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Review of the Day: Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead

Liar & Spy
By Rebecca Stead
ISBN: 978-0-385-73743-2
Ages 9-12
On shelves now.

Rebecca Stead is the M. Night Shyamalan of children’s literature, and I mean that in a good Sixth Sense way, not a lame The Happening one. It’s funny, but when I try to compare her other authors I find myself tongue-tied. Who else spends as much time on setting up and knocking down expectations in such a surefire manner? Now Ms. Stead has created the most dreaded of all books: The one you write after you’ve won a major award. Which is to say, she won a Newbery Medal for When You Reach Me and now comes her next book Liar & Spy. Like all beloved authors who don’t follow up their hits with sequels, Ms. Stead is contending with some critics who expected more science fiction. Instead, what they’re getting is a jolt of realistic fiction housed in a story that feels like nothing so much as Rear Window meets Harriet the Spy. Though opinions on it vary widely, in the end I think it’s safe to call this a fun novel with a secret twist and a strong, good heart. Who could ask for anything more?

Don’t call him Gorgeous. Georges has had to live with his uniquely spelled name all his life (gee THANKS, namesake Georges Seurat) and it’s never been anything but a pain. You know what else is a pain? Moving from your awesome home where you had a loft made out of a real fire escape to an apartment with an unemployed dad and an absentee albeit loving mom. When Georges meets the similarly oddly named kid Safer in the new apartment building he becomes enmeshed in the boy’s spy club. Is there someone up to no good in the complex? How far will the boys go to learn the truth? As things escalate and George finds himself facing fears he didn’t even know he could have, he discovers that everything in his life boils down to this question: when it comes to his relationship with Safer, who really is the liar and who really is the spy?

If a book has a twist to its ending but you don’t know that a twist will be coming in the first place, is it a spoiler to mention the fact in a review? I’m counting on the answer to that question to be no since I’d like to talk about the twist a tad. As an adult reader of a children’s book text I did pick up on the fact that throughout the book adults kept looking at Georges in a concerned way. I think it’s fair to say that an intelligent kid with a good eye for detail might also notice as well. Would they think it weird that these looks aren’t explained or would they just write it off as the author’s literary fancy? I haven’t a clue. All I really know at this point is that for probably 96% of the child readership of this book, the ending is going to come flying at them from out of nowhere. In all likelihood.

I’ve had a lot of debates with adults about this novel and it’s funny how diverse the opinions of it range. Some folks think it’s a natural continuation of When You Reach Me. Others take issue with Stead’s use of geography or pacing. But the sticking point that comes up the most when people discuss this book is the fact that Georges is a boy. For a some readers, it isn’t until a good chunk of the story has passed that they suddenly realize that the voice they’ve been hearing is a boy’s voice and not a girl’s. For some, the shock is too much and they deem the speaker to be an inauthentic take on how guys talk. Stead is the mother of two boys, as I recall, so they are not (to cop a phrase) “unknown quantities” to her. Anyway, for my part this was not the problem that it’s proved to be for some readers. I was more concerned about the nature of the taste test. In this book Georges has a science class where a taste-related test will determine whether or not he’s an outcast for good. I loved how the test fit in within the context of the greater story. What I couldn’t quite feel was Georges’ dread of this test. It’s described in such a blasé matter-of-fact way early on that when we are told that he worries about the test it’s just that. We’re told how he feels. We don’t feel how he feels. It’s a fine line.

That said, when it comes right down to it Stead’s writing is stellar. She fills the book with these little insights and conjectures that could only come from a unique brain. I love it when kids speculate about weird things in books, so Georges’ thoughts about his dad as a boy are just great, particularly when he says, “I wonder whether Dad and I would have been friends, or if he would have been friends with Dallas Llewellyn, or Carter Dixon, or what. It’s kind of a bummer to think your own dad might have been someone who called you Gorgeous.” Similarly I was very fond of the characters in this book. Safer was a perfect noir hero, complete with backstory and shady intentions. And seriously, how can you resist a kid that keeps insisting that he’s drinking coffee from his flask? Minor characters are just as interesting too. Bob English, a classmate of Georges, is a redeemed class freak along the lines of Dwight from The Strange Case of Origami Yoda. I’m a sucker for that kind of creation.

Unlike her previous novel When You Reach Me, Liar & Spy is set firmly in the 21st century. In an era of helicopter parenting, this book got me to wonder whether or not the economic downturn would create an abundance of latchkey children with parents who work more and more jobs to make ends meet. If so, we may see more characters like Georges free to wander the streets while their parental units exist in absence. Something to chew on. Regardless, the book has engendered a lot of discussion and undoubtedly folks will continue to talk about it and debate it for years to come. The best way to summarize it? It’s about an unreliable narrator who meets an unreliable narrator. It’s also fun. And that, really, is all you need to say about that.

On shelves now.

First Sentence: “There’s this totally false map of the human tongue.”

Source: Galley borrowed from friend for review.

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. I’m fascinated that people had trouble with George’s voice in terms of gender. Wow. I never did and I would hope that a more gender-neutral voice (if that is what this is) would fly as well as any other. What, I wonder, makes readers get the idea Georges is female exactly?

    I find Georges completely tamped down as he is avoiding many emotional issues in his life and that includes the taste test. He is holding back a lot of feelings about a lot of things including that one. Rings very true to me.

  2. Georges’ voice that is:)

  3. No problem with the voice from this boy. No problem with the taste test either. Working with young elementary school students, including one boy who began sobbing, SOBBING, when perfectly wonderful raviolit was placed in front of him, I have met all sorts of students who would be terrified by anything having to do with tasting something strange. In any event, this is a mere detail among far too many stellar, major writing accomplishments, not the least of which is Georges voice! I love the line, something along the lines of, ” Here is some advice that you will probably not take: If you want to name your child after Georges Seurat, you COULD always spell it George. Without the S. Just for his sake.” I didn’t get that quote exactly right. It is much better in the book, which I do not have in front of me. The ending, whether predicted accurately or not, is strong and approrpriate to the text. I think this book is a strong contender for end of the year awards! By the way, Betsy, I wish I had written “Rear Window meets Harriet the Spy.” Nice!

  4. The gender/voice thing completely surprised me. Huh. I thought it was perfectly obvious h

  5. I reread Liar & Spy this week, having first read the netgalley way back in the spring, and I have to say the second reading really blew me away. I loved Liar & Spy on the initial reading but the reread was even better! This time through I was particularly impressed with the care Stead shows towards her characters and the subtle ways Georges’s narration gets SO close to revealing his big secret without doing so. So many beautiful touches throughout this novel. Can’t wait to read it again and discuss over at Heavy Medal.

  6. Sorry about that first comment from me. Four year old got his hands on keyboard.

    Trying again:
    The gender/voice thing completely surprised me. Huh. I thought it was perfectly obvious Georges was a boy.

    As regards the taste test I agree with that there is a lot of suppression going on in the book. Georges doesn’t want the talk about the stuff that bothers him, taste test included. I thought his fear had to do with being singled out as different yet again, which is completely understandable.

  7. Oh, I’m glad to see that she’s got a new book out. I’ve always felt conflicted about When You Reach Me, but in a good way.

  8. Boy, I don’t know about this one. I was really let down actually . . . I think what gets me in the end is how nothing really happens. Georges is keeping something from us. In the end we find out what that is, but it doesn’t really appear to be a big deal. In fact, in the end, the world order is restored and things are great. As to the other reveal, regarding Mr. X and Safer, again, nothing!

    I need to reread it to pay attention to the writing I guess . . . I love Stead’s language and her characters are top notch, both here and WHEN YOU REACH ME. I guess I’ve just got the lasting effects of WHEN YOU REACH ME in the forefront and when so MUCH happens in that book to find out that this book is really about, well, nothing happening at all, was a bit of a let down.

    I surely am on the wrong side of the fence on this one though, so a re-read will be something I will need to tackle before things get Heavy, over at Heavy Medal.

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  1. […] Liar & Spy received a starred review in School Library Journal’s September 2012 issue, and was named an SLJ 2012 Best Book. Below is the Best Book annotation: […]