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Battle of the Books

Round 1, Match 6: Liar and Spy vs Splendors and Glooms

Liar & Spy
by Rebecca Stead
Wendy Lamb/Random House
Splendors and Glooms
by Laura Amy Schlitz

Judged by
Franny Billingsley

Shall I Compare Thee

They want me to compare you, the two of you.  But I don’t want to.  I’d rather compare you to a summer’s day, or to my Mistress’s eyes, or to anything but to each other.  How can I choose between you when I love you both, when you are each so different?  One of you temperate, the other anything but.  One of you shaking with rough winds, the other blooming with the darling buds of May.

But perhaps this is the wrong question.  Perhaps I need instead to ask, How do I love thee?

How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.

Let’s start with you, Splendors and Glooms.

You are the kind of book I adored as a kid and still do.  You are The Wolves of Willoughby Chase; you are David Copperfield.  You are gothic.  Your words are like sugarplums, rich and sweet and a little spicy.  Your words describe orphaned children and fiendish adults.  They describe chilblains and secrets and locked towers.  They describe Dickensian mud and Dickensian characters.  It’s hard to out-Heep Uriah Heep, but your villainous Grisini, master of the greasy compliment, stacks up wonderfully well.  Your words describe a magical world; they leave sugarplum visions dancing in my head.  An opal that consigns its owner to a fiery death.  A fire opal in a filigree cage.  It flashes like the eye of a phoenix.  An automaton watch that can turn a child into a puppet.  On the watch, a tiny clockwork wolf leaps at a tiny clockwork swan.  The wolf just misses the swan, it always just misses.  But Grisini, the human wolf, catches his prey: A girl turns into a puppet.  She dances in front of a painted backdrop. The orphan children leave London with the puppet-girl.  They travel through mud and snow to a gingerbread house.  There, the opal is smashed, the watch is burned, the puppet turns to flesh and blood.  But the flesh-and-blood girl is stiff and obedient, burdened not only by her parents’ expectations but by an awful secret.  She cannot dance until she sets the secret free.  And thus is it that you, Splendors and Glooms, bring your story to a haunting and satisfying conclusion: The girl dances; the bad guys are buried; the orphans find a home; and wafting over everything are the smells of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.

Now for you, Liar and Spy. How do I love thee?   Let me count the ways.

What I most love is the way your various images connect to and drive the plot—images of dots in particular.  You begin with seventh-grade Georges who, in the Science Unit of Destiny, learns that the old map of the human tongue is wrong.  That there’s no specific place we experience different tastes—sweet here, bitter there.  Instead, the dots of our taste buds are all alike—and that’s what they are, aren’t they?  Dots?  Our tongues are covered with dots.  The second image of dots revolves around Georges Seurat’s painting “Sunday in the Park,” which as Georges says is painted entirely with dots.  You have to stand back for the dots to resolve into an image.  Georges’s parents (who named him after Seurat) say that the painting reminds them to look at the big picture, which Gorges is trying to do.  But that’s a tall order.  His father lost his job; his family has just moved from a house to an apartment. Georges’s mom works double shifts at the hospital and is never at home; Georges lost his best friend to the “cool” table; and one of the other “cool” kids picks on Georges—teasing, shoving, taunting.

And so we begin with dots.  We begin with Georges meeting a dot in his new landscape, a kid his age in the apartment building.  The kid, Safer, conscripts him into spying on the upstairs neighbor, who lives behind a locked door.  Yes, you, Liar and Spy, contain locked doors, too, but they are emotional locks.  Neither Georges nor Safer needs any of the elaborate stratagems Safer maintains are necessary to spy on the neighbor, and that is because Safer is hiding something from Georges: Safer has the neighbor’s key.  This discovery opens an emotional door for Georges.  It helps him step closer to the painting of his own life.  He understands that while the big picture is important, so is the present: “Life is really a bunch of nows . . . The dots matter.”

Georges is shifting the way he looks at things.  Why is the cool table the cool table?  Who’s to say his table isn’t the cool table?  It is, after all, a matter of perspective.  And here the Seurat dots and the taste-bud dots converge; together, they fuel the next stage of Georges’s journey.  Georges and a group of “uncool” kids (now, the Blue Team, each kid with a blue dot on his palm) put into effect an ingenious plan: In a Science Unit of Destiny experiment, each kid is to taste-test a chemical that sends 90% of the population running for water (the other 10% can’t taste it).  The Blue Team kids taste it, but they don’t let on. They watch as the “cool” kids rush to the water fountain.   The Blue Team stays put. It’s not that these kids are excluding anyone, it’s that now they’re including themselves.  They’re shaping their own destiny.

And now, Liar and Spy, you unfold revelation upon revelation.  Georges discovers that Safer’s lie about the upstairs neighbor and the key conceals a secret fear: Safer’s scared to leave the apartment building.  This discovery explodes Georges’ own secret:  Georges can admit that, like Safer, he’s been lying to himself, and that his lie conceals his own secret fear: His mother is, indeed, in the hospital, but not as a nurse.  She’s sick, she’s a patient.  And with new understanding, Georges helps Safer open the front door of the apartment building, helps him discover that the world outside isn’t as scary as he’d imagined.

How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.

But I realize now that even counting does me no good.  Neither of you “out-counts” the other.  You are both terrific.  I have to go on my gut, choose what I would have loved most as a kid—that kid who was an unabashed lover of the gothic.  That kid who loved rough winds and intemperance and doors that really lock.  And so the grownup version of her reaches out and, reluctantly, with many second thoughts, chooses Splendors and Glooms.

But the dots matter.

— Franny Billingsley


And the Winner of this match is……

This is probably the most unfair match of the first round because many of us wouldn’t bat an eye if you told us this would be the Big Kahuna round. I can’t think of a better person to judge this match then Franny who, with her own middle grade novel, THE FOLK KEEPER, is a master of both lush prose and precise economy. I think very highly of both of these novels, but something weird happened over the course of Heavy Medal season: I flip-flopped. Initially, I liked LIAR & SPY better (and I’m in the minority that liked LIAR & SPY even better than WHEN YOU REACH ME), but I gradually warmed up to the strengths of SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS. Do I see a Newbery rematch with THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN in the next round—or will the dreaded Newbery curse strike yet again?

— Commentator Jonathan Hunt

First of all, Ms. Billingsley, a joy to read. Your lyrical writing is simply beautiful.

Now, the books: I didn’t like Splendors and Glooms, at least the first time. I found it boring. Now, however, with the aid of my own mind and Ms. Billingsley’s description, I remember the dry humor of the book, but most of all, the way Schlitz makes her world real. There is a certain vividness to scenes like the one say, where Parsefall and Lizzie in a funny chain of events get bumped around on the train, with an ominous and black pall hanging over the story. And so I remember that – the irony! I guess I probably loved it after all, somehow. Splendors and Glooms has a hidden richness to it. And yes, again, magical. (I have to read it again.)

So is Liar and Spy, towards the end, where the plot speeds in a rush of revelation. At that point, the book resonates with even more of a sense of humanity than in the beginning. For it is not just the reader discovering imaginary events; it is Georges overcoming defiance and anger, Safer defeating fear, and Candy being adorably cute. There is an overwhelming feeling of community and safety that is not present at the start of the story, and the dots do connect. (Similar, in some ways, to Wonder.)

By my book, a tossup. There are so many good books this year!

— Kid Commentator RGN


  1. Sam Bloom says

    Well, shoot. This decision makes me decidedly unhappy.

  2. Probably what I would have chosen, too, but like Franny, I would have had a hard time doing it,

  3. I agree with Jonathan that this is most challenging of the first rounds. While I find LIAR & SPY utterly perfect reading after reading it didn’t have the dizzying pull that SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS had for me. Billingsly did right by me, (sorry Sam).

    I am winching over the heyday Sutton is going to have over this synopsis of a non-critique.

  4. Sometimes predicting a winner is more about the judge than it is about the books. I thoroughly enjoyed both of these books. But knowing Billingsley’s own writing, this choice feels most natural.

    I know that I would have chosen Liar and Spy as the winner, not because I think it is the better book. There is no “better” in this contest. I would have chosen differently because Liar and Spy is the book I needed to read now. Decision making is complicated.

  5. Well I predicted this one correctly, but am sad that I did. Like Jonathan I’m in the minority in liking Liar & Spy even more than When You Reach Me. Unlike Jonathan my opinion of it versus Splendors and Glooms didn’t change over the HM season. Creepy and Gothic Splendors and Glooms is. I still think it also has a great deal of boring in it.

    Yet I can’t be unhappy because I loved reading the decision. I love reading anything Franny Billingsley writes.

  6. Well, my theory that judges pick the books least like their own is shot all to pieces. I guess that only happens when I predict they will pick the book most like their own.

    I’m not too invested in this contest. I wasn’t a big fan of either book. Franny Billingsley did remind me of the strengths of Liar & Spy. (Did I not even notice the Dots theme? I feel very unobservant.)

    But I thought S&G had flaws. Flaws that made it more tedious to read, that killed the suspense. And I didn’t think it was quite fair the precise way death by fire opal was avoided.

    Oh well. I did enjoy her synopsis of the books, her listing of each book’s strengths. Call me an optimist, call me overly nice, and despite my claims to flaws in S&G, I prefer judges (and reviewers) who compare strengths more than ones who try to point out weaknesses. Franny Billingsley’s writing is lyrical indeed.

  7. As a children’s librarian this is one of two brackets (Go IVAN!) that had the most emotional investment for me, so I was anticipating it very much and boy was I not disappointed with the post. I am putting some of Franny Billingsley’s poetically thoughtful observations in my pocket when I book talk these titles. I have to admit I struggled to be able to get the words that would convince a 5th grader to read Splendors and Glooms and I won’t anymore! As for the outcome, I am sad to see Liar and Spy out of the contest in the first round. I am in the camp of loving this book more than I did When You Reach Me. It has so many layers that every time I read or discuss it, I find something new and it’s all in such a small tightly written package that the kids (and me) were sucked right in to. How do they do that?

  8. Steffaney Smith says

    I, too, love everything Franny Billingsley writes, even her battle ruling which forces me to see the merits of Splendors & Glooms, reconsidering that I MIGHT read it, even if I borrow it from another library, still unconvinced I can find a reader for it from among my patrons! Will the battles turn me into a purchaser of Splendors & Glooms? Hmmm, time will tell. Weeping for the great books that are dropping to the floor…

  9. I, too, loved both of these books, and don’t know how I’d choose between them. Except that, when stuck with only the books on my iphone when standing in a line, I’ve reread Liar and Spy more than once (and yet I COMPLETELY missed the dots). I’m not sure that I need to reread Splendor and Glooms – it’s haunting enough the once!

  10. I seem to be the only one who found S + G to be creepy– not good old-fashioned gothic creepy, but adults manipulating children in sexualized ways that are mirrored in the meta-storytelling creepy. Not to mention the depiction of women (women who choose power burn at the stake, and the only girl who finds any agency does so through her own self-sacrifice?) I loved the writing, but had a powerfully negative reaction to the story. Do wish, a la Roger, that judges would engage more with the problematic aspects of these books.

  11. Library Girl says

    I won’t lie, I enjoyed reading Franny Billingsley’s description of Splendors and Gloom more than I enjoyed reading the actual book… Liar and Spy was my pick for this round (and for Newbery)- although I’m not surprised at the decision. I’m with the minority who think that S & G had flaws, I had a hard time engaging with the characters and the plot just had too many holes, but I do agree it did have a gothic appeal. Not suprisingly though- it is a hard sell to my library kiddos.

  12. I haven’t had the opportunity to read Splendors and Glooms yet, so my bias is obvious.

    I just wanted to chime in to back up Commentator Hunt – I join you in that small club. I infinitely preferred Liar & Spy (although I did love what she did in When You Reach Me.)

  13. I felt that Splendors and Glooms would win this match. Like Chime, it’s really well written. And while I recognize that it was well written, it took me a long time to read because I just had a hard time getting into it. While I also didn’t love Liar & Spy as much as some other books on this list, I was amazed by its many layers and I look forward to sharing it with my students.

  14. I actually enjoyed Splendors, unlike most of you avid readers. I thought that it was creepy and very enjoyable. I am pleased with the outcome of this match! Liar and Spy is one of my daughter Shiloh’s favorites for me to read to her.

  15. Battle Commander Battle Commander says

    Just an alert that we inadvertently left off this very important final line to Franny’s decision:

    “But the dots matter.”

    (The line is now in, but we wanted to be sure you all were aware of it as it reflects, clearly, Franny’s appreciation of Liar & Spy.)

  16. I’m with Jonathan and the rest who loved Liar and Spy more than When You Reach Me. I’d still vote for L and S over Splendors, but I also appreciate the way Billingsley handled the decision. I’ll read anything she writes eagerly even if she’s voting against my choice :-). Clever to put her on this slot! I can’t be mad.


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