A theme party for nine- to 12-year-olds? The concept may seem suspect. But here's one that holds a hidden lure for preteens, letting them play around with different personas and act a little bit sneaky. Some clues for parents: Keep things loose--don't try to map out everything. Lay in a few suspense videos for those older guests who may prefer hunkering down for a flick. And most important, hone your own stalking skills. While keeping an eye on things, let the kids think you've made like ink and disappeared.
Anything marked "Top Secret" will grab a preteen's attention. For each special agent, cut down a manila folder to about 4 by 5 inches. On the inside, write the party details backward (so invitees will need to use a mirror to read it). Pen the agent's name on the file tab, stamp the folder "Confidential," then slip the missive into an envelope for mailing.
Let's face it: Kids this age would rather be strung up by their heels than have Mom drape the house with dorky decorations. (Balloons are the exception--if only for their noise value.) You can add a whimsical touch, though, by leading guests up to your front door with footprints drawn in chalk and by hanging a few fake "Police Line: Do Not Cross" banners.
Break the ice by letting guests don new identities. Before the party, cut out pictures of celebrities known to your child's peer group (your child should be able to help). Each guest gets an identity pinned to his back so that everyone but him can see it. Then, by asking yes or no questions of his fellow spies, each child must figure out who he is.
SHADOWING THE SUSPECTS: Before the party, gather a cache of props: some hats, a trench coat and a pipe; anything that would be noticeable in a shadow; a large roll of paper to mount on the wall (found in art supply stores); a posable lamp; and a marker. One at a time, the birthday child can usher guests into a separate room, where they can select items for striking a pose. Stand each child in profile in front of a section of paper and shine the light on her. Trace each child's outline, then write her name on the back. When all suspects have been traced, gather the kids together in one room and see if they can guess who's who.
CLUELESS: For this takeoff on Mad Libs, compile a few short mystery stories (the creatively challenged might look to their child's favorite mystery book for inspiration). Copy or type out each tale, leaving several key words blank, such as a noun, a verb or an exclamation. (Note above each space the type of word to be filled in.) Kids can take turns soliciting verbal entries to fill in the blanks--then reading aloud the hilarious results.
LIE DETECTOR: While this bluffing card game won't prepare kids to be a spy, it gives them practice at keeping a poker face. The object is to get rid of all your cards (and catch a comrade in a lie along the way). Each player gets seven cards, while the rest are turned facedown in a drawing pile. The dealer starts by laying a card or cards from his hand facedown on the table, then declaring their value (for example, "three sevens"). The next player has to add a card or cards of the next highest value (in this case, eights). If he or she has no such card, the choice is either to pick from the drawing pile--or to fake it. Any player can challenge by saying, "Lie detector," but when the truth is revealed, whoever is wrong inherits all the cards in the facedown pile.
With food, anything too cute is a crime to preteens. They may prefer to graze on munchies like nachos, chips or hot-on-the-trail mix (pretzels, raisins and Cheez-its). For more serious eats, try pizza with the pepperoni rearranged like a question mark. As a finale, serve private eye cake and customized fortune cookies (pull out the printed message with tweezers, write a new one, fold it in half, and stuff it back in using tweezers).
This is one tradition that remains obligatory, even as kids age into the double digits. Stamp "Top Secret" on the front of manila envelopes. Inside, your gumshoes will find a pack of gum (natch), as well as top-secret notepads, a pair of cheapo sunglasses and a disguise, such as a fake nose. And don't forget the candy--even Kojak needed that lollipop to keep his observational skills sharp.
Before departing, each guest must ink his or her fingertips on an ink pad and leave a set of prints on an index card. Your child can use these for thank-you notes later.