Marvelous Middle Grade: Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead
PROS:realistic precocious quirky kids, stead's signature twist, spy games, cool scientific sidebars
CONS:the story ended a bit too soon
I’d like to induct Liar & Spy into the “Wes Anderson Must Direct This if it Ever Becomes a Movie” club, alongside Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Mysterious Benedict Society.
Oh Rebecca Stead. Why must you always write such quirky, likable NYC characters and neighborhoods? With When You Reach Me, you made me want to go back in time and be a latchkey kid in the 70′s, walking the streets of the Upper West Side and practicing for The $20,000 Pyramid (I think this actually may be possible, if I can just figure out how to “tesser well”). Now after reading Liar & Spy, I am left wishing I could shrink into the body of a present-day quirkily-named Brooklyn kid, and have a Rear Window style spy adventure of my own.
Georges, nicknamed “Gorgeous” by some (clearly brilliant) school bullies, is our plucky, intelligent protagonist, and he’s trying to make the best of several bad situations. After his architect father is laid off, his family must move to a new building in their Brooklyn neighborhood, leaving behind Georges’ custom designed fire-escape bed and years of memories. Georges rarely sees his mother, who works double shifts at the hospital to make up lost income.
As if a new home and an absentee parent weren’t enough to deal with, school is totally the pits. Georges barely talks to his former best friend, who has relocated to the cool table. Worst of all, his science class is studying the tongue, aka The Science Unit of Destiny. Apparently the entire fate of the seventh grade universe hinges on a taste test, and it only makes the school jerks even jerkier as the test looms closer.
But don’t worry about Georges—the guy knows how to blow off some steam. Following his mother’s suggestion, he chillaxes on his couch beneath his family’s poster print of “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” the work of his namesake, Georges Seurat, with America’s Funniest Home Videos drowning the world out. But there are only so many times you can watch a baby stick beans up her nose before the world starts intruding again.
A real distraction is just what Georges needs, and his new neighbors, Safer and Candy, provide a substantial one, drawing him into a homespun spy adventure in their building. But—not shockingly in a Stead novel—all is not as it seems, and a few plot twists wait to be unraveled by the astute reader.
Georges is a wonderful main character, keenly observing his surroundings and other people, and trying to behave with as much dignity and integrity as he can. Safer and Candy are the children of “really nice bohemians,” and they warmly welcome Georges into their peculiar home life and begin a delightfully unreserved and fierce friendship.
Tackling issues we can all relate to—fear, denial, loneliness, loss, and unwelcome change—this relatable and enjoyable story will appeal to readers of all ages. Adults will appreciate Georges and his new friends’ oddball charms and fresh, guileless voices.
Speaking of charming oddballs, I’d like to induct Liar & Spy into the “Wes Anderson Must Direct This if it Ever Becomes a Movie” club, alongside Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Mysterious Benedict Society.
Stead has a knack for making seemingly small stories and settings so absorbing that you aren’t ready to leave when the acknowledgments page sneaks up on you. While Liar & Spy doesn’t offer up the same Wrinkle in Time-esque scientific/magical afterglow that When You Reach Me did, the story has its own clever charms, and plenty of discussion-provoking situations and themes for the intellectually curious reader.
I would heartily recommend this quick and pleasurable read to anyone.