Book Review: Liar & Spy

Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead

Few children’s titles —the next Wimpy Kid book aside– are as hotly anticipated as this new one from 2010 Newbery Medal winner Rebecca Stead. Rightly so, When You Reach Me set the bar for Liar & Spy tremendously high. For one, and this will be the one I expect kid’s will be most anxious for, you’re expecting a twist. You’ve heard there is one (in fact there are two) and you’re wondering if it can possibly be as good as the one in WYRM. Two, you’re expecting exceptional writing. The characters should be quirky but entirely relatable; the dialogue humorous and heartbreaking in equal measure; mysterious and daredevil situations right alongside a setting as plain and believable as real life. And third, maybe you’re expecting a grand statement about one of life’s big questions. You would be expecting a lot. But hey, if Stead can tackle all those things in her previous book — and she did, while also making readers contemplate destiny, the space/time continuum, and a strange era known as the 70’s — then why wouldn’t she come out with her guns blazing again?

Well check, check check, cuz Stead hits all the marks, and in new ways that will make it hard to decide which book you like best.

Here’s the scenario: Seventh grader and Brooklynite Georges has a few problems. 1) his name is Georges. While he can appreciate the connection to his 19th century neo-impressionist namesake, Seurat, that doesn’t stop his classmates from calling him Gorgeous and making his life miserable at every middle school turn. 2) His family is having financial problems and are forced to sell their house and move into an apartment that doesn’t feel quite like home, especially with his mom gone all the time. 3) All of a sudden his closest friend, Jason, is sitting at the popular table while Georges spends lunch receiving unsolicited lessons on Benjamin Franklin’s rules for spelling from fellow geek Bob English Who Draws (poor Georges doesn’t understand how “ghoti” spells “fish”, but it’s hilarious to read).

Then Georges meets Safer, a home schooled boy in his building. At first Georges thinks he just humoring Safer by being a part of his “Spy Club”, looking for the nefarious Mr. X, a potential serial killer who supposedly only wears black, never speaks, and has been seen (though never by Georges) entering the building with guests… who never leave (ooo-eee–ooooo). Safer takes Georges under his wing, teaching him the ways of intercom surveillance and P.I. slang. When Safter actually starts breaking into Mr. X’s apartment though, things get serious.

So there’s a suspense and mystery. Who is Mr. X? Georges has never even seen him, is he real? And why is Safer always in the apartment building? He haunts the place like a ghost. What’s up with that?

And there’s this great relationship between Safer and his parents that is so endearing; He and his dad eat at the same Chinese restaurant (they have the best/worst fortune cookie fortunes ever) so often the proprietor draws them a map on a napkin with directions to the closet grocery store; he and his mom leave notes for one another with Scrabble tiles. The details are intimate and you fall right into the rich details of Georges’ life.

And there’s the relatable adolescent ache of trying to figure out who you are, and who your friends are.

Mystery, family drama, bullies at school. Pretty standard fare, I’ll admit, but handled so intelligently by Stead. The seemingly random but rich details weave together in such a satisfying way. Readers are sure to have happy “aha!” moments toward the end as those details come together to reveal interesting truths about Georges and Safer and why they need each other. I know I just summarized the book in two short paragraphs, but that feels so unrepresentative because the best parts of Stead’s books aren’t even in her surprising twists, but in the details. It’s in Georges comparing his life to Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon”. It’s in Candy’s knowledge of when to buy Mallomars and where you can find Lemonheads in the city. It’s in the nesting habits of birds and the science of taste buds. It’s in strange lunch time conversations with Bob English that don’t seem worth a thing but actually make you start asking yourself life-altering questions like “who makes the rules?” and “why should I follow them?” or “if dad were my age and in my class, would we be friends?”

Typical bully crap, Mom would say. Big picture.
I think about Sir Ott, hanging over the couch at home, and how much I would like to be there right now, kicking back with some America’s Funniest Home Videos. And then I think of all those thousands of dots Seurat used to paint the picture. I think about how if you stand back from the painting, you can see the people, the green grass and that cute monkey on a leash, but if you get closer, the monkey kid of dissolves right in front of your eyes. Like Mom says, life is a million different dots making one gigantic picture. And maybe the big picture is nice, maybe it’s amazing, but if you’re standing with your face pressed up against a bunch of black dots, it’s really hard to tell.

Georges will think about Seurat (Sir Ott — get it?) and his dots numerous times throughout the book, to remind himself not to let the little things — crap at school, for example — keep him from seeing the big picture — his whole life. But it’s also a great metaphor for how Stead writes. When you’re in the book, on a chapter to chapter basis, the dots are those details. Some of them are just lovely on their own, but put together they add up to so much more.

In just a short, two sentence excerpt from her Horn Book starred review, Monica Edinger described the book as wry, deft, complex, accessible, and intriguing. And she’s so right. A review as concise and powerful as Liar & Spy itself.

10+ up will love this. But then again, so did I.

Available from Random House August 7th


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