Monday, September 3, 2012

Chapter Book Review - Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead

For some authors, I would imagine the news that they've won a major award like the Newbery is followed almost immediately by a sense of panic at how they're going to follow that up. I mean, you know that the eyes of the kidlit world are going to be trained on your next effort, that the inevitable comparisons are going to be made and that a critical few aren't going to be satisfied no matter what you produce. This kind of pressure, I'd think, might just be paralyzing. No doubt that's why some folks decide to go in an entirely different direction for their next work.

And at first glance that's what Rebecca Stead did with her new book Liar & Spy, the realistic fiction novel that follows her 2010 Newbery win for When You Reach Me. I thoroughly enjoyed Stead's last book, even though -- true confession time here -- I just never liked A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L'Engle's classic work that forms the center around which When You Reach Me is built. But Stead is an assured storyteller, a meticulous writer whose characterization always builds the plot and remains authentic to the people she has created. And those engaging characters where what drew me through the novel, and caused me to go back and reread large chunks of it once I got to the end (which I will not spoil for you, dear reader, but suffice to say it's a doozy).

In Liar & Spy, Stead gives us the story of Georges -- yes, as in Seurat, the painter he's named for -- and his struggle to survive daily life and middle school. School's definitely the worst part, as Georges deals with the "typical bully crap" dished out by the odious Dallas Llewellyn on a regular basis. But home's been a little rough too, since his dad lost his job and the family had to move to an apartment building. Oh, and his mom, a nurse in the ICU, seems to be gone all the time too, and Georges misses her intensely. His main consolation seems to be his friendship with the intensely strange Safer, a boy Georges' age whose "bohemian" parents also take Georges under their wings. Safer drinks coffee, walks dogs for money and doesn't go to school. And then there's the little matter of Safer's spy career, and the project he ropes Georges in on: spying on the neighbor Safer calls Mr. X, whose strange comings and goings Safer is determined to puzzle out. Harriet M. Welsch should watch herself with Safer around.

Georges is the kind of kid most people can relate to - slightly oddball but not really kooky, someone who wants more than just to survive but who also wants to be himself. The thing is, though, middle school isn't really a time when uniqueness is celebrated, and so Georges is torn. At home, he's hanging out with Safer, who in absolutely no uncertain terms is hell-bent on being his own person. But at school, Georges wants to fit in. And he's afraid, terribly afraid, that he's about to be marked as "a big phlegmy wad of geek", as Dallas puts it, thanks to the taste test that all kids take in the 7th grade (a pretty nifty bit of narrative on Stead's part - she's really tapped in to the kinds of tools that bullies can use against others). So Georges is stuck with one foot in both worlds, as all the while he's trying to sort out just where he belongs.

Liar & Spy is a slim little book, just 180 pages, but don't be fooled: every page packs a punch. Stead says more in this novel than many adult books four times its length, and I found myself constantly flipping back and forth to pick up a thread I'd missed along the way. While strong readers will find this enjoyable, and love watching how she ties everything together at the end, kids who are less confident readers may struggle with this aspect. But this would be a great novel to read together with your child, as it opens up lots of opportunities to discuss what life in middle school's really like, what they might be going through that mirrors Georges' experience or that reminds them of someone they know.

Liar & Spy is a puzzle much like life, one that seems impossible close-up but from a distance will dazzle you with its brilliance. Above all, this novel will resonate with anyone who found this period of their life to be particularly trying, who felt they were trying on personas like new shoes with none seeming to quite fit. It says a whole lot about bravery: not the kind of grand gestures and heroics, but the smaller sort, that helps you get through every day when you're not sure just how you can. And that, it seems to me, is the most difficult kind.

Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead, published by Random House Children's Books
Ages 9-12
Source: Library
Sample: "Dallas Llewellyn passes me on the way to his seat, saying 'You're it, Gorgeous,' and flicking the top of my ear with his finger. I ignore him. Dallas is always on the lookout for other people's weak spots so that he knows exactly where to poke them. And if you don't have a weak spot, he'll invent one and poke you anyway."

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