Review of “Liar & Spy” by Rebecca Stead

As young adult books get more accepted by old adults, the middle grade market is becoming the place to go for under-appreciated books that fabulously capture a time and place in our personal evolutions.

At first I was a bit leery of Liar & Spy: I wasn’t crazy about Stead’s previous book When You Reach Me, and I was afraid this one would be about bullying and/or family heartbreak, either one of which can make me run for cover. But actually, this turned out to be a super book about the triumph of a young boy who isn’t invited to the “cool table” in the cafeteria, but who manages to turn the tables and redefine “cool” in the absolute best way I can imagine.

Georges suffers for his name. The “s” is silent – he got his name from his parents’ love of the impressionist painter Georges Seurat – and he is often the butt of jokes and harassment. Yet he keeps it all in perspective, just like his mom encouraged him to do by teaching him about Seurat. Seurat was a pioneer in the post-impressionist technique of pointillism, using small dots of color to form images. The viewer is forced to blend the colors optically to see the picture. As Georges explains:

“Mom says that our Seurat poster reminds her to look at the big picture. Like when it hurts to think about selling the house, she tells herself how that bad feeling is just one dot in the giant Seurat painting of our lives.”

Seurat’s 1884 pointillist masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte

Georges is a veritable master of positive thinking, no matter what mind games he has to play to get there. What with his dad laid off, his mom working extra hours, having to sell their house and move into a small apartment, and being confronted by bullies at school, he has plenty of material with which to work. At first he thinks everything will be okay when he is practically adopted by his nice but eccentric new neighbors. But when the boy – Safer – who is Georges’s age, turns out to be not what he seems, Georges is at the end of his rope. He’s so sick of games!

Only after looking into his own heart and mind, reflected through the mirror of Safer and his kid sister Candy, does Georges come to realize that he has been focusing on the big picture so much he hasn’t paid enough attention to the dots. As his dad explains to him, the dots matter too! And Georges finally figures out a way to cope with it all. Because who says everyone has to be the same? Who says the status quo gets to decide what the rules should be? And who says zooming in to pay attention to details won’t help you get to that big picture in the long run?

Evaluation: The characterizations in this book are terrific. You won’t doubt for a moment the voices of the 12-year-olds, the 10-year-old, and even the adults in this heart-warming story.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc., 2012


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9 Responses to Review of “Liar & Spy” by Rebecca Stead

  1. huh you didn’t like When you Reach Me? I thought everyone universally adored that book. (I’ve never read it) I’ll have to give this one a shot!

    • Amy,
      When You Reach Me was heavily referential to A Wrinkle in Time, which I am ashamed to say I did not read. So I think I didn’t appreciate it as much as I might have otherwise.

  2. I love a kid who can redefine cool! I also love the references to art. This sounds fantastic!

  3. This sounds like a winner! I should get this to read with my son. I like that the main character is positive and learns how to cope by using the advice from his parents.

  4. Beth F says:

    I have this in print and in audio. I can’t wait to get to it. I’m all about redefining cool.

  5. Bookworm1858 says:

    I really loved the lesson on not ignoring the dots-just heartbreaking when the dad and Georges talk it over. A cute story and great review!

  6. Jenners says:

    I enjoyed When You Reach Me so I imagine I will enjoy this. And who can argue with a book that brings pointillism to middle graders?

  7. bookingmama says:

    I am going to reserve this one right now. She’s a very talented author!

  8. jennala9 says:

    I didn’t care for Stead’s first book either, and I thought I was the only one. I LOVE the premise of this one and the metaphor in it!! I definitely have to get my hands on it. It sounds like something I could definitely figure out a way to use with my therapy clients too for a different perspective. Adding this to my list!!

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