Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead
Posted by: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan
Cindy: When Lynn thrust this book at me and said, “You’re going to love this!,” all I had to do was look at the cover and page count and knew I’d agree. Liar & Spy (Random/Wendy Lamb 2012) didn’t resemble a dystopian novel and at 180 pages it was a third of the size of most of the bloated depressing books I’ve been reading lately. So, yes, I knew I would love it even without Lynn’s recommendation or seeing that it was written by 2010 Newbery Award winner Rebecca Stead (When You Reach Me).
Georges (named after the pointillist painter Seurat) has moved into a new Brooklyn apartment after his father loses his job. School is the same, sort of. Same place, but his best friend is now at the cool kids’ table and Georges has become an outlier. He meets a boy in his apartment building, Safer, who belongs to an odd but delightful family. Safer is homeschooled, along with his sister, Candy, who is partial to particular sweets. Safer is also a self-trained spy and has a suspicion that Mr. X, a building resident is a potential murderer. He enlists Georges’ help to investigate.
There are other subplots in this tightly written story…and everything comes together at the end. Adults might figure out the mysteries but younger readers may be surprised by the secrets that George and Safer are keeping close. I have to admit that I was nervous for Rebecca Stead…it’s got to be hard to follow a Newbery Medal. But, if I were to leave a Scrabble letter message for her like Georges does for his mother who he doesn’t see (he explains that she is working double shifts at the hospital to make up income), it would say… W-E-L-L D-O-N-E.
Lynn: Where to start? First, I guess is to agree with Cindy on the subject of books that have grown to vast numbers of pages – quite often completely unnecessarily. MUST they be 500 pages???? But what I really want to talk about is Liar & Spy which I liked every bit as much as Stead’s stellar debut book – maybe even a touch more. I’m especially fond of this sort of unreliable narrator/unraveling secrets sort of book anyway but I especially admire the character of Georges, his voice, his issues and the depiction of his authentic growth all wrapped up in the intriguing mysteries. Georges is pulled into the exuberant lives of his eccentric new neighbors at a time when the changes in his life have all been difficult ones to handle and this lively family opens doors to a different view. Georges understands social rules, both the big moral ones and the small unwritten ones that exist in some similar form in schools everywhere. But as the story moves on, propelled by the secrets, mysteries and new friendships, Georges grapples with what rules can be broken and what rules need to be followed. Which secrets should be kept and which secrets should be opened to the light in order to heal?
As in her Newbery book, Stead offers a wealth of integrated themes that are so rewarding for discussion and re-reading. Change, friendship, the impact of economic loss, bullying (THE hot topic in schools this year), and discovering one’s strengths are just some of the issues provided for readers to think and talk about. One that is especially relevant for our times is the portrayal of parents, once so strong and secure, who are now struggling with large issues and changes beyond their control. Many children are witnessing this very change in their perception of their parents and Stead handles it with great skill. Ideal for lit circles, read-alouds and classroom discussion, this is one of the rare books that kids, teachers and librarians will ALL love equally.