Jada Sly, Artist & Spy


By Sherri Winston

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Jada Sly, a hilarious and spunky artist and spy, explores New York City on a mission to find her mom in this “fast paced, fun” illustrated novel from an acclaimed author (School Library Connection).

Ten-year-old Jada Sly is an artist and a spy-in-training. When she isn’t studying the art from her idols like Jackie Ormes, the first-known African American cartoonist, she’s chronicling her spy training and other observations in her art journal.

Back home in New York City, after living in France for five years, Jada is ready to embark on her first and greatest spy adventure yet. She plans to scour New York City in search of her missing mother, even though everyone thinks her mom died in a plane crash. Except Jada, who is certain her mom was a spy, too.

With the stakes high and danger lurking around every corner, Jada will use one spy technique after another to unlock the mystery of her mother’s disappearance — some with hilarious results. After all, she’s still learning.



Our Air France direct flight from Bordeaux to New York City trembled and shook.

Exhaust thundered from the engines. Plumes of fire ate away the sides of the plane. Would I be able to save everyone? Or were we doomed?

Heart hammering, I gripped my sketchbook, drawing fast to capture the faces of enemy agents determined to take over our plane.

Smoke from the fiery aircraft burned my eyes and nose. The enemies swarmed the plane. Something had to be done.

My spy training kicked in.

This was what I’d prepared for.

Slow, steady breaths. In-out-in-out. Just like my ballet teacher, Madame Geneviève, had taught me.

Then I switched from ballet techniques to martial arts. My muscles strained. Knee bent; foot tucked under my butt—I was ready to strike.

The enemies began to surround me. Muscles tight as drums. Teeth gritted. And then—

“Mademoiselle, are you feeling unwell?” A French accent rose above the chaos.

It was the flight attendant hovering at the end of our aisle. She looked down at Cécile, my father’s museum colleague. “Madame, is the young lady going to be all right?”

The burning trails of engine smoke evaporated.

The charred airplane returned to normal.

No enemies dashed down the aisle or lunged for my journal of top-secret sketches, mementos, and the faces of would-be assassins. And none of the passengers cried for help or even looked distressed.

Cécile reached over and squeezed my hand. She assured the flight attendant that I was très bien.

After a long moment, the flight attendant left us. I chewed on my lip, lowered my foot, and drew a deep breath.

“You are going to be just fine, ma chérie,” Cécile said. “This is only your third flight since…”

Her voice faltered. She was going to say since the accident.

“I am fine,” I said, resolutely. Papa used to say I was the most “resolute” young lady he’d ever known. Resolute, meaning “determined.” Back then, he meant it as a compliment. Now, well, a lot had changed.

My name is Sly. Jada Sly. I am an artist. And I am a SPY! One of my talents is remembering faces. I love to draw and observe the shapes and curves that make people’s faces. Being a great observer—and artist—is going to help me become the best international spy one day.

I was in the midst of the greatest mission I’d probably ever have—one that could change my life forever.

Understand, I wasn’t some superbrilliant kid genius with a million gadgets who belonged to a secret agency that employed other superbrilliant young geniuses—the kinds of kids you read about in made-up stories.

I was simply me. A girl who had grown up playing spy games, solving puzzles, and digging up buried secrets. Not to mention my knack for memorizing the angles of a person’s face and form. As I said, I was also an artist. Honestly, it was in my blood.

The airplane glided above puffy white clouds, and I continued to keep a watchful eye. I needed my nerves calm and my focus steady.

On the seat between Cécile and me sat my pet bunny, Josephine Baker. She had been sleeping in her cage. Fat and cuddly. Larger than most bunny rabbits, with ivory-and-caramel-colored fur and large droopy ears. She was a highly skilled operative, capable of decoding complex calculations, but she was also just so furry that stroking her calmed my nerves. Mostly that second part, actually.

I loved dreaming up spy scenarios and practicing missions with a few of my friends back home in Bordeaux. Sometimes I got really caught up in my imagination.

Lately, though, it seemed the scenarios I dreamed up were feeling more and more real. Too real. Papa said I was having something called a panic attack. He said it was normal, given what all our family had been through.

But I didn’t want the panic attacks to be my new normal.

My reflection in the plane’s window made me smile. I couldn’t help touching my hair again. I used to wear ponytails. Now it was cut in a daring and bold style—with bangs that swept across my cheek and covered one eye.

Papa had laughed when I’d returned from the salon looking brand-new. Then he’d hugged me so tight I thought my lungs would explode.

He was already in New York. He’d left a few weeks earlier in preparation for the reopening of our family’s museum, the Sly. He was going to be the new director.

Cécile was born in Bordeaux. She worked with my dad in France. When he decided to move back to New York, she agreed to come, too. I had stayed behind because of a summer trip with my classmates. Now I was arriving weeks after the American schools had begun. I hadn’t been to school in the United States since prekindergarten. It was going to be strange feeling like a foreigner in my own country.

Chérie,” she said, her French accent a joyous mixture of syllables, “what are you thinking about with such intensity? I can practically feel your imaginative brain working.”

I reached across to playfully nudge her.

As much as I loved Cécile, and Papa, I had to remind myself that they were keeping secrets from me, too.

Grown-ups always think they should be the ones with secrets. They believe in honesty only when it benefits them. I tell you, if young people weren’t natural-born spies, we’d never find out anything. Allow me to give an example:

I was 100 percent positive Mama had not worked as a Foreign Service Officer at the US embassy while we’d been living in Bordeaux. That was what she told everyone. I knew better. She had to be a real-life, honest-to-goodness spy.

Of course, no one, especially Papa, would confirm it.

Six months earlier, Mama was flying a plane. It crashed somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean. (The very ocean we were now flying over!) No bodies were ever found.

Doesn’t that sound suspicious? It did to me. Like the kind of thing that could happen only if my mother were a spy. I wonder if learning to fly a plane was something Mama did to become a spy. Hmm… I’ll have to put it on my list of things to learn, just in case.

Mama was the one who played all sorts of spy games with me. She knew I liked hiding in her big double closet, looking for classified information. Like birthday presents meant for me!

One year, for Christmas, all my gifts were hidden. I had to use tracking coordinates to find them.

We used to watch old spy movies. She thought my love of espionage was wonderful. Papa preferred quizzing me on art and art history. He was always asking me to look at my surroundings and tell him what famous painter came to mind.

He had changed since the accident. When I told him about my belief that Mama had not died in the crash, he wanted me to see a psychologist.

But what I needed—desperately—was answers.

I was running out of time.

My parents had been the perfect couple. Sure, they didn’t do a lot of things together. In fact, in the year before the accident, Papa and I were spending more and more time together, while Mama was spending more and more time away.

I’d been angry at her about that.

Not now. Because surely, she had been gone because of secret missions.

Thanks to the skills she taught me, I had discovered another important secret. It was about Papa and Cécile.

In the past few months, I’d begun to notice how he looked at her and blushed when she looked at him, how he’d started wearing clean cardigans to work rather than the messy ones with rips and stains.

I needed answers because, way deep in my soul, I knew Mama wasn’t dead. She was merely in hiding to protect Papa and me. She had been in danger, and maybe we were, too. I just knew it. I had this feeling.

More than a feeling—I had proof.

The only other flights I’d taken since she disappeared had been to New York City for her memorial and back to Bordeaux. Mama, whose mother was African American and father was Egyptian, grew up in the city. Mama loved some art—not the way Papa got all gooey-eyed about a painting, but she knew what she liked. Edgar Degas’s drawings and paintings of ballet dancers were her favorites.

I’d had a tiny replica of Edgar Degas’s famous Little Dancer sculpture. At the grave site the day of Mama’s memorial, I left the figurine behind.

A few days after Papa and I returned to Bordeaux, I awoke in the middle of the night. I had a strange feeling, like someone had been in my room. The faint smell of Mama’s favorite fragrance, Coco Chanel, lingered around me.

And there on the nightstand stood the figurine.

Of course, Papa insisted the next day that I must have brought it back with me. He thought it made more sense to believe that I’d somehow forgot and left a statuette on my own nightstand—even though it was supposed to be thousands of miles away in a cemetery!

I wanted to argue with him about it.

I needed someone to believe me.

My mother was alive.

And I was going to find her.


Another thing Mama and I used to do was to go people-watching at the park or somewhere with lots of people.

Cécile and I walked briskly through the airport. I glanced about as I went. I liked field-testing my techniques whenever possible. I did have a knack for recognizing faces.

It didn’t take long before I spotted a tall man with a rectangular face and long arms. Was he speaking into his jacket?

This is it, I thought.

Fearing karate or judo or tae kwon do might be our only salvation, I prepared for battle. My French martial arts teacher, Master Chin-d’ Maitre, said what I lacked in technique I more than made up for with spirit.

My body was coiled, ready for action. I felt strong but chic in my polka-dotted dress and matching handbag.

Just as I was about to strike, however, the man nodded toward Cécile. That was when I saw it—a Bluetooth earpiece in his ear. He wasn’t an enemy agent keeping an eye on us. Just some businessman barking instructions to his secretary, no doubt.

I exhaled, remaining vigilant. I seriously couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was watching me.

We retrieved our bags and walked to the taxi stand. September sunshine poured over us with warmth despite the cool breeze.

Cécile chatted easily with a man in the taxi line. However, I felt a definite prickle on the back of my neck. It wasn’t the September breeze. My head remained on a constant swivel. Were we being followed? One never knew!

In the tall windows of the terminal I caught a glimpse of someone. A person who was staring right at us. A woman.


As the thought slammed into my brain, I felt a tug on my arm—then a hard yank!

“Hey there, now!” yelled Cécile.

A faceless figure hidden beneath a hoodie. Long, athletic build. He shoved me while gripping the strap of the bag on my arm. Thin arms with a body shaped like a long flat eraser.

Yanking my bag back, I kicked out my foot as though in preparation for a grand jeté. But rather than leaping, I flicked my foot upward. The kick landed solidly above his kneecap. He buckled long enough for the man who’d been talking to Cécile to turn and grab his sleeve. But the thief shoved him before he finally tore free and raced away.

“My word!” Cécile was saying.

The police rushed over. People started talking all at once, asking if I was okay. I wasn’t paying much attention.

My eyes were searching the tall windows of the terminal. But the late-afternoon sunlight had turned them into mirrors. The woman was gone.

Had it really been Mama?

She was the right height. The hair had been the same, too—short and dark and smooth.

“Miss, are you all right?” The police officer’s eyes were filled with concern.

“Yes, yes,” I said. “I’m fine. Really!”

The grown-ups needed to discuss it some more, but I wanted to get out of there. I was tired of all these strangers staring at me or patting me on the shoulder.

What if he wasn’t just some random thief?

Even as the thought raced through my brain, Cécile was giving me a gentle push into the taxi. Soon as my bottom hit the seat, we were whisked away from John F. Kennedy Airport toward the city.

“I’m so sorry that happened to you, sweetie,” she was saying. Her arm draped protectively over me. She gave my shoulder a squeeze.

The cab driver stopped at the next red light and looked over the seat. He said, “Hey, young lady, was that your first mugging?” He grinned, showing tobacco-stained teeth.

I sat as straight and tall as I could. I said, “Well, as a matter of fact, it was.”

Cécile gave my shoulder another squeeze. The cabbie said, “Welcome to New York, ladies!”



As we rode into town, the world around me exploded with sights and smells and sounds. Noise from a thousand yellow taxis honking. Planes roaring overhead leaving curly gray tails. Leafy green streets sprouting impossibly tall buildings. And a million dark corners and hidden alleyways.

Normally, such a thing would be artistic inspiration. Spy possibilities, too.

But I was having trouble concentrating.

Had Mama been at the airport?

What about the thief? Was it truly some random mugging?

Or was there more to it?

The Degas replica statuette weighed down the corner of my sweater pocket.

My thoughts drifted to the clue hidden away in my bag. The one and only clue I had to finding Mama. I chewed on my lip.

Josephine Baker stirred in her cage.

The real Josephine Baker didn’t have whiskers or a cute pink nose. She did, however, have other wonderful qualities, such as being a legendary black female entertainer who captured the heart of Paris with her music, while also spying for the French Resistance.

I hoped to capture her style and mystique with my dress, touched off with my red scarf and red cashmere cardigan. Very French. Thinking of my outfit made me smile. Good fashion sense always soothed me.

Before long we were rolling to a stop in front of my new home on the Upper West Side. Even though Bordeaux—where I’d spent the past five years of my life with my parents—would always be home to me, the familiar sight of the Sly family brownstone brought a smile to my lips.

Grandmother Sly had lived here for decades. Now she lived at the Dakota, one of those fancy New York City buildings with its own name. Papa said people like Grandmother Sly loved the Dakota because it showed off their wealth and status to the world without them having to do anything as vulgar as talk about money. Whatever that meant.

Since the Slys had owned this brownstone—as well as several others—for generations, my grandmother felt it only made sense that Papa and I live here now.

“The Slys have lived in this building since 1922,” Grandmother Sly always said to Papa during her long-distance calls while we were in Bordeaux.

Grandmother was quite proud of her husband’s family legacy. She said managing to own property in America during the 1920s was a coup for African Americans. Grandpa’s grandfather was a daring businessman who acquired lots of money and land despite being the son of former slaves.

Grandmother took being a Sly very seriously. Mama once told me, “Being a Sly comes with a lot of responsibilities—ones Eleanor takes seriously.” I didn’t know quite what that meant, either, but Grandmother Sly was all about her business.

She was also all about everyone else’s.

Which was why my heart sank into my soft leather ballet flats when I walked through the foyer and saw her standing in the living room. Gulp!

“Well, don’t just stand there gawking, child. Come give your dear grandmother a hug,” she said.

“Grandmother Sly!” I forced my voice into a cheery tone. I went over and gave her a hug. She did that thing adults do when they haven’t seen you in a while, remarking on my height, how I’d grown, and so on.

“Jada! What have you done to your hair?” she said, swatting away at the bangs artfully draped over my eye.

I pulled back, saying I liked my new hairstyle. A spy was all about mystique.

“Mrs. Sly, so very good to see you,” Cécile said, giving my grandmother a French welcome—a double air-kiss.

The sound of shuffling interrupted us.

Papa stood in the narrow hallway, body half turned as if he couldn’t decide if he was going left or right, backward or forward. A pen was clenched in his teeth while pencils speared his curly hair at odd angles. Papa was like that. A bit of a nutty professor type.

When he finally looked up and saw Cécile, the first thing he did was try to fix his hair, which only caused a rain shower of pencils diving to the floor.

He tore himself away from staring at Cécile and looked in my direction, grinning wide.

“Who is there? Why, I do not recognize this tall, sophisticated, and fashionable young lady.”

Oh, he could be so charming.

“Papa!” I remained poised—in spirit, at least—as I raced toward him.

Papa dropped his folders and papers onto the floor, swept me up, and spun me around.

“Ahh, ma petite lapine!” he said. “Ooph! You have grown so much.”

I reminded him that I was way too mature to be twirled about.

“For heaven’s sake, Benjamin, put her down. She’s a young lady now, not a baby,” said Grandmother Sly, adding, “Did you know about this… this hairstyle?”

Papa ignored her. He pressed his nose to mine.

His expression changed to I’m-trying-to-look-serious-but-I’m-really-not. He said, “Have you kept up your art studies over the summer?”


“Benjamin Elijah Sly, do not ignore me,” said Grandmother.

He put me down. But he kept his professor face on with his hands on his hips. Oh, for goodness’ sake. Grown-ups really could be too much.

I knew the game he wanted to play. It was easier to just go along with it.

“So tell me, who painted The Lady in Gold?”

“Gustav Klimt,” I said, forcing a smile. “Of course, the actual name is Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I.

“Very good!” he said with a grin.

Cécile cleared her throat and took that opportunity to announce that I’d practically been mugged at the airport.

I’d almost forgotten the bizarre incident.

“I’m fine,” I said, seeing the shocked look on Papa’s face. I glanced over at Cécile, who announced she was going to make tea. Traitor! Now I was stuck between Papa’s bewildered expression and Grandmother Sly and her judgy eyebrows.

Grandmother Sly’s gaze shifted between Papa and me, then her tone cracked like a whip. “Benjamin! How could you let a thing like this happen?”


“Oh, hello, Mother. I didn’t hear you come in.” He said it as though he was only now realizing she was in the room. Grandmother Sly’s presence was always known.

She cast a glance at him. Sleek in her emerald-green suit, with shoes so pointy they could be considered lethal weapons, my grandmother arched one delicately drawn eyebrow.

“Benjamin! What on earth is to be done about my granddaughter’s safety?” she demanded.

“Mother, she’s home safe,” he said before turning to me. “Jada, are you sure you’re all right?”

“I’m fine, Papa, really.”

He turned back to Grandmother Sly. “Case closed,” he said.

She made a disgusted sound, and Cécile reappeared with a tea tray, offering my grandmother a cup.

Papa looked at Grandmother Sly once again, now with narrowed eyes.

“Mother, why exactly are you here?”


  • Praise for Jada Sly, Artist & Spy:
"[A] fast-paced, fun novel."—School Library Connection
  • "In this easygoing, fast-reading narrative, Jada is a determined young spy-in-training who would give an adolescent James Bond a run for his money."—BCCB
  • "Jada's family history and her interest in art are memorable. A beginner thriller with some real gems in it."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "Jada Sly: she's smart, she's fun."—School Library Journal
  • "Winston has created a spunky character in Jada, a fashionable artist and independent girl who isn't afraid to take on a few adults in the search for the truth."—Booklist
  • On Sale
    May 14, 2019
    Page Count
    272 pages

    Sherri Winston

    About the Author

    Sherri Winston is the author of President of the Whole Fifth GradePresident of the Whole Sixth GradePresident of the Whole Sixth Grade: Girl CodeThe Sweetest SoundJada Sly, Artist & SpyThe Kayla Chronicles; and Lotus Bloom and the Afro Revolution. She lives with her family in Florida.

    Learn more about this author