Liar & Spy
There’s this totally false map of the human tongue. It’s supposed to show where we taste different things, like salty on the side of the tongue, sweet in the front, bitter in the back. Some guy drew it a hundred years ago, and people have been forcing kids to memorize it ever since.
But it’s wrong—all wrong. As in, not even the slightest bit right. It turns out that our taste buds are all alike, they can taste everything, and they’re all over the place. Mr. Landau, seventh-grade science teacher, has unrolled a beaten-up poster of the ignorant tongue map, and he’s explaining about how people have misunderstood the science of taste since the beginning of time.
So begins LIAR & SPY, Rebecca Stead’s strong follow-up to her Newbery Medal-winning WHEN YOU REACH ME. I think this one is even better, but then I never warmed up to WHEN YOU REACH ME the way that many others did.
The last line of Monica Edinger’s Horn Book review nicely sums up most of the book’s strengths: “Stead’s spare and elegant prose, compassionate insight into the lives of young people, wry sense of humor, deft plotting, and ability to present complex ideas in an accessible and intriguing way make this much more than a mystery-with-a-twist.”
Basically, every single literary element in this book is distinguished and several rise to the level of most distinguished. Since I am a plot-driven reader, it probably comes as no surprise that I would choose to single that one out for special attention here.
I appreciate the double mystery of this novel, the layering of the various puzzles and clues. In a year with some strongly plotted fiction, say SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS and THREE TIMES LUCKY, I think this one is executed as well as any of them. The pacing here is much brisker, but none of the remaining literary elements suffer in comparison to those novels because of it. And you know I gotta love that.
Still, I wonder if this is this really the best middle grade fiction out there this year. Are we simply drawn to it because of WHEN YOU REACH ME’s halo effect? Are there other equally well written books that just don’t have the buzz and the reviews? Does LIAR & SPY “feel” like a Newbery book?
I’m itching to reread this one to see if it can climb past BOMB, MOONBIRD, and NO CRYSTAL STAIR, but as it is, it’s still a top five sort of book for me.
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About Jonathan Hunt
Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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