I had been looking forward to reading Rebecca Stead’s new book, Liar & Spy, all summer, so when I finally got a copy, I sat down and read it in one delicious gulp. My husband came home somewhere around page 95 and asked, “How is it?”
I had to think for a minute before answering, “I’m not sure yet. It could be really good or really strange.”
He passed me on the couch around dinnertime and asked, “Is it any better?”
Realizing he had misunderstood my earlier non-opinion, I tried to clarify it, “No, I mean I’m really enjoying it, but a lot is going to depend on where it goes.”
“Where it goes? You’re almost finished.”
“I’m only on page 137.”
Had he asked me that same question 43 pages later, I would have told him, “Not only did I enjoy it, but this story goes remarkable places.”
Rebecca Stead does brilliant beginnings, as evidenced by the first sentence in the book: “There’s this totally false map of the human tongue." Nine words capture a reader’s imagination (What? A map of the human tongue?) and establish the narrator’s voice (“totally false” totally sounds like a seventh grader.) By the end of a short first page, Stead has set up suspense and introduced the reader to Georges through his voice. She had me hooked.
When his dad loses his job, Georges and his parents have to adjust. His mom volunteers for extra shifts at work, his dad starts a new business, and Georges has to leave the only home he’s known when the family moves to an apartment twelve blocks away. Georges and a friend he makes in his new building begin spying on the mysterious Mr. X, hoping to uncover his secrets, but in the process, the two boys end up discovering answers to questions they weren’t even asking.
Stead pays attention to her characters, giving each one enough distinct personality to bring them to life. Dad likes order and faded elegance, Mom looks at the big picture, Yum-Li makes unique fortune cookies, Bennie counts back exact change, and Bob English draws with a superfine Sharpie. Quirky details give flavor to the story.
And then there’s Georges. The thing is, Georges is awfully likeable. He’s thoughtful--sometimes about playful things, like when he imagines a bird decorator wearing his dad’s glasses (73), and at other times about more serious subjects, like how big a container would need to be to hold all the tears cried in a single day (38). He’s considerate, choosing unwanted players for his team (114) and taking time to cheer up a lonely, little kid (106). And without being self-absorbed, he is introspective, considering whether he is losing the real Georges (111).
All of this thinking gives the reader time to reflect on some pretty big ideas without ever slowing down the story. In fact, with short chapters, and breaks from one scene to the next, this story keeps a lively pace. I never once stopped to check how many pages I had to go--always a good sign.
Humor also keeps the book from weighing itself down. Stead’s brand of smart-funny is the quiet kind of humor that continues to be funny even on repeated readings. Clever descriptions (ignorant tongue map), amusing ideas (Candy’s idea to marry Mr. Orange), and great dialogue kept me smiling. In fact, the one instance of coarse humor in the book (44), was the one place I thought fell flat.
Other random things I loved: the scrabble tile messages, sarcastic clapping, and the recipe for perfect scrambled eggs.
Rebecca Stead deftly weaves story threads to create a journey about looking at the big picture and living your life now, about facing your fears and breaking rules that don’t make sense, and about believing in friendship.
And that’s where this story goes.
Liar & Spy
by Rebecca Stead
published by Wendy Lamb Books
Recommended for ages 9 and up