I am reading my way through the 2014 Carnegie Medal shortlist. (The CILIP Carnegie Medal is the UK’s most prestigious award for outstanding literature for children and young people, chosen by librarians.) My reviews will unavoidably contain spoilers.
Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead
One of the great failings of the English education system is that middle schools are so uncommon. The traditional split between primary and secondary levels is an unhelpfully harsh one for children who, at 11, are a world away from both the early years learning of Reception and the more specialised learning of GCSEs and A-levels. Children would fit better, learn better, if the primary phase ended earlier and we had middle schools for a comprehensive education and then a variety of colleges and high schools for vocational or more academic specialisms.
I say all this because the middle school years feel different to those that come before and after. There is a strange mix of increasing independence and ongoing reliance on parents. The games children play in those years are very different to the ones they used to play, yet they are still playful times (unlike the mid- and late-teenage years).
Liar & Spy is a quintessentially middle school book. Stead captures wonderfully the complexity of home and school life, and the adventures children have around the edges of the two at that age. The book is good-natured but not unrealistic about the challenges of life. It’s about a boy coming to terms with the realities of life, not so much as a coming-of age tale but rather as a beginning-to-make-sense-of-the-world tale. It’s thoroughly enjoyable.
One of the great joys of this book is that it captures the smallness of big places, especially from the perspective of a not-yet-teenager. It is set in Brooklyn, but has an almost village feel to it. Georges moves house at the start of the book, but it’s within walking distance. His local eateries remain the same. He visits the same convenience store. He attends the same school. These things are used to contrast what changes with what stays the same, but they also serve to illustrate the smallness of the world of a boy just becoming aware of what can happen beyond the safety of familiarity.
Where George lives feels like a neighbourhood. The shopkeeper knows everyone’s name. Notices left in apartment lobbies get responses. Neighbours interact with one another. Everyone shops at the same stores and has pizza from the same restaurant. I know Americans are quite unlike the British in this respect, but I cannot believe that Brooklyn actually feels like this for most residents most of the time. For children, though, there is more truth to the portrayal because their limited experiences are more likely to coalesce than those of adults. Georges discovers that the world is bigger than he had previously known, and part of that process of discovery is to call into question the reality of the small world he has taken for granted up to this point. It’s rather brilliantly done.
Another of the book’s joys is that the characters are portrayed in a largely positive manner. Georges is likeable; a middle-of-the-road kid that most readers could probably identify with in some way. (There are far fewer ‘cool’ kids in real life than in films, I’m sure of it.) Safer is matter-of-fact rather than bossy, and his friendship with Georges is a genuine one. Yes, Georges is hiding a big secret and Safer is essentially lying throughout the book, but it is hard to blame either boy for their actions by the end. They are interacting with each other as friends in more complex ways than they have done before. Isn’t that what makes friendship different for children and grown-ups?
Candy is irritating, but only insofar as she is a typical irritating little sister. She’s also helpful and generally obedient to her brother’s wishes as well as her mother’s. Jason has a question mark hanging over him for the duration of the story, but he gets a big tick by the end. Only the ‘cool’ kids – bullies, if you like – are cast in a negative light.
Liar & Spy is unique in the books I’ve read for this age range in recent years in portraying adults as well as children in a positive way. Georges has a healthy relationship with his parents, who seem to have a healthy relationship with each other. Safer and Candy have very different parents, but although they chose to raise their children by alternative methods they didn’t do too badly by them. Everyone from the science teacher to the shopkeeper is at least friendly, and more likely actively supportive. Georges’s PE teacher pretends to dislike her job, which is how she bonds with Georges, but actually loves it, which is why she bonds with Georges. Stories don’t need cartoonish ‘evil’ characters to make them interesting to read. Part of the success of Liar & Spy is that they are all believable.
And the lasting of the book’s joys is that it says something believable about life itself. That is, lies and secrets do not always have a binary morality of right or wrong. Life is far more complex, as children begin to discover as they gain in independence and life experience.
Bear with me a moment while I digress into the Mosaic Law. The Ten Commandments don’t prohibit ever saying anything that is not verifiably true (which would rule out telling stories) but instead prohibits giving false testimony. The commandment is narrower than we have come to paraphrase it. It means that when asked to give witness or testimony (in this sense, drawing context from the law courts) there is a clear prohibition against fabrication and falsehood. Rightly the commandment has been extended to cover telling falsehood in other contexts, whether bragging by stretching the truth or inventing details to suit our purposes. However, it has never meant that telling stories is wrong, or that it offends God when we enjoy myths and fables.
Georges and Safer are both playing out living stories. In Safer’s story, his character is a spy and Georges is his sidekick. They have adventures together, like an advanced sort of game. Meanwhile in Georges’s story, his character is living in a sort of parallel universe where his mother didn’t have her accident. They are both misdirecting and misleading one another – and us, the reader.
These are lies, of omission if not commission. The temptation is to say that both boys should have been upfront with the other about what it was that they were tempted to hide – that the spy mystery was fictitious and that Georges’s mum had been hospitalised. That might be more ‘honest.’ On the other hand, one can identify with the way in which both boys embodied stories in creative ways, lying as much to themselves as to each other. Georges told himself a story to come to terms with the abrupt and painful change that occurred when his mother became sick. And Safer told himself a story as the plot around which his friendship with a new boy would form.
It’s easy to sympathise with Georges, whose lie is one of omission and of no great harm to Safer except that it demonstrates a lack of trust. But I am equally sympathetic with Safer’s lie, even though it is one of commission that leads Georges into genuine fear. Here is a boy who is petrified of the things we take for granted every day. He won’t join the family for a pizza because he doesn’t feel comfortable leaving the apartment. He won’t ride the lift because it frightens him. Imagine what happens when a boy roughly his age turns up and appears to want to join his spy club, a long-forgotten attempt at adventure that his brother had made. Georges is quite possibly not just the first friend Safer has made, but the first friend he has been able to make. He would need some story to frame that friendship, and given that the spy club was his way in, it is understandable that the spy club would be how it would continue.
When you’re six years old, you are generally well disposed toward your playdates unless they display clearly objectionable behaviour like throwing tantrums or failing to share. By the age of twelve, it’s not that easy. In other words, friendships are complicated. And as the human brain develops and understands something of the experiences of both sides of a friendship, those complications cause our friendships to become deeper and more complex, for good and ill.
Georges and Safer have complicated a complicated relationship because Safer has (we assume) never had a friend before, and Georges, who has just seen his mum hospitalised, is also coming to terms with his best friend at school having ditched him for the ‘cool’ group. They are in new territory, where things are more difficult than they used to be. So they tell stories and embody them as part of everyday life in order to make sense of the increasingly grown-up world in which they find themselves.
It’s a joy to read in a book for kids of this age because it’s so true to life. We live out stories all the time, setting up narratives around all of our relationships. People are for ever ‘putting on a brave face.’ People act out dramatic displays of histrionics to influence people. People pretend to themselves and others that they are successful, or doing meaningful work, or making a difference in the world, when they are not (at least in the way they believe themselves to be). These are lies, perhaps, but they are better understood as part of the tapestry of myths that we use to cocoon ourselves, often without anyone else knowing that’s what we’re up to. Sometimes, we don’t know it ourselves.
So apart from being a well-plotted and wonderfully told story, Liar & Spy is a pleasure to read because it is so brilliantly true to life.