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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Liar & Spy, Nina’s Take

This is what’s so interesting to me about reading for the (Mock!) Newbery: how a book changes on second read.  And when I look back at the comments on Jonathan’s post for Liar & Spy, I see that many of the advocates had delved into it more than once.  My own “not personally compelling” comment? Doesn’t matter, since I’m not the reader Stead is trying to compel.  On second read, understanding the story, I see on every single page clear evidence of Stead’s deliberate and distinguished craft with prose.

There’s a fallacy in trying to read this as a mystery…and the word “Spy” in the title may mislead readers a little.  I don’t know why it wasn’t more obvious to me on first read, but this is a story about “telling stories.” Georges spins a yarn to distract himself (and therefore the reader)  regarding his mother; his red herrings, or Stead’s, are on every page and are delightful to uncover on second read (“Mom’s yogurt drinks are missing” p. 68, etc.). He’s the liar, playing a game with himself and us, as much as he calls out others for playing games with him.  That he can’t recognize the Mr. X game as a game should be telling…his father, and Safer, are pretty startled that he took it so seriously.  But the *reader* takes it so seriously too because Stead has us so firmly in Georges mind…even on second read (even on first) though I knew Safer’s story wasn’t true, I *felt* like it was. How does she do that? I think because Georges is a character who sees through everyone else’s baloney so easily.

On second read, the smallest gestures so clearly advance the character in subtle ways.   I love this scene, which ends with a physical gesture that is a hallmark of Stead’s writing to me (reminds me of a favorite scene in WYRM where an escorted 4th grader removes and crumples a nametag):

p.56 “It’s hard to hate him…underneath that skateboarder outfit, he’s the same person he always was. I don’t know whether than makes it harder or easier. I watch Jason tip his tray into the garbage. His bagel wrapper sticks, and he takes the time to peel it off before he adds his tray to the stack.”

I appreciate that small shifts are as important as large ones in this story.  The triumph of the blue dots…Candy starting school…Georges visiting his mom…but equally important: this acceptance of Jason; or Georges asking Mrs. G “Do you really hate your job?” and thus giving up the security blanket of their game.

It’s so interesting to start comparing this to some of our other contenders: here is theme developed with a much finer brush than in The One and Only Ivan. Is finer better? A narrative that takes its protagonist to a more conscious shift than in Beneath A Meth Moon…but is that necessary?  LIAR AND SPY has certainly shifted itself even further up in my estimation.  Did multiple readings of it change any other minds out there?

Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at


  1. Yeah, the second reading on this book validated and expanded my first impression.

    I found it the perfect vehicle to use to teach my Newbery students about theme. There are so many. I took the most overt “Things are not what they seem.” Which the opening two paragraphs pretty much shouts at us, but we are so soon swept into the story we forget to be skeptical.

    The other I used was based on Candy’s comment that deliciousness is not the same for everyone. We don’t all experience life the same way. I talked about how Safer and Geroges where having two completely different experiences with the Spy Game.

    This book is like a condensed rich dessert. So much there but so spare in its size. I love the “telling stories” insight. Perfect.

  2. Agreed – on my second read I noticed that practically every sentence, let along page, was crafted to drive home either pieces of the theme, the twists, the characters or all three. Just amazing.

  3. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I’ll reread this one late next week and chime in with additional thoughts.

    On a completely unrelated note, I was reading the ALSC journal, Children & Libraries, today and I noticed that, in a break from past practice, the ALA Youth Media Awards Press Conference will not be held on Monday morning, but rather on Sunday at 1 pm–a mere hour after the press releases have historically been due to the office. Anyone know the story behind this?

  4. TeenReader says:

    After being underwhelmed on my first visit, I am really looking forward to a re-read. I think that the (in my mind) cluttered and unconvincing ending overshadowed the many strengths. I am hoping to get to it later this month, and am excited to see what my reaction is.

  5. Nina Lindsay says:

    Jonathan, this sends me scrambling to my ALSC Board meeting schedule email, where I find:

    ALA Youth Media Awards Press Conference: Monday 1/28, time 7:45 a.m.

    And if you go to, it confirms: Monday morning.

    And Monday morning.

    There is a lot of rescheduling happening lately as they try to “shorten” conferences. But this looks like a mistake. Let me see what I can find out.

  6. I loved this book on my first read through, but I love it even more having just finished it a second time. This time I read it aloud to my daughter and reading it aloud made it stand out to me even more. Every word placed perfectly, every scene important, the characters painted so well.

    My daughter was completely taken in. She thought it was a mystery and never once doubted Safer. (Though she did ask where the Liar in the title was coming from more than once. She bounced up and down on the couch when everything was revealed saying, “They were BOTH lying. I had no idea.”) When we were finished she said, “NO! I want more story.” This of course endeared the book to me even more.

  7. Sincere apologies for the misprint regarding the ALA Youth Media Awards Press Conference in “Children and Libraries” and the confusion it has caused. Somehow between the first pass, which showed the correct day and time, and the final, the press conference information was transposed.

    The press conference is on MONDAY, January 28, 8 to 9 a.m. (Pacific time).

  8. Did I mention that I actually get to be there this year. I’m planning on slipping that bit pertinent exhilaration into every comment from now until January 28th.

  9. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    I reread this one this past week, too. It remains fairly high on my list, but I have a minor concern. I know some people felt like the kids in WONDER read more like seventh graders than fifth graders. I didn’t necessarily get that vibe from WONDER, but I did think the seventh graders in LIAR & SPY read like fifth graders. They just seemed awfully young and now I can tell you why. It’s the bullying: it strikes me as elementary school bullyig rather than junior high school bullying. I’m sure it was deliberate on Stead’s part to not make the bullying as nasty as it would probably be in real life.

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