Liar and Spy
This coming-of-age novel by Rebecca Stead is published by Wendy Lamb Books, an imprint of Random House Children's Books, a division of Random House Inc., and is written for kids ages 9 to 12. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.
Crude or Profane Language
Drug and Alcohol Content
Other Negative Elements
Georges (the "s" is silent) is a seventh-grader, named after his parents' favorite painter, French post-impressionist Georges Seurat. When Dad loses his job as an architect and tries to start his own business, Mom pulls double shifts as a nurse at the hospital. The family is forced to downsize, moving from a house to an apartment building in their same Brooklyn neighborhood. Mom tells Georges that life is like a Seurat painting: You can see it best when you stand back and look at the big picture. Heeding her advice, Georges tries not to worry but to embrace the changes in his life.
In his new apartment building, Georges meets 12-year-old Safer. He tells Georges that a man in the apartment below Georges, whom he calls Mr. X, may be smuggling dead bodies in and out of the complex. Safer draws Georges into his elaborate surveillance plan, and the boys monitor Mr. X's place regularly. Safer even urges Georges to help him break into Mr. X's apartment. When Georges refuses, Safer goes in alone.
One thing hasn't changed for Georges since his move: He continues to be teased by a bully named Dallas at school. He's not the only target, but he seems to be the favorite. Dallas has also managed to draw Georges' former best friend, Jason, into his cool group. Georges shrugs off Dallas' cruel remarks, even when other kids ask why he doesn't retaliate.
Seemingly all at once, Georges can no longer hide behind the "big picture" and must face the day-to-day elements of life that plague him. He learns Safer has been lying to him from day one. Safer never suspected Mr. X of anything. In fact, Mr. X is a normal guy, and Safer is his dog walker. The surveillance, the break-in and the elaborate story were all a game Safer was playing. Georges is angry at Safer and feels foolish.
Georges also admits to himself and the readers that his mother has not just been working a lot of night shifts. She's got a serious infection and is in the hospital as a patient. He finally agrees to face his fears and the reality of her illness and visit her. He also devises a plan, with the help of some of the other less-than-popular kids, to trick and silence Dallas. His idea brings the nerdy kids together and helps them develop a sense of community.
When he finally speaks to Safer again, he begins to understand the reason for the boy's deception. Safer, so-called by his parents because he never felt secure enough and always asked to be safer, doesn't like leaving the apartment building for fear of the outside world. His whole life centers around the entertainment he can create within the walls of the complex. When Georges stops lying to himself about his mother's illness (from which she eventually recovers), he is able to help others, such as his classmates and Safer, overcome their fears and anxieties as well.
Other Belief Systems
Georges wonders why evolution didn't leave all people with the same idea of what tastes good and bad. Describing sunlight on water, Georges' mom said a scene she remembers looked like a giant or god had thrown his golden clothes on the ocean.
The Lord's name is used in vain once. One or two uses of crap, heck, darn, geez, and d--n also appear. Georges' classmate Dallas and Dallas' sidekick, Carter, frequently call George a freak or geek.
One of Georges' classmates mentions a "gay test" that supposedly indicates a person's sexual preference based on which finger is longer than another. Dallas calls a girl with the last name Conchetti, Conchesty.
If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:
- Which characters are liars in this book?
- To whom are they lying, and what lies are they telling?
- In what situations in your life does it seem easier to lie than to tell the truth?
How do these lies hurt you?
What are Safer and Georges each afraid of?
- How does their friendship help them come to terms with their fears?
- What does Georges do to help his school friends feel braver and happier?
How can you encourage people who may be afraid or lacking in self-confidence?
What do you think of Georges' relationship with his parents?
- Why does he have such a hard time accepting his mother's illness?
- How do things change for Georges when he is able to share his concerns with his family and friends?
What does he learn about seeing the big picture vs. living in the now?
What's your definition of bullying?
- What's the difference between harmless teasing and bullying?
- As a Christ follower, how should you behave toward and speak to others?
Lying: Though Georges hates lying, he finds himself doing it regularly at Safer's request. Safer repeatedly deceives Georges so Georges will play his spying game.
Stereotyping: Dallas insinuates one girl should be a good student because she's Asian.
This review is brought to you by Focus on the Family, a donor-based ministry. Book reviews cover the content, themes and world-views of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. A book's inclusion does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.
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Readability Age Range
9 to 12
Wendy Lamb Books, an imprint of Random House Children's Books, a division of Random House Inc.
School Library Journal's Best Books List, 2012; Publishers Weekly Best Books List, 2012; Kirkus Review Best Children's Books List, 2012