Liar & Spy

Newbery Medal winner Rebecca Stead's new children's book is a small masterpiece.

Liar & Spy By Rebecca Stead Random House 192 pp.

What better way to prepare for a new year in middle school than by picking up the latest book by Newbery Medal winner Rebecca Stead? With a story filled with intriguing characters and spot-on classroom and gym scenes, in Liar and Spy Stead, the author of "When You Reach Me" has given us another delightful puzzle of a novel.

Her narrator, a seventh-grader who loves "America's Funniest Home Videos" and hates volleyball, "flies under the radar" most of the time. Georges, who was named for Georges Seurat (the S is silent, leaving even his name open to taunts), must move from the house he's always known. As his dad struggles to begin a new business, Georges seems adrift, too busy to talk to his mom, a nurse, and unwilling to settle into his new apartment. From the outset, his mom's a cipher, not unlike the Scrabble tile messages the two leave overnight for each other. Maybe Georges blames her for some slight, or maybe – just maybe – things aren't exactly as they appear on the page?

Very soon Georges meets his oddly fascinating neighbors. Now he has new friends – dog walker Safer, his younger sister Candy, and their mostly absent older brother Pigeon. Gladly, Georges senses his own name will not be a topic of their ridicule. Together, with some help from Candy, Safer and Georges comprise the apartment's Spy Club, although Georges isn't exactly sure of the rules of the game, or whether it's even a game. Still, he takes his cue from Safer, who presses him to observe his own surroundings closely – the science teacher's buttons, the number of stools in the classroom, and especially a certain Mr. X who lives in the apartment upstairs.

Although mostly victim, Georges seems like the kind of plucky kid who'll be just fine. Eventually. If he just remembers his mom's sage advice to look at the big picture: "I think of all those thousands of dots Seurat used to paint the picture. I think about how if you stand back from the painting, you can see the people, the green grass and that cute monkey on a leash, but if you get closer, the monkey kind of dissolves right in front of your eyes. Like Mom says, life is a million different dots making one gigantic picture. And maybe the big picture is nice, maybe it's amazing, but if you're standing with your face pressed up against a bunch of black dots, it's really hard to tell."

"Liar and Spy" is a mystery, an adventure unraveling slowly, complete with a tall man dressed in black, carrying a suitcase. Although on first reading, it might not seem to be a family love story, it's that also. And it's told with expertly drawn classroom scenes (yes, school taco shells DO taste like plastic) and an intriguing project, The Science Unit of Destiny. This highly anticipated taste test bonds Georges to his classmates and sets up a satisfying ending.

The book has twists and turns, clues left that may not be obvious at first. But at under 200 pages, "Liar & Spy" is worth a second reading. Thank you, Rebecca Stead, for another completely satisfying book, a small masterpiece for motivated kids.

Augusta Scattergood, author of "Glory Be," reviews children’s books for the Monitor.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.