In the Publishers Weekly review of Liar & Spy, the novel is described as “as close to perfect as middle-grade novels come”. I’ll be honest–this almost made me choose not to read it. I was in ‘middle-grade’ in the 1990s… How could I possibly get into this book? Easily, apparently. Although not a taxing read (yet again I was able to get through it quite quickly), it’s a charming and quirky coming of age novel about courage, family and friendship, with a little bit of mystery thrown in. Don’t let the classification fool you–Liar & Spy is a shining example of children’s fiction done right (in a market with a lot of average/below-average offerings) that can teach both young and old audiences something new.
Georges (named after the artist Seurat) is going through a period of change. His architect father has recently been retrenched and despite his mother, a nurse, working double shifts to help make ends meet, the family is forced to move from their beloved home to a smaller apartment a few blocks away. His mother isn’t around much and his father, somewhat awkwardly, navigates this new pseudo-single parent world as best he can. His mother’s absence is painfully noticeable and she and Georges communicate by leaving each other brief but very sweet Scrabble tile messages. The move hasn’t forced Georges to change schools, though maybe that would have been for the best because he is getting picked on by some of his classmates. In typical 7th grade humour, a couple of boys have taken to calling Georges ‘Gorgeous’. Added to that, one of Georges’ friends has ditched him in favour of the ‘cool’ table. Georges finds an unlikely friendship with Bob English Who Draws; a boy named Bob who (fancy that) likes to draw and is fascinated with Benjamin Franklin’s spelling reform movement.
It doesn’t take Georges a long time to make friends in his new apartment building. With a little help from his father, Georges becomes the sole other member of the Spy Club–a club established by Safer, a similarly aged enigmatic, home-schooled dog walker and budding private eye. Georges also befriends Candy, Safer’s younger sister and Pigeon, Safer’s older brother. The Spy Club is focussed on the mysterious and perhaps murderous Mr X, a secretive man who dresses all in black and is seen coming and going at strange hours with large suitcases. Safer is convinced that Mr X is up to something, and with Georges’ help, the two will uncover more than one mystery along the way. As the Mr X reconnaissance missions continue, Georges’ school life begins to deteriorate. The bullies torment Georges mercilessly in the lead up to the science class taste test (which is also shrouded in mystery and intrigue) when it is revealed that Georges has a below-average number of taste buds. Previous taste test participants have found both love and death and the 7th grade students believe it to be a semi-prophetic vision of the future. In a bold and mature act, Georges manages to unite the students in his class who feel bullied and oppressed to send them a clear message–you are not alone.
I think what I loved most about Liar & Spy is the abundance of incredibly likeable characters. On the one hand, all the youngsters in the novel (Georges, Safer, Candy, Bob English Who Draws) have unique characteristics and all seem to have genuinely good intentions. But Stead’s masterful storytelling adds another layer to these characters and they inject just enough youthful wisdom into the novel to touch on big issues but at the same time still make them believable and realistic. These are characters that you want to like, characters you want to know. Scattered throughout are supporting adult characters who bring the story back down to earth. It’s so easy to get caught up in the magic of being young again; the adults remind the reader (and the kids) that this is real life and things like homework and chores need to be done. But Georges will inspire readers of all ages with his courageous efforts in the face of adversity. He encounters liars and bullies and his fair share of hardship, and handles the situations with an innate wisdom far beyond his years.
Liar & Spy is a beautifully written, perfectly executed novel that, although aimed at young readers, is accessible by a much wider and older audience. Stead expertly weaves adult issues with pre-adolescent coming of age woes to create a funny, touching and charming novel about family, new friends, old friends, and how to balance everything that comes in between.