Book Review: Liar & Spy

Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead. August 2012. 9780385737432. Gr 4-7.

I love children’s literature authors who don’t feel the need to “dumb down” things for kids.  They are able to weave a sharp and intelligent narrative by writing on a level that is sophisticated, yet understandable and accessible.  This is exactly how I feel about Rebecca Stead, author of the Newbery Award-winning When You Reach Me, and her new book, Liar & Spy.

A few years ago, I was looking for a book to read aloud to my kids, and saw the description for When You Reach Me.  I immediately knew that this was a book that would appeal not only to my kids, but to me as well.  It is a mind-bending, time travel tale reminiscent of the classic A Wrinkle in Time.  (And, in fact, Stead features the classic throughout her novel).  The book sparked great discussion between myself and my boys, and was simply great fun to read together.

So, when Liar & Spy came out, I expected the same level of creativity and sophistication, and I wasn’t disappointed.

The protagonist, Georges, is a seventh-grader who is going through a rough time in his life.  His dad has just lost his job, resulting in the family needing to relocate.  His mom is compensating by working double shifts, and Georges is battling ruthless bullies at his school.  One positive result of all of this is that Georges meets Safer, a homeschooled boy in a neighboring apartment.  Safer is a quirky, coffee-swigging boy obsessed with spying on residents of the apartment building, especially the man he has dubbed Mr. X.  Safer enlists Georges in his spy operations, monitoring Mr. X’s comings and goings via the lobby’s security camera.  Hanging out with Safer and his family provides respite from his bleak school experience, but as the story moves along, Georges becomes more and more wary of teaming up in Safer’s spying.

Stead peppers the story with interesting asides that are as fun as they are informative.  Once again, this is not “dumbed down” stuff.  The adult reader may learn something along the way, too, such as what “umami” is, facts on the artistic style “pointillism”, how Ben Franklin tried to change the alphabet, and best of all, the “Interrupting Cow” knock-knock joke (my all-time favorite!)

Liar & Spy is a slim volume, clocking in at only 180 pages, but there is a lot packed into it.  Stead manages to weave in themes of bullying, anxiety, individuality, family, friendship, and more.  There are a couple of great twists and turns in the story, and Stead writes characters with a great deal of depth.  Liar & Spy is great for middle-graders on up, and anyone who is dying to know the punchline to the “Interrupting Cow” joke!

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