Some writers are good at understanding what kids like. Others are good at understanding what kids are like. In her newest book, Liar and Spy, Rebecca Stead demonstrates (again) she is excellent at both.
As I’m sure readers can or soon will be able to relate, seventh grade is tough. There are unspoken, unquestioned rules–as deeply ingrained in us as our understanding of the taste map of the human tongue, which is totally wrong, by the way–about who goes where on the pecking order. And having a name like Georges (the S is silent) basically invites merciless teasing. Though Georges reminds himself this is “classic bully crap” that won’t matter in the big picture and keeps things to himself, life’s not easy. Not with his dad losing his architecture job, having to adjust to a smaller apartment, and his mom (a nurse) always at the hospital.
Partly to cheer his dad up and partly out of curiosity Georges attends a spy club meeting run by Safer, an enigmatic twelve-year-old who lives in the same building. Safer talks like a spy, acts like a spy, even uses the lobbycam like a spy. And he has an explanation for everything. (He also drinks coffee from a flask.) Soon enough, Georges is going over to Safer’s everyday after school for spy training and for dinner. Their first mission: stalking Mr. X, who never speaks, wears all black, might just be sinister, and lives directly above Georges. But when Safer’s plans become increasingly more outrageous and questionable, Georges isn’t sure what he’s gotten himself into, or how to get out.
Like any proper spy story, there are mysteries and twists along the way. One clever surprise is how Stead tells Georges’ story like a literary Seurat painting. (See why his name is spelled with an S?) Up close, Georges’ life is composed of distinct moments: school, home life, playing with Safer, etc. They’re pretty ordinary, as befitting a seventh grader, but by no means mundane. (Georges’ wry description of how humiliating sarcastic clapping sounds after an epic fail = epic win!) Better yet, these moments, thematically plotted, are meaningful on their own, but also fit together to form a bigger picture. My one complaint is that many of the big reveals in the story are clustered at the end. Even so, I liked that while the issues Georges faces are realistically dealt with, nothing is wrapped up to the point of dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s. True to life, friendships and fears and standing up for yourself is never that straightforward.
So can your taste buds really predict your destiny? Why can’t we spell things whatever way makes the most sense to us? Does being named Candy bias you towards liking candy, or is it the other way around? And how do Georges Seurat’s paintings relate to all this? Liar and Spy poses philosophical questions disguised as tales of espionage, and answers them, too, with the most atypical PROP taste test outcome ever.