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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Goodbye Stranger

Goodbye StrangerRebecca Stead’s GOODBYE STRANGER is unnerving–unnervingly realistic, that is, of the minds of thirteen-year-olds.  That the book disturbed me is a testament to its strength…since that age is not one I really wanted to experience again, but did through Stead’s writing.

Here, the alternating viewpoints that very slowly unpack the experience of seventh grade are far more effective, I think, than in Benjamin’s THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH.   Though Bridge, the unnamed “You”, and Sherm’s occassional letters to Nonno Gio, we see how friendships and reputations can morph, distort, and reform so fluidly.   Each perspective is limited, adding to that unnerving-ness of a “he-said, she-said” view,  and creating narrative tension out of the ache for clarity–which Stead delivers, here and there, with realism.

A colleague wrote me with concerns about the “Moon Hunting” chapter that begins on p.99, because the Patel family practices Karva Chauth, a festival traditionally celebrated by Hindu women in several states of North India, but not Gujarat.  (“Patel” is a Gujarati name).   However, a quick search online suggests that the festival is gaining some popularity in Gujarat in recent years. Through friends I asked a couple Gujarti-Americans; one’s parents do practice it, but are from South Africa.  The other thought it might be a newer thing because of Bollywood and more travel between the states.  The question remains whether this would be typical of a New York Gujarti-American family (which, presumably, might have immigrated to the US earlier than the recent shift in Gujarat), but I feel there’s enough to go here to suggest that Stead’s Patels could conceivably observe this festival.  All this did make realize how little of Tab and Celeste Patel’s family culture comes through in the rest of the book.  That one chapter is really it.  In fact, when my colleague brought this issue up to me, I didn’t recall that chapter at all and thought “Who were the Patels in the story”?  I think this is interesting, though I don’t think it ultimately detracts.

What I do remember clearly are the many wonderful side characters (Adrienne at the cafe; Mr, P…), diversions (Jamie’s bet; the taste of cinnamon toast with vanilla milkshake…), and epiphanies (not missing the cat ears; the understanding that there IS no “school budget” for Mr. P’s treats…) that make such a strangely rangy narrative coalesce.

 

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Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at ninalindsay@gmail.com

Comments

  1. I just finished GOODBYE STRANGER. It’s my favorite type of MG read: realistic with delicious slow reveals. Rebecca Stead really is a master of the form, and I thought the structure worked well to deepen the mysteries and give us a bird’s-eye-view into each character’s reality. One of my favorite reads of the year.

  2. This is my pick this year for the Newbery. I’ve been telling EVERYONE to read it. I think it wonderfully illustrates how easy it can be to get yourself into a situation that is bigger than you can deal with in a way that is innocent enough for kids who might be in danger without even knowing it.
    I’m dying to do a family book club dinner with this book. We could make cat ears and eat cinnamon toast. I’ve seen people write that they just couldn’t get into it but I fell in love immediately.

  3. Since Tab’s mother’s maiden name is likely not Patel (so who knows what part of India her family is originally from??), I really think all the hoops you’ve jumped through here are unnecessary.

    Also, I don’t think the chapter is there to inform readers about the Patels’ family culture. I think it’s there to illuminate one more relationship — which is what this book is about. Figuring out what kind of person you want to be and what kind of relationships you want to be in. Rebecca Stead shows us all sorts of friendships: healthy and unhealthy; platonic and romantic; with people you’ve known all your life, with people you’ve just met; even friendship with one’s sibling.

    In the “Moon Hunting” chapter, Tab thinks Karva Chauth is sexist; Celeste thinks it’s romantic; then Bridge witnesses Tab’s mother breaking her fast, being fed food and water by Tab’s father — and she decides for herself what she thinks of that moment and how it speaks to the Patel parents’ relationship.

    On a larger scale, I definitely think this is one of the strongest novels I’ve read all year. The brilliant interweaving of the three stories (Bridge’s, Sherm’s, and the person’s we know as “You”); the choices the characters make; the person Bridge is becoming; the slow unfolding of her friendship with Sherm — I appreciate all of it.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Martha, I didn’t jump through hoops, I did a little simple research, as anyone on the Newbery committee would do if a concern like this was presented. It was necessary.

      I appreciate your take on the chapter, and I agree it’s not there to inform readers about the Patel’s family culture.

      • May December says:

        Perhaps Martha overstated when she mentioned jumping through hoops, but it is quickly becoming a concern of mine that this blog is now emphasizing questions of diversity above all else. Diversity is important, there is no question. But with each Heavy Medal entry, it is starting to appear that nothing else about a book has the same value. Not the plot, the characterization, the setting, the pacing, the structure, the vocabulary… all are of minor value compared to whether or not – in this example – the Patels could possibly have celebrated Karva Chauth.

        I’m all for verification and making sure the author has the facts right, especially on a hot-button issue like diversity. But the blog is now feeling a bit “gotcha” on any possible misstep (many of which are really full of uncertainty). Which seems to be at the expense of critical literary analysis and speculation of what book(s) may be selected by the Newbery committee.

      • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

        May December, I don’t think we’ve been emphasizing “diversity” above all else. Does it really appear that I value nothing else about this book? In this particular situation, I was investigating a question of “accuracy” posed by a colleague. If you notice, I don’t ultimately find it an issue with this text.

        We are evaluating the text according to the Newbery criteria, and the way readers respond to a text is important. Readers are diverse in many ways. This is part of a critical literary analysis.

  4. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    There are so many things that Stead does wonderfully here, but my favorite–and the thing that I would like all aspiring writers to take note of–is that she can tell her story almost exclusively with dialogue and very little description, showing great respect for children’s understandings, appreciations, and abilities.

    Here’s what I struggle with, though, as a reader and I’m happy to see Martha begin to address it above. What makes this novel tick? It seems kind of lightweight to me: Ho-hum. Middle school novel about sexting. What am I missing?

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Jonathan, “Who’s the real you? The person who did something awful, or the one who’s horrified by the awful thing you did? Is one part of you allowed to forgive the other?” p.257. Just one of many passages I’ve marked, but I’d settle for this alone. This isn’t about sexting–the sexting is a plot device. Stead makes these kind of thoughts tangible in a way that is rare.

      • Yes. Also, the way that Stead addresses the shaming and attacking of girls who acknowledge sexual feelings or feeling good about themselves (there’s the wonderful passage where Em says she doesn’t feel guilty at all for having taken that photo of herself): It’s handled brilliantly in this novel.

      • I guess I should have clarified: To me, it’s one of the Things That Makes This Novel Tick.

  5. Leonard Kim says:

    As with THE HIRED GIRL, I think this is the work of a great writer, and I would find nothing amiss if it won.

    I think its strongest, most original contribution is recognizing that, whatever threshold we cross to become teenagers, we don’t cross it together, and there is a book to be made from the shared and unshareable mystery and poignance of that: of those who go first, of those negotiating the crossing, of those still waiting at the station, all of them knowing the crossing is there. There have been a lot of words on Heavy Medal about what a 13/14-year-old is, and in some ways this book is an answer.

    My reservation about awarding this book is similar to that I had about BLACK DOVE WHITE RAVEN. The Newbery Award “is for literary quality and quality presentation for children,” and the committee “must consider excellence of presentation for a child audience.” I have no problem rating GOODBYE STRANGER’s literary quality as top-of-the-heap, but how is it a great presentation for children? It’s easy enough to identify books that are patronizing or inappropriate or didactic, but I think we are (or I am) sometimes lazy about trying to identify active excellence in this regard. Anyway, my strongest initial reaction through the early chapters of GOODBYE STRANGER was, “this reads just like a contemporary literary novel for adults.” For all we’ve stumbled over it, I think THE HIRED GIRL is probably better at what it tries to do for children.

    Also, for such a thoughtfully-written book, there were some fairly significant plot points I am unclear about, even after a second reading. How did Celeste know Julie had forwarded the picture? When Emily texts Patrick to confirm, doesn’t his response suggest he already knew? I thought his being the decent person Emily insisted he is depended on his truly not knowing how the picture got out. Finally, there is what seems like a lovely line about Tabitha still feeling the touch of someone’s hand on her head, except I still have little idea what this is in reference to.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Sorry, in my last sentence, I meant Bridget — towards the end just after the show.

      • Brooke Shirts says:

        Ah — I believe when Bridge first puts on the cat ears at the beginning of the book, it is described as similar to feeling her father’s hand resting on her head. It’s one of the given reasons why she likes wearing the cat ears so much. (I don’t have a copy with me, so I can’t reference a specific page).

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Brooke, thank you! You’re right: it’s there on page 8.

      That is lovely, but way too hard and subtle for me (and maybe more evidence for my opinion about this really being an adult book.) I actually started leafing back when I got to the later scene, trying to figure it out. I don’t remember now, but I think I did find a brief mention of maybe Mr Partridge patting her on the head or something and I was thinking, was that it? that can’t be it, right?

    • I find your thoughts on the presentation for this versus The Hired Girl fascinating because I had the exact opposite reaction. I felt like The Hired Girl is the type of book adults go all nostalgic over and therefore want kids to read, but Goodbye Stranger really gets into kids heads. As Nina says, it’s almost painful how well it gets into a 13 year old’s mind.

      I did wonder when I was reading it if kids would feel it’s lecturing them because of how often they hear from adults: BE CAREFUL WITH YOUR TECHNOLOGY. I don’t have a widespread sampling of kid opinions of this, but my own daughter (who is regularly lectured about this) loved everything about the book and read it one sitting. (She is 11.) Listening to her talk about it, the reason is exactly what Nina says in her comment to Jonathan. The sexting is a plot device. The story is about the characters and their various experiences.

      • Leonard Kim says:

        Brandy, that is interesting. I guess I feel nostalgic when a book makes me think, “yes, that’s what it felt like.” GOODBYE STRANGER was exactly that kind of book for me. I do think a 15-year-old could have the same feeling, so it’s not necessarily an adult thing. Now that you mention it, I can see how an 11-year could love this book, but I’d guess for very different reasons.

        As for the HIRED GIRL, I’m going to defer to Monica in that I also think that book invites the intended reader to strongly engage in questions of religion, identity, culture, religion, respect, generation, family, reconciliation, assimilation, etc. at a well-pitched level. And that’s on top of the bodice-ripping passion.

  6. I loved reading this book, I really did, but speaking as a British-South Asian, the Patels celebrating Karva Chauth seemed at odds with their otherwise completely Americanised lifestyle, including the girls names (Celeste and Tabitha) not being of Indian origin. But in response to the poster above, it didn’t make me dislike the book, it just made me go hmm–and when one hmms, it kind of breaks the spell of the book?
    A bigger hmm for me was the ‘twist’ regarding the identity of the unnamed (until the end) girl whose chapters are mostly told in second person because when the mystery is finally revealed the concealment seems ultimatelypointless? Unless the point is you don’t know what’s going on in another person’s life, etc etc
    Stead is a beautiful writer and these are minor flaws in an otherwise gorgeous book.

  7. Am I the only person who disliked the second person POV? And I found it predictable, so the extended concealment irritated me a little. Also, to me, the switches between points of view made the storytelling fragmented, and the book never quite coalesced as a result. I love the idea of this book, and I love certain individual lines, but the book didn’t hang together for me.

    • Beth, this was the weakness our Mock Newbery group mentioned when we discussed it. We couldn’t quite decide through our discussion what the second person POV was attempting to accomplish, and for us that made it less distinguished than the rest of the book. We were very impressed with the rest of the characters, but the “reveal” of who that character is fell flat for most of us. Overall we still really enjoyed the book and ultimately felt that it was strong despite those sections, but it was that aspect gave us the most pause of any part of the story.

      • To me the “You” section did feel necessary. It provided such a stark contrast between the healthy, resilient friendship of Bridge, Emily, and Twig and the toxic friendship of “You” and “Vinny” and group. If the toxic-friendship element had not been present, the book wouldn’t have felt like such a full picture of growing up, and of the choices kids make that have such important consequences.

        For me the use of the second-person also made it easier to distinguish between the various threads Stead was interweaving. And structuring the narrative that way (not necessarily the second person, but the inclusion of a thread that took place over just one day) let the book build to a climax that involved/resolved all three threads.

  8. In addition to the themes others have mentioned, I found this to be a book about the various manifestations of love. As these young people are moving into a new place in life they are looking around at how others manage it, good and bad. The Patels, Sherm’s grandfather, etc. It is the love of friends, romantic love, sibling love, etc. Beautifully done, I thought.

    I also think the book is pitch perfect for the upper end of the Newbery age range — eleven and up — kids beginning to grapple with the issues these very real characters are dealing with too. I was so impressed with Stead’s introduction of the sexting and then how it spiraled out of control. I work in a 4-8 middle school and that is absolutely the way things happen.

    Some have mentioned their admiration for how the story is told through dialogue, but aren’t there also some significant sections that are introspective ones — especially (it has been months since I read the book) the second person ones? What I admire is the spareness of the prose — Stead is clean and elegant in her writing. By now — this is not a Newbery consideration — I think she’s developed a very personal writing style. Those smart characters of hers remind me of Konigsburg’s most of all.

  9. I just finished Goodbye Stranger this weekend, and I must say I’m decidedly undecided as to how I feel about it. I think the characterization is strong. Despite not knowing what any of these characters look like, I felt as though I really got to know them as the story unfolded. The themes of friendship, love, and self discovery rang true. But the pace was slow, the plot fragmented, the use of the 2nd person for Celeste’s chapters felt unnecessary, and the dialogue osculated between believable and ridiculous. What I mean is that sometimes the 7th graders spoke like 7th graders and other times they spoke like college professors. I think that those discrepancies are more forgivable in the YA world (i.e. a John Green novel) then they are in the realm of middle grade books. More importantly, those shifts took me out of the story. I kept stopping and saying to myself, “Oh, come on! What 7th grader talks like this?”

    I know that message isn’t a consideration as far as any awards are concerned, but I certainly think that some of the messages in this book are problematic. Particularly the discussions around tween sexting. The school administrators and staff were cast as the villains for taking the problem seriously whereas the parents weren’t concerned at all. The conversation between Emily and her mother stood out to me as particularly troublesome. I was relieved that she was there to comfort her daughter, but I was waiting for the other half of the conversation, the, “Oh, and by the way you’re grounded and you won’t be seeing this phone again until high school or perhaps your 30th birthday” part of the conversation that never came. And think of the implication, the characters who take inappropriate pictures and send them to each other have a storybook happy ending. I didn’t need it to be moralistic or maudlin exactly, but I think it’s dangerous to suggest to young readers that it’s a healthy and positive choice to send inappropriate pictures to a guy or girl you like. As adults, we know the real world, long-lasting implications of those choices, but children don’t.

    I don’t think that this one is a good Newbery candidate. In general, I think that the committee needs to stop always aiming for the upper end of the age range, as they seem to hit it every year. As far as the Printz goes, it has a shot. I think older readers would be more willing to power through the first 100 pages of slow, scattered story and better equipped to critically examine the sexting subplot.

  10. I felt the second person narrative essential to Stead’s theme of the duality that lives inside each of us and not a gimmick at all. Both Sherm and Celeste mention this.

    Sherm, Pg. 212-3:
    “I heard you tell Dad that you didn’t expect him to understand. You said that, in a way you ere a stranger to yourself. It scared me.
    But I almost understand. Sometimes I feel like a stranger to myself too. Today I held Bridge’s hand in your room. I saw her hand and the next thing I knew I was holding on to it. We both pretended nothing was happening.
    I guess my question is: I s the new you the stranger? Or the stranger the person you leave behind?

    Celeste, pg. 257:
    Who’s the real you? The person who did something awful, or the one who’s horrified by the awful thing you did? I s one part of you allowed to forgive the other?

    Both characters are using second person. Celeste is actually addressing her own self, who’s actions she is having trouble reconciling with what she wants to believe about herself. Sherm is having the same difficulty with his grandfather’s actions. Is it possible to forgive and move forward, while leaving behind the ‘stranger’ who caused pain?

    We see this echoed in many of the other characters and their relationships.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      DaNae, thanks for circling back round to some of these threads. I think this second person voice may be the most interesting discussion point for Goodbye Stranger. I found it “shifty,” hard to pinpoint, in my first reading, and wasn’t sure what I thought of it. But at the very end, as the “you” identity is revealed, I sensed that that unease was deliberate, that “not knowing.” It gives the reader a moment to question themselves. It’s as if… Throughout the first read we’re wondering who “you” is, and wonder if they are us. When we get to attach that voice to a person in the narrative, to specific events and motivations, then those two wonderings about “you” detach and exist even more strongly on their own. Everything that Celeste said become solidly about Celeste, and equally as solidly is allowed to be the reader. Not sure if I’m making sense.

  11. Sheila Welch says:

    I read THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH and GOODBYE STRANGER back to back in two days and am struck by the similarities of parts of these two. I like them both a lot. And I agree with Nina that use of second person is interesting — in both books. Some time ago, on the child-lit list serve, the use of second person came up and made me think about it way more than I ever had before. In GOODBYE, Stead uses two forms of second person narration. One in Sherm;s sections in which he’s addressing his grandfather and the other in which the narrator is telling her own story, using “you” rather than “I.” In JELLYFISH, Suzy addresses her dead friend. In both books, the second person narration is in present tense.

    As far as Newbery considerations — I think JELLYFISH is stronger in some ways because it’s more focused and raw while still being solidly for a younger audience than GOODBYE. I have a feeling that despite its many strengths and more complicated plot, GOODBYE might fade from memory while strange little Suzy will stick with me.

  12. I loved this book, but as a Gujarati American and even just as an Indian American, i found the Karva Chauth chapter infuriating. I don’t think it was necessary to bring in this kind of controversial practice into this book in order to explore relationships and love. And I say this as someone who thoroughly enjoyed the book (otherwise) as well as all of Stead’s previous work. If she really felt it was necessary to have the parents observe this ritual, I think she could have at the least done the research to find out what parts of India this ritual is observed, or not. She’s great at her research and insights into the young adolescent psyche… Why not extend that into learning about typical cultural practices and about the background of last names and what they signify?

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