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Book Reviews: ‘Liar and Spy’, Rebecca Stead

Book Reviews: ‘Liar and Spy’, Rebecca Stead
Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead
Published by Andersen on 4 October 2012
Format: eBook

The instant New York Times bestseller from the author of the Newbery Medal book When You Reach Me: a story about spies, games, and friendship. Seventh grader Georges moves into a Brooklyn apartment building and meets Safer, a twelve-year-old self-appointed spy. Georges becomes Safer's first spy recruit. His assignment? Tracking the mysterious Mr. X, who lives in the apartment upstairs. But as Safer becomes more demanding, Georges starts to wonder: what is a lie, and what is a game? How far is too far to go for your only friend? Like the dazzling When You Reach MeLiar & Spy will keep readers guessing until the end.


In kids’ spy books, most of the time, the spying is a vehicle for them to understand the adult world. Speculating on why a neighbor hides something in the backyard isn’t merely a mystery, it’s also the beginnings of growing up. Why do adults do the weird things they do that I can’t understand yet? Why is the world the way it is?

One of the most surprising things about Liar & Spy, by Rebecca Stead, is that spying is the only thing that isn’t used for that purpose. Georges (the s is silent) uses virtually everything he runs across to explore his understanding of the world, from phonetic spelling, to his sense of taste, to a pointillist artwork above his couch, to what makes the cool table the cool table. But not spying.

Taste for Georges is the beginnings of the lies adults teach children, since there are no regions on the tongue that correspond to different flavors. But it’s also a way of contextualizing memories – bitter ones as sad memories, sweet ones as happy memories. He extrapolates for himself how things can be both bitter and sweet, by remembering his former best friend, who now sits at the cool table, away from him. It’s also a discussion about what makes people as individuals have different opinions. He and Candy, his friend’s little sister, ask, why don’t people all like the same things? Shouldn’t evolution mean they all liked things that would keep them alive? But she hates oranges.

Virtually every aspect of Georges’ life leads to a fascinating journey through the eyes of a child, and makes all the (child) characters in the book authentic and captivating. It’s by far Liar & Spy‘s greatest strength.

And yet, there is the spying.

Spying for Georges is not so much a pastime as it is a source of stress. It’s the thing that brings him and his new friend Safer together, but it isn’t what keeps them friends. In fact it’s the part of their relationship that Georges seems to like the least. He hates being asked to keep secrets or lie to his father, he doesn’t want to break the law and sneak into their neighbor’s apartment. The only times the two don’t get along is when Safer asks him to help him do spy things, like go through Mr. X’s laundry.

It leads to no new insights for Georges. I suspect this is deliberate, and intended to be foreshadowing of why Georges doesn’t like it. I don’t know it worked for me personally, but it made me think, and drew my interest in even more. Which in a book that already has plenty to draw me in, between characters and conflicts, makes the book even stronger.

Georges’ struggles with bullies at school and his friendship with Safer at home keep the story going, and feed into the themes of pretending, lying, and perspective. The only thing missing for me was bringing the conclusion with the bullies back to the idea of perception, but that’s hard to discuss without spoilers. Everything else comes back to those themes remarkably well, and gives satisfying conclusions for all the plot threads.

I only have two complaints. 1) Why does no one float the obvious theory that “Safer” and “Candy” could be aliases the kids use for Spy Club? And 2) For suspicious readers like me, the reveals are not very surprising. It made me lose half a star for my personal reading experience, but your enjoyment of this book will not be ruined by that; it certainly didn’t ruin mine.

This well deserves the interest it’s gotten, and I highly recommend it.



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