Liar & Spy, by Rebecca Stead, 180 pp, RL 4
Rebecca Stead is the author of the 2009 Newbery winner, the stunning When You Reach Me. Liar & Spy is her third book. It's impossible to talk about this new book without mentioning When You Reach Me, but it's also unfair to compare the two - even though they do both have expertly concealed secrets that are revealed at the end of the book. As much as I wanted to read When You Reach Me, Part 2, I am glad that that is not the book that Rebecca Stead wrote next. With Liar & Spy Stead continues to share her gift for creating characters and settings that are vivid and real while having them play out their dramas in realistic, engaging settings. And, because of some plot twists (one reviewer called Stead the M Night Shyamalan of children's literature, which is funny because the father of one characters owns the Sixth Sense Driving School) I am going to focus my review on these fascinating characters over the plot.
Liar & Spy is kind of a quiet book. While there is an emotional impact, it might not knock you over the way When You Reach Me or RJ Palacio's Liar & Spy. Narrator Georges (silent S) is named after Georges Seurat and his pointillist style of of painting is a theme in in this book - things look one way from a distance, but as you move close you realize that you're looking at something different all together. Georges is adjusting to a move from a house (that had some pretty cool features added by his architect dad) to an apartment after his father loses his job. While the family downsizes and Georges dad tries to launch his own business fitting houses with antique fixtures and appliances, Georges mom, a nurse, picks up more shifts at the hospital and is never home. Georges faces a teasing at school that escalates to bullying, in part by a former friend, and he also finds himself drawn into the orbit of Bob English Who Draws, and oddball who always has a fistful of Sharpies and doodles incessantly. Bob English Who Draws is also an ardent follower of Benjamin Franklin's phonetic alphabet, and he begins to write notes to Georges during class using it. In fact, note writing is a big part of Liar & Spy. From Bob English Who Draws and his classroom notes, to the spilled Scrabble tiles that Georges and his mother use to exchange notes in passing, while he is asleep or she is at work, to the note on the door in the basement that begins a new friendship for Georges, language and communication are vital to this story.
Safer, the leaver of the note, "Spy Club Meeting - TODAY!" on the door to a room in the basement, strikes up a friendship with Georges and recruits him to help spy on the mysterious Mr X, a man dressed all in black who can be seen (on the video intercom) going in and out of the apartment building carrying a huge suitcase at strange intervals. Safer teaches Georges the key points of spying, having him stand guard at the intercom while Safer breaks into Mr X's apartment to look for clues. Safer and his family are an interesting wrinkle in the book. Pigeon, Safer and Candy have all been allowed to choose their own names once they were verbal and their names reflect pertinent aspects of their personality. The three are home schooled, or, more specifically "unschooled" if you are familiar with that curriculum, although Pigeon has decided to attend public high school for his freshman year. With the characters of Georges and Safer, Stead gives us the liars and spies of the title, but I won't tell you which one is which, or maybe they are both? Stead does a fine job of developing inner lives for these characters as well as emotional depth and delivers two apogees, one for Georges at school and one at home, which is fitting. Mid-story when Georges is suffering his tormentors as they enter their science classroom, Bob English Who Draws asks him why he puts up with it. Georges thinks, "It's like the hard G and the soft G, is what I want to tell Bob. The hard G goes to school, and nothing can hurt him. And the soft G is the one who's talking to you right now. Except he's only talking in my head. I used to know which one was the real me, but now I'm not so sure. Now it's like maybe there is no real me." Quiet, yes, but Liar & Spy is a book you won't forget.
Source: Review Copy