Meagan & Eva’s Middle-Grade Bookshelf Presents…
GOODBYE STRANGER, by Rebecca Stead
Published by Wendy Lamb Books, August 2015
A NYT Editors’ Choice and NYT Notable Children’s Books of 2015
suggested age range: 10 and up
When Bridge was a kid she got hit by a car. She spent a long time in the hospital and she nearly died. Now she’s in middle school and wondering whether she’s alive for a reason — whether anyone is alive for a reason — or if life is just one big accident. At least she’s still part of a “set” with her best friends: Em (with her “curvy new curves”) and Tab (who is “kind of a know-it-all”). In seventh grade, Bridge and her friends face big decisions, big mistakes, first crushes, and new identities. And the strange new teens they are in the process of becoming must say goodbye to the no-longer-familiar kids they once were.
IMPORTANT TOPICS AND THEMES: Goodbye Stranger touches lightly on the topic of sexting, but it’s in a middle-school appropriate way. The book also deals with friendship, divorce of grandparents, first crushes, and growing up.
So, what did we think?
Meagan: Overall, I loved this book. The author has painted a painfully true picture of what it’s like to be in middle school. The concrete details and well as the emotional details all feel super-realistic.
Eva: I totally agree. The book worked so well because it was true-to life: specific yet universal. The characters were fully-formed (and quirky). The dialogue was spot-on for middle school. The book was definitely character-driven, but even though it wasn’t a race-to-the-climax plot, I was never bored. And speaking of character, I LOVE that Bridge decides her “thing” is going to be wearing cat ears every day:
The cat ears were black, on a black headband. Not exactly the color of her hair, but close. Checking her reflection in the back of her cereal spoon, she thought they looked surprisingly natural.
I was so impressed at how Stead kept me engaged without a traditional plot. And yet, there WAS some tension-building in the main plot as well as a triumphant and satisfying ending that I don’t always find in character-driven novels.
Meagan: Right, it’s not what anyone would call a plot-driven, but the everything-is-high-stakes setting of middle school helps this work and still feel about as engaging as a more plot-driven story. To me it sometimes seems pretty daunting to think about writing “literary” (vs. plot-driven) work for kids, but Rebecca Stead has clearly figured out how to do it. I read another of her books, When You Reach Me, a while back. It was great (and a Newberry winner). This is possibly even better, in my opinion.
Eva: Yes, I remember reading When You Reach Me and enjoying it, but I might say Goodbye Stranger is more memorable, if not better. Overall, I was very impressed. The only thing I DIDN’T love about the book were the short sections that were written in second person. For example:
You paint your toenails. You don’t steal nail polish, though. Vinny calls you chicken: all of her polish comes from the six-dollar manicure place…
The reader doesn’t find out until the end who these sections are about, and I have to say I found the mystery a bit confusing and unnecessary.
Meagan: I actually liked those sections. I thought they created a fun mystery for the reader to puzzle over, simply by withholding information (the identify of one of the narrators), but giving you enough detail that you could eventually figure it out.
Eva: It was a gutsy move on Stead’s part to use second person, and I wonder about her decision to include this certain character’s story. The sections DID add a layer of mystery, but I didn’t think the mystery was needed because there were so many other interesting storylines.
Come to think of it, there were a lot of B plots in this novel, and I wonder about Stead’s decision to include them all — they certainly weren’t all necessary to the larger story. And yet, they totally worked (except for the second person one, in my opinion). It’s interesting to me how she so deftly crafted the novel with so many storylines.
Meagan: What did you think of the title? I normally don’t think much about titles, but this one stood out to me. I think for a young readership, it does a good job of pointing to the book’s deep theme, without coming right out and saying what the theme is. The transition from child to teenager is so huge that “goodbye” is not a bad way of describing it, and “stranger” is just about right for describing the person you are/were on the other side of the teen/child divide.
Eva: I’m kind of dumb sometimes, so it took me a while to figure out how the title related to the book. But once I got it, I loved it. I remember being a kid and thinking how weird it was that I was going to become an adult who would essentially be a stranger to my kid self. I’m not sure that middle school kids would get all the themes on their own, but this would be a great book to discuss with a group of kids.
THIS BOOK REMINDS US OF:
A Judy Blume book because it goes through the realistic, day-to-day life of specific characters and touches on a hot button issue.
In this case, the hot button issue is sexting. It’s addressed in a serious, yet middle-school appropriate way (not too graphic). Still, I probably wouldn’t recommend this book under sixth grade unless the reader’s parent is ready to talk about this topic and feels their child is ready as well.
THIS BOOK IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF:
- Realistic contemporary middle-grade
- Close 3rd person voice
- Use of second person voice
- Fully-formed characters
- Character-driven plot
- Weaving of main plot with several B plots
- A difficult topic handled in an age-appropriate way (sexting)
Eva: John Hodgeman once said “specificity is the soul of narrative.” This is a specific story about very specific characters, and yet it feels universal and totally relatable. I really enjoyed it.
Meagan: As a writer, I could imagine coming back to this book for a closer read if I decided to tackle a contemporary, realistic fiction project (especially if I hoped for it to be more on the “literary” side). Stead has done that so well here, I think there’s a lot I could learn from as a writer if I were to reread this and study the way she develops her characters and plot events.