12 August 2012

Liar & Spy (Rebecca Stead)

Rebecca Stead won a richly-deserved Newbery Medal in 2010 for the brilliant time-travel tale When You Reach Me. Her follow-up, Liar & Spy, may be less structurally ambitious, but is every bit as delightful. I read it in one go last Friday! Like slipping back decades to the read-while-walking little kid I used to be. (Yes, I did in fact walk into things, on a fairly regular basis. IT WAS WORTH IT)

Georges ("Here's a piece of advice that you'll probably never use: If you want to name your son after Georges Seurat, you could call him George, without the S. Just to make his life easier") is a twelve-year-old Brooklynite who's just moved out of his childhood house (including the best room ever, where his dad bolted the bottom of an old fire escape to the wall as a totally badass bunk bed) into an apartment with his recently laid-off architect dad and ICU nurse mom, who's constantly pulling double shifts to shore up the family income, meaning she leaves before he awakes and gets home after he's asleep. The two communicate by leaving each other notes in Scrabble tiles. He's lonesome at school--former BFF Jason sits with the cool kids now, and a pair of jerks in his science class have loudly decided he's a freak--but at home, he strikes up a friendship with a kid who lives upstairs, Safer.

Safer's oddities aren't limited to his name. (His parents, it turns out, let their kids name themselves; his older brother is bird-lover Pigeon, his sweet-toothed little sister Candy.) He doesn't go to school; instead, he fills his time walking dogs, observing a nest of wild parrots on a nearby roof, and spying on the mysterious and sinister Mr. X, a mission on which he enlists Georges' help. At first it seems like harmless fun--but Safer keeps pushing, and Georges starts worrying they'll find themselves in real danger.

Stead is fantastic at creating quirky characters with heart--even minor ones, like Georges's lab partner, Bob English Who Draws, so called because he doodles through class, turn out to have layers and interests of their own (in Bob's case, spelling reform, leading to notes like "Smial no madder whut"). And the book's often hilarious--my favorite part is Pigeon relating the story of how he realized with horror as a child that "Chicken is chickens?" Co-worker @salseraBeauty seconds Candy's aspiration to grow up and marry Mr. Orange--"It's the only flavor I don't like, actually. . . . That way we can always share the pack. . . . Starbursts. Lifesavers. Jolly Ranchers. Whatever." I think I've found mine. ;)

There's also the Science Unit of Destiny, the mistaken map of the tongue, a neighborhood Chinese place with fortunes like "It's a cookie, Sherlock," several repetitions of the awesome "interrupting cow" knock-knock joke . . . and a few lies, and a few secrets, a few bittersweet memories, and a few moments of triumph.

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