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Rebecca Stead on 'Liar & Spy' and complex mysteries for kids

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Author Rebecca Stead won the 2009 Newbery Award — one of the highest honors in children’s literature — for her poignant and subtly complex middle-grade novel When You Reach Me. Her latest novel Liar & Spy (now available) is a completely different kind of story, but it centers on characters who possess a similar, quirky curiosity toward the world around them and try to solve mysteries that take them in unexpected directions. The new novel follows Georges (the “S” is silent) as he moves to a new apartment building in Brooklyn and meets Safer, an unusual kid who’s convinced that their neighbor Mr. X is up to no good. Stead took the time to talk to EW about Liar & Spy.

When You Reach Me had a lot of subtle nuances to the story, and so does Liar & Spy. How do you think the novels are most different?
I think of Liar & Spy as completely different and actually not at all like a When You Reach Me-type story. I feel like Liar & Spy has a much quieter, more emotional revelation. It’s not like this mind-bending zinger toward the end. I don’t know if I’d say it’s more concrete or less concrete as a mystery than When You Reach Me. You never know what you’re getting in terms of the reader impact, but what I felt as the person writing the story was that the impact was emotional and much quieter and added up in a quiet way, not in a way that is supposed to make you say, “Oh my God, what?!” To have that kind of revelation in a story feels empty to me. If you’re looking for that When You Reach Me zinger, it’s going to disappoint you — but I’m hoping that Liar & Spy is a completely different kind of experience.

That’s interesting, because judging from the title Liar & Spy, I was expecting a much more concrete genre mystery.
There’s this trouble with books for me because I’m terrible at thinking of titles. The truth is, even with the titles that I’ve landed on in the end, they always feel wrong. I think it’s because of this whole problem of having to package your book in a certain way. It’s like you write this story and you’re supposed to wrap it in a certain type of paper that’s going to tell people what to expect, and I don’t want to do that at all. To a certain extent, I’m also not in control of it. I think if you read the flap to Liar & Spy, you might be expecting a story more like When You Reach Me, and that’s just a decision that’s a much more complicated process – it’s more the publisher’s plan than mine.

What really struck me about Liar & Spy was the realism. Georges sounds like a real kid whose parents are going through real problems.
I wanted it to be very realistic. In a way – I always think I’m killing my own sales when I say this – it’s very un-dramatic, really. There’s nothing pumped up about the drama of it. That was part of the challenge: trying to create something that would feel satisfying and meaningful but within a set of circumstances that are very realistic, and with characters who seem real and do age-appropriate things and are put in age-appropriate situations. It is a challenge to create drama with those kinds of limitations, which I put on myself. Lots of readers now expect a certain kind of story.

Like When You Reach Me, the setting is a version of New York City through which children move freely, although now we’re in Brooklyn instead of the Upper West Side. I feel like you have a lot to say about kids’ relationship to the big city.
I do. I try to remember what it was like to be a kid in New York. I lived in different parts of my childhood in Manhattan on the Upper West Side, where When You Reach Me is set, and also in the Midwood section of Brooklyn. I think that for a kid, the city is a lot about relationships — maybe for kids more than for adults. I felt like even though New York is a really big city, your neighborhood is always going to feel a little bit like a small town. That is really appealing to me. I like the idea of a world even within a big giant city where you’re not anonymous. You have an identity and that’s an identity that’s known just sort of by shopkeepers. I felt that as a kid, and I loved it. I probably feel it less now because maybe I’m less interested in those relationships as an adult, or maybe they’re less there to be had – I don’t know, it’s hard to make that judgment – but I feel like as a kid it was an important part of my world. There were relationships I had with people who maybe I didn’t know well but we still had a substantive relationship — like Georges’ relationship with Benny or Miranda’s relationship with Mel at the store. That was just an important part of my world and it’s something I’m attracted to. I like to create those relationships.

Growing up in the suburbs, I always felt isolated as a kid because there was no opportunity to just walk to a friend’s house or bump into a variety of people every day. The characters in your novels have that opportunity.
There’s also that. In the city, you’re not driving from place to place, and there’s all these things along the way. Sometimes, maybe those are things that are scary to you at the time, or maybe they’re scary for a while and that changes, or maybe it’s someone who’s there for you if you need them. That’s one of the cool things about New York. There are a lot of trade-offs to growing up in New York, but that’s one of the good things.

With that kind of freedom, these kids can stumble onto unexpected adventures and mysteries.
Kids see different things. I was talking to Lenore Skenazy – she has this project called Free Range Kids. It’s a website and it’s about letting kids become more independent even though today, parent culture doesn’t support that very much. That was much more what it was like to be a New York kid in the 70s. We were independent from a young age and there’s some of that now but it probably depends on your community. Lenore talked about her sons walking from school and how they knew these stores that were almost invisible to her – like a little coin store where they would go in and look at these old coins, and they sort of had a relationship with the guy who worked there, and she never even really registered that this store even existed, and that’s kind of interesting to me – the things that we see and the things that we dismiss or ignore without even really having it happen on a conscious level.

I love the random trivia that Georges and Safer impart all throughout the book. Were those factoids things you already knew, or did you research them specifically for this story?
Mostly they’re things that I come across as I’m writing the story or shortly before I start writing. I notice that I sharpen my attention to little random stories and details and facts because I know I’m looking for things. If something feels like it can serve some sort of organic right-feeling role in the story, then I hold onto it and keep it. For instance, the parrots — I didn’t know about those until a couple of years ago when I saw a guy in Starbucks staring out the window and eventually I asked him what he was looking at. He said, “Oh, I’m looking at these wild parrots, they’re on the fire escape across the street.” Then he started telling me about wild parrots in New York, and I looked on the web and found all these resources, and that’s the kind of detail that I’m looking for. But at the same time, I’m aware that just because I find it interesting, it’s not necessarily going to serve my story. What I do is just end up playing with it, and because of the way Safer’s character evolved, I liked the idea that he was always looking – looking, looking, looking. He’s doing that in a number of ways, but for me, it just fit thematically. I gave myself the option to pick and choose.

What are some books you’d recommend for our readers?
Well, one of the greatest, all-time novels — for adults, but there are a lot of 14-year-olds who I think would love reading this book — there’s a book called So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell. I’m a great lover of that book. It’s just one of these small, beautiful, deep books. It has a mystery but it’s about growing up and relationships and just registering who you are. I’m always trying to get people to read that book. I’m also a huge lover of short stories, so I love Alice Munro, Junot Diaz, George Saunders.

How about for kids?
On the kid front, there are a couple of books that nobody reads anymore that I loved as a kid. One is a book called Red Planet by Robert Heinlein, and it was one of his juvenile science fiction books, and I have no idea how this book got lost along the way because I think it still has this modern sensibility. To me, it doesn’t feel dated. I know I’m not a kid, but I think it holds up really well and it’s complex and sort of fabulous and adventurous and it has incredible world-building. At the same time, it has this strong, real emotional undercurrent. It doesn’t deny the deep emotional world of kids, which is something that I love about any kind of kid’s story. More recently, Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech is one that I love a lot, and also Holes – it’s such a good book! That’s not news to anyone but I re-read that one a few years ago as part of a writing conference, and all over again I just marveled over what a great of a book that is.


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