here.
Piazza San Marco – Venice, Italy
The book starts off in Venice. (My wife was particularly happy to help me research this stop.) Made up of more than one hundred small islands connected by a seemingly endless number of footbridges, the city is unlike anywhere else in the world. The primary setting in the book is Piazza San Marco, which Napoleon is said to have called, “The drawing room of Europe.”
The pictures I’ve included highlight the famous bell tower that stands over three hundred feet tall. During the action scenes in the first chapters, this is where Kat is positioned as the alpha of the mission. I made sure to get a picture of what she would see and I came across a plaque memorializing Galileo, which I worked into the story.
“Four hundred years earlier, this was where Galileo looked to the heavens with his newly invented telescope and discovered order in the universe. Now it was where a fourteen-year-old spy looked across a sea of demonstrators, hoping to figure out which ones were a threat to the others.”
MI6 Building – London, UK
The headquarters of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) is quite conspicuous considering the clandestine nature of what takes place inside. Located in the heart of London, its exterior features prominently in several James Bond movies. In Mission Manhattan, the City Spies travel there to secretly meet with the chief, who is universally known as C.
Since I couldn’t visit in person, I scoured books, podcasts, interviews and their website. (https://www.sis.gov.uk/) I was particularly interested in the architecture, which is unlike any other building I know.
“The massive Secret Intelligence Service headquarters overlooked the Thames, and its architecture seemed equal parts Mayan temple, medieval castle, and nuclear power plant. Commonly called Vauxhall Cross, it was a well-known London landmark, but up until now, the only time the City Spies had gotten a good look at it was while watching James Bond movies.”
Iranian Embassy – Washington, D.C.
Washington is a favorite city and I visit it frequently. In Mission Manhattan, the City Spies go to some well-known D.C. landmarks like the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial, and the U.S. Botanic Garden. But I was most intrigued by a much lesser-known location – the Iranian Embassy.
Located across the street from the British and Brazilian embassies (which feature heavily in the plot), the Iranian embassy has remained empty ever since the United States and Iran severed diplomatic relations more than forty years ago. It stays empty way because of Article 45 of the Vienna Convention, which someone explains in the book.
“Technically, that land is part of Iran. But the Iranians can’t come here and do anything with it, so it just sits there like a haunted house.”
The idea of this mysterious abandoned building in one of the most expensive locations in Washington, D.C. was too interesting for me to pass up. When I visited to research all the locations in the book, I snuck around and took a dozen pictures of the embassy including these.
New York Public Library, Schwarzman Building – New York City, NY
I love the New York Public Library’s mission, collection, and history. Its main building is featured prominently in the climactic chapters of Mission Manhattan.
“The main branch of the New York Public Library was one of the most iconic buildings in the city. Its Fifth Avenue facade featured three grand arches guarded by a pair of majestic marble lions. The building was home to ornate reading rooms, special collections, and literary treasures as varied as Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence and the original stuffed animals that inspired Winnie-the-Pooh.”
For my research, some staff members showed me behind the scenes along with my wife and editor. One of my favorite details from the tour concerned the interior stacks, which are hidden from public view. There are seven floors of cast iron and steel bookcases that are mostly empty because the books have been moved to a more environmentally appropriate location underground. The shelving units can’t be moved though, because they are structural elements and help keep the building standing. For me, it is a fascinating detail and just screamed out to be the setting of a chase.
BEYOND BOOK FIVE
I am happy to say that there will be at least eight books in the City Spies series and that means there are many more exciting locations to come. In fact, the first part of the writing process is always when my editor Kristin asks me, “Where are we going next?”
Here’s hoping that you come along with us!
Published February 6th, 2024 by Aladdin
About the Book: The City Spies head to the Big Apple when a credible threat is made to a young climate activist who is scheduled to speak in front of the upcoming United Nations General Assembly. With Rio acting as alpha and a new member in their ranks, the team’s mission to protect a fellow teen takes them on an exciting adventure in, around, and even under the greatest city in the world as they follow leads to the outer boroughs, the UN Headquarters, and even the usually off-limits stacks that extend deep under the main branch of the New York Public Library.
About the Author: James Ponti grew up in a small Florida beach town, where he dreamed of one day becoming a writer. He loves pasta, laughing at funny stories, and going to the movies on weekday afternoons. One of his absolute favorite things to do is travel with his family, and it was during a trip to London and Paris that he got the idea for City Spies. He now lives in Orlando, Florida and is the New York Times Bestselling author of four middle grade book series. Find out more at JamesPonti.com.
Meet James at his in-person book tour!
Tuesday, February 6 at 6:00pm ET
Politics and Prose at The Wharf (Washington, D.C.)
In conversation with Hena Khan
Wednesday, February 7 at 6:00pm ET
Books of Wonder (New York, NY)
In conversation with Gordon Korman and Adam Gidwitz
Thursday, February 8 at 6:00pm ET
RJ Julia Booksellers (Madison, CT)
In conversation with Jake Burt
Friday, February 9 at 6:30pm ET
An Unlikely Story (Plainville, MA)
Saturday, February 10 at 2:00pm ET
Bush Auditorium at Rollins College (Winter Park, FL)
In conversation with Stuart Gibbs
Thank you, James, for taking us on this journey with you and the City Spies!