Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead

Published by Anderson Press (ISBN: 978-1849395427)

Things are not going well for Georges (the ‘s’ is silent).  His dad has lost his job, forcing his family to move into a small apartment and his mum to start working long hours at the hospital where she is a nurse.  To make matters worse, Georges dreads going to school.  Not only does he face daily bullying but he has no real friends.  The only kid who is ever pleasant to Georges is Bob English Who Draws, and he is just as much an outsider as Georges himself (and rather preoccupied with drawing and sharing his unusual knowledge of alternative spelling patterns).  Looming on the horizon of the school year is the annual ‘Taste Test’: a scientific experiment that the student body believes identifies the future of each individual in the class.  But, they have already decided Georges’ future, and they make sure he knows exactly what they think...  He is a loser and always will be.  

On his first day living in the new apartment block, while helping his dad take that garbage to the bins in the basement, Georges accidently ends up enrolling in the Spy Club, making a rather reluctant recruit.  He meets Safer:  a twelve-year-old, self-appointed spy.  Soon, Georges finds himself assisting Safer to track the mysterious Mr X: an elusive resident who is only ever seen wearing black.  His comings and goings, Safer says, are highly suspicious. But the biggest concern is what he is hiding in the large heavy suitcases he keeps removing from the apartment.  

Georges spends an increasing amount of time with his new friend, Safer, and is warmly welcomed by his family.  As he becomes increasingly embroiled in the mystery of Mr X, Safer becomes more and more demanding.  The assignments he sends Georges on begin to have an element of danger and Georges is left wondering exactly what is real and what is a lie.  Is this just a game?  And how far should he go for his only friend?

Liar and Spy is brimming with subtle hints hidden within the story.  The focus shifts from the mystery of Mr X as the reality of Georges’ and Safer’s lives are suddenly revealed to the reader.  All of the pieces fall into place as it appears that both boys were pretending at much more than just being spies.  Children can sympathise with, and understand, the difficulties and worries faced by Georges and Safer as they have probably experienced many themselves.  Both characters are incredibly likeable, leaving the reader rooting for them in the end and genuinely concerned when they learn what both boys are really coping with in their lives.

During the story, the reader journeys alongside Georges as he tries to cope with his troubles at school and muddles his way through everything family life has thrown at him.  When we first meet Georges, he lacks confidence and feels insignificant but, through his friendship with Safer, he grows and learns that he is capable of more than he ever thought.  As a reader, you feel like you know Georges well; he is an open book, unlike Safer who appears to be hiding something.  However, all is not as it seems and, as the story develops, it becomes clear that Safer is not the only one with secrets. The clues Rebecca Stead has sprinkled throughout the story would be ideal for comprehension work around inference and using evidence in the text.  The reader is given a sense that not everything is as it appears. They could go on a hunt for evidence to prove this; they could become the spies.  In addition, the themes of bullying and self-worth are valuable points of discussion and very relatable to most children.

This is a beautifully written story about real life, real families, real schools and real children.  It tells of the different ways children cope with difficulties they face and teaches us that we have strength inside us and that, with a little support from friends and family, we can overcome these obstacles- be they a school bully, an unexpected move, or a fear of the unknown.