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.