The Clothesline Code by Janet Halfmann


Right in time to celebrate Multicultural Children’s Book Day January 29, 2021 and Black History Month, we have  The Clothesline Code: The Story of Civil War Spies Lucy Ann and Dabney Walker* by Janet Halfmann and illustrated by Trisha Mason, releasing February 1, 2021.

About the Book

This book reads like a spy thriller for kids. During the Civil War in early 1863, escaped slaves Lucy Ann and Dabney Walker decided to help others become free by spying for the Union army. Their plan was for Lucy Ann to sneak into Confederate territory to learn military secrets, then signal to Dabney. He would take the information she gathered to the Union army. But how could they pass the intelligence without alerting the Confederates what they were up to? They would be killed on the spot if they were found out. Without giving up too much, the couple devised a code using the patterns of laundry on a clothesline, which allowed the signals to be hidden in plain sight.

Included in the back matter is an extensive, detailed “Afterword”and “Reference for Quotes.” It reveals how deeply the author did her research.


Oral histories have suggested that slaves may have signaled to one another using quilts hung on clotheslines, but historians have questioned this because of lack of written evidence. For this book, Halfmann has done the research into primary documents to prove that this is a true story.  Although based on facts, Janet writes in the “Author’s Note” that she did imagine some scenes to make the story more readable.

Leafing through the pages, educators may wonder whether this is a picture book or a chapter book. The quantity and density of the text, plus the fact that the story stands well without the illustrations, pushes it into the chapter book side to me. However, the publisher identifies it as a picture book.  What do you think?

In any case, The Clothesline Code is will excite young historians and budding secret agents alike. Investigate a copy today!

Related Activities:

  1. Explore codes

What is more fun than sending a secret message to your friend in code?


  • Paper
  • Colored pencils, markers, or crayons
  • Copy of the International Code of Signals (below or at Wikimedia)
  • Ruler (optional)

Lucy Ann and Dabney Walker devised their clothesline code based on a flag code that Dabney knew. Using the International Code of Signals, draw the flags to spell out your name or a secret message. See if others can figure out what you wrote.

Want more? Melissa and Doug have a collection of six kid-friendly codes to try.

Or challenge yourself, and devise your own code.

2. Read some other books by Janet Halfmann for Black History Month

Author Janet Halfmann has an astute eye for discovering lesser-told stories that will excite young readers. Previously we’ve reviewed her chapter book, The Story of Civil War Hero Robert Smalls (review), which is a finalist for a Cybils award in the Elementary Nonfiction category, in addition to Lilly Ann Granderson and Her Secret School (review) which has received numerous awards, including the 2019 Carter G. Woodson Honor Award from the National Council for Social Studies.

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

Reading age : 6 – 11 years
Publisher : Brandylane Publishers, Inc. (February 1, 2021)
ISBN-10 : 1951565576
ISBN-13 : 978-1951565572

Disclosure: The book was donated electronically for review purposes. Also, I am an affiliate with Amazon so I can provide you with cover images and links to more information about books and products. As you probably are aware, if you click through the highlighted title link and purchase a product, I will receive a very small commission, at no extra cost to you. Any proceeds help defray the costs of hosting and maintaining this website.

Don’t forget to check out Multicultural Children’s Book Day January 29, 2021  #ReadYourWorld and stop by here for more diverse books.

2 Replies to “The Clothesline Code by Janet Halfmann”

  1. Thanks so much for helping to spread the word about this amazing couple whose achievements have been all but lost to history. Love your line “This book reads like a spy thriller for kids.” And kids will love the code activities you’ve shared!

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