Source of book: Audiobook from the library.
We listened to Rebecca Stead’s 2010 Newbery Award winner, When You Reach Me, which was quite good. This book, interestingly, shares some themes - and also incidents from the author’s life.
I think it is safe to say that Rebecca Stead didn’t particularly enjoy junior high. She seems to have been bullied, as both of her books we read have had bullying as central themes, and in both cases, she has said that they reflect her own experiences at that age. Friendship was both important to her, and a lifesaver, and this too carries over into her stories.
Liar & Spy is told from the perspective of Georges. (The “s” is silent - he is named after Georges Seurat, the pointillist painter who Georges’ family dubs “Sir Ott.”) After his dad is laid off, the family has to downsize from a house to an apartment. Fortunately, it is only a few blocks away, so he can stay at the same school. To make ends meet, his mom works long hours at the local hospital, while his dad tries to get a business off the ground. This leaves Georges alone for a lot of the day.
The wheels of the plot are set in motion as they move in to the apartment. When Georges and his dad take some garbage down to the basement, they see a sign on a utility room door which says, “Spy Club Meeting—TODAY!” Georges is skeptical, because the sign seems old, but his dad writes below it, “When?” Georges follows the response, and ends up meeting a kid his age, Safer, who is part of a rather unusual hippie family living in the building. Safer and his little sister, Candy (the older brother is Pigeon - the parents named them after their personalities emerged…) inform him that another resident, “Mr. X,” might be a murderer, because he always dresses in black, and carries suitcases in and out.
The book tells of the investigation (such as it is), and the friendship that develops between Safer and Georges. Meanwhile, Georges is dealing with bullying at school, which none of the adults seems to take quite seriously.
As with the former book, this one is, shall we say, quirky. The characters are both believable and...unexpected might be the right word. Safer’s whole family is amusing yet very much like some people I have known. They homeschool their kids. Well, they “unschool” their kids. Which means that the learning is a bit spotty, but hands on, and just different. Also, like many unschoolers I have met, they have at least one kid with serious anxiety issues. How this interacts with the sheltered lifestyle is debatable, but there is a correlation at least. But, they are definitely nice, decent people, and their quirks are endearing.
The concept of the spy club was apparently borrowed in some part from E. L. Konigsburg’s book, Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, and Me. We haven’t read that one yet, although we have enjoyed other books by the author.
Two incidents appear to have been taken from Stead’s own childhood. She modeled Georges’ friendship with Safer after her own relationship with a beloved best friend. Apparently, this friendship was the one bright spot during those years, and she felt it got her though the bullying she endured, as well as the difficulty of finding one’s place during the transitional grades. To quote the author, talking about this issue and how she wrote the book:
"I feel like there are stages in many, many people’s childhoods when you don’t have one good friend like [I had]. It can happen a lot in sixth and seventh grade because that’s when things are changing so quickly. It’s like a desperate dash for some kind of acceptable identity, and it can get ugly."
On a related note, there IS enough money in the world to convince me to repeat my high school years. There is NOT enough money in the world to convince me to repeat my junior high years. No freaking way.
The second was the test for the ability to taste PTC, given in science class. Stead was one of only two students who couldn’t taste the chemical. The other was a boy she had a crush on. So she invented the “G Test” for the book based on that.
Just some fun bits from the book, which has a lot of them. I haven’t even mentioned the side characters, like “Robert who Draws,” or the owner of the local Chinese food joint, who makes his own fortune cookies with bizarre and cryptic fortunes. Or the use of the “interrupting cow” joke that my kids loved when they were a certain age.
Fun, quirky, focused on friendships. Not a bad way to describe Stead’s writing. This book is worth a read.