I was never a big fan of Rebecca Stead’s Newbery medal-winning When You Reach Me – I was late to the party and was rather grumpy about all the gush it was getting, and I also got a bit hooked up on the mechanics of the time travel. I’m sure if I re-read it now I’d enjoy it a lot more. I lurved Liar and Spy, and used it very successfully for a middle school book club. And now Ms. Stead has come out with another absolute cracker.
Goodbye Stranger is a gorgeous book about adolescent transitions – physical and emotional, from child to young adult, from friend to more than friend – and the mistakes you can make, and joy you can receive, along the way.
Bridge(t), Em and Tab are the best of friends, but as they hit 7th grade some changes threaten to shift this. Em is developing curves and attracting a lot of attention, from boys and older girls. Tab has been inspired by a teacher to explore feminism and social justice. And Bridge’s new friendship with Sherm becomes increasingly important to her. I love that the girls’ friendship, though tested by Em’s rapidly escalating texting relationship with an 8th grade boy and Tab’s ‘judginess’, stays strong and true.
There are two other narrative threads. In one, Sherm writes unsent letters to his grandfather who had walked out on his grandmother after 50 years. Sherm’s hurt and bewilderment is unstated but clear, as he tries to make sense of this seismic shift in his life. In the other thread, an unnamed high school girl reflects bitterly on her betrayal of a new, real friend as she tried to stay connected with old friend who had moved on.
The theme that braids all these strands together is the idea that any person has ‘9000 things’ about themselves, and any relationship is, at best, only a matching of ‘1000 things’, and sometimes you don’t even know what the other ‘8000’ things are. Adolescence is a time for discovering much about yourself; as Sherm muses: “Is the new you the stranger? Or is the stranger the person you leave behind?” (I think the title of the book gives us a clue to the answer to that).
Ms Stead is masterful at developing wonderful, rich characters that thrill with their authenticity. She also places them in a warmly recognizable New York setting, and casually slips in the diversity that you would expect to find there: Bridge’s father is Armenian, Tab’s parents are from India.
There is no drama or mystery in this book, other than what is happening every day in middle and high schools – yet the author renders it enthralling and enlightening, familiar and also revealing.