A Review of Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead
Wendy Lamb Books (Random House), 2012
By REBECCA, August 20, 2012
Georges (the S is silent): lovely, observant, sincere (but not saccharine) seventh-grader you totally want to be friends with
Safer: a coffee-swigging, super-observant, home-schooled spymaster and dog-walker
Candy: Safer’s younger sister, she occasionally does recon spy work for the cause
Pigeon: Candy and Safer’s older brother who is very avian-oriented
Bob English Who Draws: an unexpected school friend, he knows all about spelling reform
Georges’ dad: communicative, and supportive dad who is always up for Chinese food, yay!
When Georges moves in to his new Brooklyn apartment, he quickly joins Safer in a building-wide surveillance of the mysterious Mr. X, who Safer says must be evil. His dad lost his job, his mom is always at the hospital where she works, and a gang of boys at school have painted Georges with a target, so he likes hanging out with Safer . . . until Safer’s spy demands start to go a little too far.
Georges has only moved twelve blocks away from the house he and his parents were forced to move out of when his father lost his job, but it gives him totally different vantage point on his Brooklyn neighborhood. Georges’ neighborhood, school, and apartment building are the world of Liar & Spy and Georges moves through them with familiarity and affection, observing delightful things and thinking delightful thoughts:
“We’re playing volleyball, with an exclamation point. Ms. Warner has written it on the whiteboard outside the gym doors: Volleyball!.
The combination of seeing that word and breathing the smell of the first floor, which is the smell of the cafeteria after lunch, creates some kind of echo in my head, like a faraway shout.
In the morning, the cafeteria smells fried and sweet, like fish sticks and cookies. But after lunch, it’s different. There’s more kid sweat and garbage mixed in, I guess. Or maybe it’s just that, after lunch, the cafeteria doesn’t have the smell of things to come. It’s the smell of what has been” (3).
Georges’ voice is strong and extremely relatable—I totally wish I lived in his apartment building and would get to chat with him in the lobby or the basement. It’s a world where things are both rife with mystery and shockingly clear; where kids’ play has complete power and yet is powerless against larger fears and threats. Every character feels fully-realized, even the gym teacher or a girl with a crush who appear for but a few sentences, which makes me feel like I live in this world, too, and am merely hearing the story of someone else’s view of it.
Like Stead’s previous novel, When You Reach Me, Liar & Spy is about middle-school-aged kids, but is plenty rich to appeal to older audiences, for sure. For a short novel (180 pages in my copy), Liar & Spy covers a lot of ground. The plot isn’t complicated, but it’s a book with a lot of components, all of which feel like they are in their right place. It’s the same feeling I had when reading When You Reach Me (which I love love loved): that I was reading a book by someone who really knew what she was doing. Stead makes it feel effortless. Pre-teen boys, a potential serial killer, bullying, how taste works, spelling reform, candy, the nesting habits of parrots, umami, phobias, home-schooling, Brooklyn restaurants—all the pieces orbit each other like a perfectly balanced mobile, and at the end you realize that without every one of them it wouldn’t be the same beautiful whole.
Plus, did I mention it’s wicked funny? It is. Here’s a story from Safer and Candy’s brother, Pigeon, who doesn’t eat birds:
“‘So one day when I was totally little, Mom, Dad, and I are driving along this road up in Connecticut and we see these cows. And I’m like, what are cows for? I mean, what do they do, you know? And Mom’s trying to give me the easy answer, so she tells me, “Cows are for milk, remember? Cows give us milk.”
‘But then Dad pipes up, “And meat.” And I’m like, “What do you mean, meat?” Then he tells me that hamburgers are cow meat. And this lightbulb goes on in my head, and I start thinking about all the foods we eat, and I’m asking, what about dumplings, and what about bacon—and they’re telling me, pork dumplings are from pigs, blah blah blah. I was real interested in all of it. It’s one of those things you remember—you’re just a little kid, and you’re finally clueing in to the real world, you know? And so then I say, “What about chicken? Where does chicken come from?” And right then this other lightbulb goes on in my head, and I start screaming, “Chicken is Chickens?”‘ (62-3).
what are this book’s expectations? does it live up to them?
Yes! (that was the second question first, but I got really excited.) In a lot of ways, Liar & Spy kind of reminded me of what it might be like to be friends with an altera-verse Harriet the Spy. It’s not that the book is similar to Harriet the Spy, but that Georges’ experience being friends with Safer feels like glimpses into what Sport might feel like hanging around with Harriet when he really wants to be playing baseball (or, in Georges’ case, watching it) instead.
I think, too, that there is something about the experience of growing up a kid in New York (my mom is a Brooklyn kid, like Georges, although Harriet lives on the Upper East Side) that tinges books set there. The kids’ relationships with neighborhood-ishness really appeal to me (I love placey places). They approach a neighborhood Chinese restaurant or the newsstand at the entrance to a certain subway stop with the same particular ownership and favoritism that non-city kids would the park on the corner, and for whatever reason I find the idea of a kid having regular interactions with the people who run these places really delightful.
So, throughout Liar & Spy, we get the feeling that there are things going on in the background that aren’t addressed head-on (you know, like in real life). This gives a real richness to the book, and also prompts the kind of questions that might feel trite in a novel with older characters, but feel exactly right in a novel with middle-school-aged characters. Georges is named after Pointillist Georges Seurat, his parents’ favorite artist, and like the Seurat poster hanging in Georges’ living room, at the end of Liar & Spy, you can look back at the big picture of the book and see all the little pieces come together, and it’s really lovely. Stead masterfully embeds hints to what is going on that make sense when looked back on.
Liar & Spy is available NOW!
I had the pleasure of getting my book signed by Rebecca Stead at BEA, and she was extremely lovely and gracious, and liked that our blog was called Crunchings & Munchings because she, too, loves Gurgi. I feel this needs to be said because I have a particular dread of meeting people that I admire, for fear that they will be disappointing. Check out this post over at Rookie on the topic.
Skellig by David Almond (2000). Like Georges, Michael, the protagonist of Skellig, has recently moved into a new home, where he meets a home-schooled girl who teaches him new things. Michael finds a bird-man-angel who eats Chinese food dripping with bugs in his shed. It’s a short, simple story, but has an elliptical, fantasy quality (what is the bird-man-angel? what is really wrong with Michael’s baby sister?). Lovely and lyrical.
What They Always Tell Us by Martin Wilson (2008). Brothers James (a senior) and Alex (a junior) are close in age but not in much else—James is an outgoing overachiever and Alex has withdrawn into depression and is questioning his sexuality. But when the brothers make friends with their oddball 10-year-old neighbor, they find common ground they didn’t know they had.
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (2009). I know maybe it’s cheating to put an author’s own book on the readalikes list, but in the case of When You Reach Me, I’ve included it because although the books share very little in terms of plot they are very close in style and worldview, so I think someone who liked one would really enjoy the other. Also, seriously, this book is amazing. I can’t say any more for fear of spoiling it. Don’t read anything about it; just read it. Now. It’s short. I swear you’ll thank me.
procured from: ARC from the publisher at Book Expo America