Caren's Reviews > Liar & Spy

Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead
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Aug 12, 12

bookshelves: children
Read in August, 2012

I liked the author's Newbery-winning previous book so much, I was excited to read this one. I was not disappointed. Ms. Stead has such an honest voice that really reaches into the heart of any person's worries, not just those of her middle-school-aged protagonists. She explores everyday crises that are, perhaps, more pronounced in adolescence, but which, while muted in adulthood, don't ever really go away. The lead character in this book, Georges, must deal with some worrisome changes in his home life, changes that appear to be one thing at the book's opening, but which morph into something else entirely by the book's end. He must also deal with challenges that are at the very nature of humans living as social creatures. His challenges are in changing, developing friendships; how to feel you fit into the group, while embracing your own personal strengths and weaknesses; and how to handle exclusion from the group as a result of bullying behavior by some of the group's members. At under 200 pages, this slender book reads quickly, but is packed with satisfying insights. Let me share with you some of my favorite moments from the book:
Georges is named for a painter his parents love, Georges Seurat. An inexpensive copy of one of this artist's prints hangs in their home and is almost a family member, referred to by Georges as "Sir Ott", the way the name sounded to him as a child. Unfortunately, the extra "s" at the end of his name opens him up to teasing, which he is mostly able to ignore. His mother uses the pointillist style of the painting to teach some life lessons to her young son. She has taught them so well, Georges can hear her comments in his mind even when his mother is not present. When the school bullies call him a "geek, geek, geek", he imagines his mother's advice:

Typical bully crap, Mom would say. Big picture. I think about Sir Ott, hanging over the couch at home, and how much I would like to be there right now...
And then I think of all those thousands of dots Seurat used to paint the picture. I think about how if you stand back from the painting, you can see the people, the green grass and that cute monkey on a leash, but if you get closer, the monkey kind of dissolves right in front of your eyes. Like Mom says, life is a million different dots making one gigantic picture. And maybe the big picture is nice, maybe it's amazing, but if you're standing with your face pressed up against a bunch of black dots, it's really hard to tell." (pg. 90)

Georges has moved from the comfortable house where he grew up to an apartment after his father lost his job. In his new home, he meets a family with homeschooled children. The younger sister of his new friend asks him some questions about his school.

"I don't sit at the cool table," I tell her. "I wouldn't even want to sit there."
"Why not?"
"Because half the kids at that table are total jerks."
She looks at me. "Then why do the other half of them sit there?"
I've wondered this too....."I don't know. Maybe thy think that if they sit there, they won't be victims, or whatever."
"So why don't you sit there?"
"Because I would rather be a jerk's victim than a jerk's friend."
She nods. "The friend of my enemy is my enemy. Somebody said that once. So maybe the friend of a jerk is a jerk."
I look at her. "Maybe."
"You guys are both forgetting the most important rule", a voice behind us says.
"Oh, yeah?"...."What's the most important rule?"
"Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer."
"Meaning what, exactly?" Candy asks.
"Meaning maybe the friends of the jerks are only pretending to be their friends. Maybe they recognize the enemy and they're keeping him close." (pg. 128)

Finally, here is another section I liked:

Dad looks miserable. "Why didn't you tell me? I could have done something, a long time ago."
I shrug. "It's just dumb stuff. You know, kids being kids. I know none of it will matter in a few years."
He stares at me. "Who told you that?"
"Mom. She always says to look at the big picture. How all of the little things don't matter in the long run."
He blinks. "But they matter now, Georges. They matter a lot. What were you planning to do, just hold your breath all the way through middle school?"
"No. No one can hold their breath that long."
"Look, I know Mom talks about the big picture. She wants you to remember that you'll find new friends, that life is always changing, sometimes in really good ways. But life is also happening now, Georges. What Dallas and Carter are doing is happening now, and you can't just wait for it to be over. We have to do something about it. Now."
It's weird, because I know Mom is right about the big picture. But Dad is right too: Life is really just a bunch of nows, one after the other. The dots matter. (pg. 149)

Can you see how this book has some very thoughtful messages about living for all of us? The best children's books are enjoyed equally by adults, and this ranks right up there in that category.
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