Chances were very good that I would enjoy Rebecca Stead’s new middle-grade novel, Liar & Spy, since her earlier novel, When You Reach Me, won the Newbery Medal in 2010— and furthermore, was outstanding. The two qualities do not always go together, and we children’s librarians are extremely opinionated about these things. You will always find us logging onto the webcast early one January Monday morning, eager to be the first to hear the new winners of the ALA children’s media awards. If we agree, as we did with When You Reach Me, you will hear us squealing with delight, but if we don’t, we will immediately shred the entire Newbery Committee. As a matter of fact, my colleague Danielle, who recently left to have a baby, has promised to come to work next January, baby on hip, to watch the webcast with me. Yes, we are that nerdy.
However, the Newbery Committee has my complete permission to choose Liar & Spy this year. Ms. Stead has managed to deal with many serious issues in a voice that remains true to a twelve-year-old boy. Georges (“the s is silent”) and his parents have had to move away from their house to an apartment nearby when his architect father loses his job. He overhears his mom saying that she can pick up double shifts as a nurse at the hospital, and now he leaves messages for her on his night table using Scrabble tiles. His strange new neighbors are a homeschooled brother and sister, Safer and Candy, who live upstairs. Safer pulls Georges into a spy club immediately, which is both fascinating and scary, and in the meantime, Georges is dealing with some serious bullying in his middle school class.
Over the course of the story, Georges struggles with loss and goes through an excruciatingly rapid period of growth as he is disappointed by some people and questions whether he can trust anyone, including himself. I appreciate Stead’s depiction of Georges’ parents, who may not be perfect (which would not be realistic), but are dependably loving. Stead’s writing style is extremely engaging, written in first person in Georges’ voice. He is matter-of-fact and often vulnerable, working hard to be a tough guy while hiding his weaknesses. When his friend, Bob, who had explained to him the difference between hard G and soft G, wonders why he does nothing about the bullies, he thinks:
“It’s like the hard G and the soft G, is what I want to tell Bob. The hard G goes to school, and nothing can hurt him. And the soft G is the one who’s talking to you right now. Except he’s only talking in my head. I used to know which one was the real me, but now I’m not so sure. Now it’s like maybe there is no real me.”
Rebecca Stead has produced that special jewel in children’s publishing: a story with genuine literary value that will also be a great favorite with middle-grade children. Highly recommended.
Disclosure: I read a publisher’s hardcover gift copy that was given to the library system. The extended quote was taken from page 111 of this copy. The gift will be added to the collection, joining many other copies that were purchased. Opinions expressed are solely my own.