Following up a Newbery Award winning book is probably stressful for an author. There are a lot of expectations riding on the next book you publish. I know that I had high expectations as I started reading Liar and Spy. The last book that I read by Rebecca Stead was When You Reach Me, which probably falls in my Top 10 of all-time favorites that I love to recommend to intermediate grade readers.
Happily I can report that Stead has produced another high-quality story for children in grades 4-6. Liar and Spy is a work of realistic fiction that focuses on school, friends, and family, while also tackling the problem of bullying and self-esteem. These themes are all accessible and well-known to children. While the book doesn’t pack the thrilling twist and ending that When You Reach Me did, it still is a very satisfying story.
There are so many parts of Liar and Spy that a reader can connect with and make the story his/her own. I would recommend this book to readers looking for: 1) a friends/family story; 2) a bullying theme; 3) a spy story; and 4) as a classroom read-aloud.
First, the characters are well-developed and act in very real ways. Stead includes scenes where Georges eats pudding out of a cup without a spoon, using his tongue to lap up the snack (something I have witnessed a ton of times at school and home), and a scene where the dogs Safer is walking mug him in excitement when he comes back after leaving them in the courtyard for a few minutes. The reader cares what happens to Georges and Safer, and these small yet authentic scenes help make that connection.
Secondly, I feel the theme of bullying is done well and makes this a good recommendation for readers that are looking for that kind of story. The bully is a well-developed character, and although we are not privy to his motivation, he is not a stereotypical unintelligent brute. The way that Georges tackles the bully situation follows some of the recommendations from experts — stand up for yourself and then disengage and connections in a different social group.
There is definitely intrigue and adventure in the story, although it plays less of a role in the end. There are mysterious meetings, spy cams, breaking and entering, morse code, and many other spy-like activities that will engage those looking for an action-packed read. Readers who liked Spy School by Stuart Gibbs might also enjoy Liar and Spy.
Finally, I would recommend this to 4th or 5th grade teachers looking for read-aloud recommendations. The length of the book makes it a quicker read, perfect for maintaining interest during interrupted whole class read-aloud time. I also think that the theme of lying that occurs in the story would make for an interesting classroom discussion. Is there a difference between lying and not telling the whole story or withholding information? Random House has an educators’ guide that can be used to help lead whole-class discussions.