This post briefly reviews Rebecca Stead, Liar & Spy (New York: Wendy Lamb Books, 2012)
Stead, author of the Newberry Award winning When You Reach Me, has recently published her third novel for children. I’m reviewing it here because, like many other children’s books, it has some homeschooled characters.
Before getting into her use of homeschooling, let me say that I enjoyed reading the book a lot. Stead is very funny. The early chapters of the book were especially fun to read, full as they were with random scenes and observations that made me think Stead must carry around a journal and jot down anything she notices that’s odd or interesting to later work into her stories. Once the main plot took over I was a little less interested because I was no longer wondering what kind of wackiness would come next, but it was still a lot of fun.
Now for the homeschooling. Main character Georges (silent “s” at the end) and his family have to downsize when his dad loses his job. Georges’ new apartment complex has a strange family in it with three children, named Pigeon, Safer, and Candy. These are the homeschoolers. As is almost always the case in mainstream books featuring homeschooled kids, the homeschooling is not of the conservative Christian variety but of the child-centered, almost unschooling variety. Georges meets this family and describes their lifestyle to his parents. He relates their reaction:
When I tell [mom] Safer doesn’t go to school, she says they sound like really nice bohemians…. Dad calls them progressive. Nobody wants to say they’re weird.” (p. 66)
Georges provides for us a list of the things Safer does while Georges is away at school (“Ninety-five percent of school is a complete waste of time,” Safer says. Georges agrees). Here’s what Safer does, all a direct quote from the book save the bracketed context info:
- Learns Math from a website.
- Helps “prep” dinner.
- Plays online Scrabble with his dad between driving lessons [his dad is a driving instructor].
- Walks the dogs in the courtyard [several neighbors’ dogs, for pay.]
- Has coffee with Mr. Gervais on the fifth floor. They read the French newspaper together, Safer says. Sort of.
- Watches baseball-card auctions on eBay.
- Plays chess with [little sister] Candy. Candy is frighteningly good at chess, according to Safer.
- Learns chemistry and Photoshop from his mom.
- Watches the lobbycam. [a video monitor of the apartment lobby]
- Watches the parrots. [wild parrots nesting across the street] (p. 64-65)
We learn as well that the children’s odd names emerged with their personalities. Safer’s mother explains, “we let the kids name themselves…. By age two or so they had expressed who they were and what they cared about most. We just sort of–interpreted.” (p. 93)
The eldest child, Pigeon, has just started attending the local public high school, which Safer regards as treason. But by the end of the story we learn that Candy is going to follow him to school, and even Safer might join them in a year or two. The clear attraction is the ability to make more friends and get out of the house more. Much of the action in the book occurs at Georges’ school, which has the usual cliques, bullies, and so forth. Stead doesn’t seem to me to be making a point one way or the other as to which sort of schooling is the best. Homeschooling and public schooling are just part of the setting–a backdrop necessary for her to tell the story she wants to tell.