Title: Liar & Spy
Author: Rebecca Stead
Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books, Random House
Publication Date: 2012
Audience: 9 years-middle school
Summary: Georges is moving to a new neighborhood, leaving the house and room he loves, adjusting to a father without work and a mother working double shifts at the hospital. Life in middle school is not easy either, with the loss of his best friend to the “cool” crowd, with bullies who call him a “geek.” In the new apartment building Georges (named for Georges Seurat) finds an invitation to join a spy club and thus meets Safer and his unconventional but welcoming family. Safer and his younger sister, Candy, are home schooled while Pigeon, the older son, goes to high school (The naming process in Safer’s family is unusual.) While Georges navigates the rocky terrain of middle school with some success, Safer trains him as a spy, requiring lying and breaking and entering. A mysterious and possibly dangerous man who lives above Georges is the object of their attention. Is Safer really Georges friend? How far will friendship take Georges into this questionable territory? Nothing is quite what it seems in this outstanding middle school story.
Literary elements at work in the story: Liar and Spy is a small book, 5 ¾” x 8 3/8”, 160 pages. The chapters are short, 5 pages or less, so it is seemingly appropriate for younger readers. Yet it is a subtle story that requires careful attention. The story is told in present tense, with one event out of time sequence using past tense. The characters are interesting, likable people. Candy deserves a book all her own. The problems so prevalent in many middle school and young adult books-drugs, divorce, abuse, sex, negligent parents-are not present here and the language is rich and free from scatological standbys. Stead’s middle school conversations are perfect, though Georges is a bit sophisticated for a 7th grader. Georges Seurat’s pointillist painting, “A Sunday Afternoon,” is a significant part of the story and it would be ideal if every reader could see this painting. Close up the picture is thousands of little dots; at a distance they blend to become distinct objects like trees, people, even a monkey. A science class taste test, fortune cookies, rules, and naming children all figure in this story that fits together like a puzzle.
How does the perspective on gender/race/culture/economics/ability make a difference to the story? Parents work and share responsibility. The children come from a middle class neighborhood but relate to Asian and Egyptian store owners and children of different nationalities. Georges’ parents are comfortable with the different parenting style of Safer’s parents. The job loss of Georges’ father brings economics into the picture but no one seems to lack life’s necessities..
Theological Conversation Partners: Friendship, family, identity, fear, rules and perspective are themes that the book engages, themes that the Christian faith engages as well. Neither family evinces any faith, but their needs and problems are those that will speak to any young person. Georges is a loner in need of friends and his relationships with Safer, his former friend, Jason, and his classmates shed light on how friends are made, supported and encouraged. At an age when peer relationships are so crucial this offers examples that will prompt discussion. Matt. 7:12, Romans 12:9-15 throw some light on the character Christians are to bring to friendship. Georges manages his life by being one personality at school, another at home. “ Now,”says Georges, “it’s like maybe there’s no real me.” Adapting our personalities to different situations makes one’s identity uncertain. Christians, however, find their identity in their relationship to Christ. Ephesians 2:19; John 15:12-17. Both Safer and Georges are at the mercy of unreasonable fear. Again, from a Christian perspective, we face no fear alone. Ps. 27, John 14:1, 16:33. In his last discourses (John14-16) Jesus calls his disciples “friends.”
Love and obedience form the bonds of friendship with Jesus. What can we learn about friendship from being friends with Jesus? How is friendship with Jesus different from human friendship?
Faith Talk Questions:
- What is friendship? Describe the characteristics of a good friend.
- Candy says, “Boredom is what happens to people who have no control over their minds.” What is your reaction to this statement?
- Georges’ mother says, “Look at the big picture. All the little things won’t matter in the long run. Life is always changing.” Is this true. Partly true?
- Georges’ father says, “ Life is what’s happening now. You can’t just wait for it to be over. Life is just a bunch of nows, one after another.” Is this true? Partly true?
- Candy challenges Georges when he explains the rules about sitting at the “cool” table. Who makes the rules?
- How does Safer handle his fears?
- How does Georges handle his fears about his mother?
- How does friendship with Safer help Georges?
- How does friendship with Georges help Safer?
- Does Safer lie to Georges? Does Georges lie to Safer?
- How does Georges create a team?
This review was written by graduate and regular contributor Virginia Thomas.