Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers and Secret Writing [Book Review]

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Author: Paul B. Janeczko

Year: 2006

Page Count: 144

ISBN: 978-0763629724

Price: ~$6 in paperback

Synopsis

I had a realization that most of the ciphers, codes, and hidden messages that we see in escape rooms are essentially ancient intelligence tools that are easily appreciated by older school kids. This isn’t a judgment, but a simple fact of the escape room format. A dozen or so puzzles all designed for rapid solving creates an environment that doesn’t lend itself to complexity.

So I sought out a kid’s guide to codes and ciphers and found Paul Janeczko’s Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers and Secret Writing.

Book cover for Top Secret, looks like a brown folder being held by a pair of black gloved hands.

It is exactly as advertised, discussing a little bit about the history and how-tos of simple encryption and decryption.

Written at about a 5th grade reading level, it’s the lightest read I’ve picked up in a long time. Top Secret is cute. It focuses on turning all of these old techniques into fairly straightforward craft projects. The information is good, if dramatically simplified.

Standouts

It’s an excellent and likely empowering book on how to make, transfer, and keep secret messages for kids.

As a light guide to ciphers for escape rooms, it’s a surprisingly solid book. I’ve read quite a lot about the history of cryptography as of late, yet there were a few basic forms of encryption covered in Top Secret that I had neither seen nor heard of.

The historian in me would have loved to see more detail in the book. However, it is likely more useful for those interested in creating escape games because it glosses over the historical context and focuses on how to create and use the basic ciphers

The table of contents is detailed and useful.

Illustrator Jenna LaReau’s art is adorable, warm, and humorous.

Book illustration for the "code breaking" chapter. A spy chopping a code book like a martial artist chopping wood.

Shortcomings

Janeczko’s writing is a little uneven. At times Top Secret is matter-of-fact, but then it can shift into a decidedly condescending tone that I think would have irked me even at age 10.

Should I read Paul B. Janeczko’s Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers and Secret Writing?

Retailing around $6.00 and taking nearly no effort to read, Top Secret was worth both my time and money. I learned a few concepts that I hadn’t yet come across.

If you’re looking to really understand the history, intricacies, and application of cryptography from antiquity to the present, then you should read a book like Simon Singh’s The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum CryptographyTop Secret is simply too light and airy to develop a serious understanding of the subject matter.

If you are looking to create an escape room and aren’t well versed in simple codes, ciphers, and methods of hiding messages, then Top Secret might be the most useful and easy-to-read $6 reference book you’ll ever buy.

Order your copy of Paul B. Janeczko’s Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers and Secret Writing from Amazon using this link, and a small percentage of your purchase will go towards supporting Room Escape Artist.

 

2 thoughts on “Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers and Secret Writing [Book Review]

  1. Thanks for the book review, I look forward to reading Top Secret with my 8yo, who loves the idea of escape rooms, although we’ve only done one with him so far (the now-retired Alice’s Dream at Mystery NH in North Conway, NH).

    Liked by 1 person

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