A Spy Called James

The True Story of James Lafayette, Revolutionary War Double Agent

  • Interest Level: Grade 2 - Grade 5
  • Reading Level: Grade 2

Told for the first time in picture book form is the true story of James Lafayette—an enslaved person who spied for George Washington’s army during the American Revolution.

After his resounding defeat at the battle of Yorktown, British general Charles Cornwallis made a point of touring the American camp, looking for the reason behind his loss. What he didn’t expect to see was James, an escaped enslaved person who had served as a guide to the British army. Or at least that’s what Cornwallis was led to believe. In fact, James wasn’t actually a runaway—he was a spy for the American army.

But while America celebrated its newfound freedom, James returned to slavery in Virginia. His service as a spy hadn’t qualified him for the release he’d been hoping for. For James the fight wasn’t over; his next adversary was the Virginia General Assembly. He’d already helped his country gain its freedom, now it was time to win his own.

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Interest Level Grade 2 - Grade 5
Reading Level Grade 2
Genre Picture Books, Social Studies
Category 5 Kinds of Nonfiction, 5KN: Narrative Nonfiction, Diverse Books: Race & Ethnicity, Diverse Books: Social Justice, Diversity
Copyright 2016
Publisher Lerner Publishing Group
Imprint Carolrhoda Books ®
Language English
Number of Pages 32
Publication Date 2016-11-01
Reading Counts! Level 6.3
Text Type Narrative Nonfiction
BISACS JNF025190, JNF007020, JNF018010
Dewey 973.3'85092
Graphics Full-color illustrations
Dimensions 9.25 x 11
Lexile 940
Guided Reading Level T
ATOS Reading Level 5.2
Accelerated Reader® Quiz 183334
Accelerated Reader® Points 0.5
Features Afterword, Author/Illustrator biography, Awards, Bibliography/further reading, Original artwork, Reviewed, and Starred Reviews

Author: Anne Rockwell

Anne Rockwell is the author of Hey, Charleston!:The True Story of the Jenkins Orphanage Band, which was a Junior Library Guild Selection. She lives in Stamford, Connecticut.

Illustrator: Floyd Cooper

Floyd Cooper (1956-2021) was a Coretta Scott King Award winner and illustrator of numerous books for children including Ruth and the Green Book, A Spy Called James, and Max and the Tag-Along Moon. Unspeakable, one of his final picture books, was a National Book Award longlist title, a Sibert Honor book, and a Caldecott Honor book. He received a degree in fine arts from the University of Oklahoma and went on to develop a distinctive art technique called oil erasure.

Addressing Race and Racism with Readers

This week and throughout the coming month, the United States marks several notable anniversaries: The 2nd anniversary of George Floyd’s death on May 25, the 101st anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre on May 30, and Juneteenth on June 19 commemorating the emancipation of enslaved… View →


  • Children's Book Committee at Bank Street College Best Children's Book of the Year, Winner, 2017
  • Chicago Public Library Best of the Best Books, Winner, 2016


School Library Journal

“Rockwell’s detailed yet accessible text is perfectly matched with Cooper’s exceptional oil paintings. . . . A profoundly successful work.”—starred, School Library Journal


“With a compelling story and appealing artwork, this inviting foray into American history will catch the attention of many readers.”—Booklist

Publishers Weekly

“[Rockwell] delivers a striking portrait of James Lafayette, an African-American spy critical to the outcome of the Revolutionary War. [Cooper’s] illustrations affirm his skill as a gifted portrait artist.”—Publishers Weekly